Candidates for Town Council share their priorities and concerns

Thu, 08/13/2020 - 6:00pm
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With the November election right around the corner, and with so many issues facing the town this summer, we sat down with the two non-incumbent candidates, Mark Emmanuelle, a past member of the council, and Keith Stover, both long time island residents, to hear their thoughts, priorities, and interests in serving the island community.

Q: Tell me a little bit about yourself, your connection to Block Island, and why you are running as a council member.

KS: We bought this house I think exactly 20 years ago, and we had rented for a few years. We really knew the first time we came here that we wanted to buy a house. Our family was so young and we basically bought the only house on the island we could afford. This is a community that embraced us at the hardest time. We have a connection here that is as deep as a connection can be.

The real reason I am running is because I love the community and the people. We always felt warmly embraced by the community. I actually like doing [town and government work], and I think I have a lot to offer. I spent 30 years building a large lobbying practice in Connecticut, and I have been in and around government for decades.

ME: I came to Block Island over 40 years ago on a dare. Simply put, I’m the nicest, sweetest, kindest, and biggest pain the ass you will ever meet. You’re my best friend if you are doing what’s right for Block Island, and my worst enemy when you’re not. It all comes down to the math on why I am running. This is the first election in decades with a strong potential to elect three “non-weenies.” I learned the hard way that without a majority, important issues do not get addressed and solved. I learned that when I was on the Town Council.

Q: What skills, knowledge and insight will you bring to the community as a council member?

KS: In terms of experience, I have been engaged with government for decades. I am very proud of the fact that I built a reputation as someone you hired for tough issues, and I am good at the hard work, doing the reading, and listening to people. We have a small town, but that doesn’t mean that the work is less. I hope that with more people, we will now understand how incredibly time consuming and intensive it can be. There’s a lot of [agenda items that] can be really hard when you serve on a body like the Town Council. You have to combine that obvious sense of urgency on the urgent issues with thoughtful long term planning and thinking.

ME: If I get elected, I am going to come in hot with sleeves rolled up. I’m not running to make new friends; I’m running to take back this beautiful island from those who have abused it and do not care what they leave in its wake, starting with my very first meeting.

Q: What are the top pressing issues faced in the island community?

KS: I think we should want to ensure that we have a community and an infrastructure that invites [everyone] to make a life here. If we don’t have that, we are going to have a real problem. I think what draws people to Block Island is the fact that there is a real community. From affordable housing, to a health care infrastructure, to making sure volunteers and EMTs feel supported and valued, to the school having the proper infrastructure, to the broadband connection — there is all kinds [of topics]. But I think we need to be really engaged and thoughtful in looking at two years, five years, and 10 years. We clearly have to do something about mopeds, bikes, traffic, crowds, interactions with the state government — you can run through a list. But some of those things are sometimes easier to put off than to confront. I think we need to be thinking about all of those.

ME: It’s been the same issues for decades for me. Health and safety of our residents and guests, continued affordable housing, enforcement, deer eradication, and pedestrian/bike lanes.

Q: How do you plan to involve residents in the decision making process in our town?

KS: The first thing that [The Charter Review Commission] focused on back in the fall was how to develop a more robust, public participation in town government. I can tell you that we feel unanimously vindicated through this whole Zoom process. When you have an infrastructure, and I say this so respectfully, that has had to rely on the newspaper’s page for town information, we have to have a robust, public access system. We have to have that, because that is what people now demand. People ought to have access to that over the computer. The Town Council shouldn’t be looking at a piece of paper that I haven’t had access to. There is no reason that any local government, state, and federal should be anything but at the forefront of putting information in people’s hands. It makes for better policy decisions when people are heard, and [they] feel more comfortable when the facts are transparent. Setting up cameras at the Town Council meetings – that is one of the things that is essential. It’s not a big deal, but you can hear what they are saying and decide whether the decision is right. That is how democracy is supposed to work in 2020, and how it has worked in a lot of places for a while now.

ME: Quite simply, you listen and try to get them involved. The majority of this island is run very well: finance, roads, recreation, town hall, but some are not. One department in particular is our police department: for the budget over $1 million, there is no oversight. The cowardly past Town Councils and town managers have refused to meet as a police commission and address the undeniable need for a separate police commission. Fix the police issue and you will fix many other island problems. We need less spin and more spine. We disagree a lot.

Q: What are your thoughts on the COVID-19 impact on the island community? What steps would you take to slow COVID-19 on the island?

KS: I think that the Town Council, Molly Fitzpatrick, Millie McGinnes, and Amy Land deserve some sort of special recognition for the way that they have handled COVID-19 over the last several months. They have done that job with real thoughtfulness and grace, and an incredible amount of time and hard work. I think that we also were so impressed with the way that the community responded to all that, and I think people were incredibly disciplined when you see what was happening in other communities.

I think the state from Block Island’s perspective really bungled the reopening. It’s a gigantic problem that we had no enforcement of masks, particularly for the first six weeks. I think we made some real sacrifices to keep the community safe, and then you see people pouring in and not following the rules. A law enforcement not enforcing the rules, and that is unacceptable. We look to our leaders for a modeling behavior. One of the things that happens here on Block Island is it is human nature to live through a difficult experience and push through, to get through to the finish line, rest, and forget about how bad it was. I think it is going to be the council’s job this fall to not let that happen.

I wish we had done and had an opportunity to talk about in a pandemic what our capacity is. Because I don’t think our capacity is the same in the same climate during a ‘normal’ time. I think Interstate Navigation is doing a wonderful job of reducing the number of passengers on boats. Decreasing the number of people on the boat, while increasing the number of boats may yield in this environment a population that exceeds our carrying capacity. And that goes not just to individuals, but to motor vehicles. I believe we have passed our capacity for vehicles on Block Island. I think it’s hard to underestimate how frustrated people are right now. We don’t want to go through this again next Memorial Day.

ME: I’ve always erred on the side of caution. I would not hesitate to shut down the island if we had to do so. With that said, everyone must take universal precautions: wear a mask, social distance and use common sense – a rare commodity of these days.

Q: The community of volunteers, our first responders, have been experiencing increased calls this year. How would you help alleviate the stress and burden for the island’s medical services, who volunteer their time and efforts for the community during a global pandemic? What are your thoughts on the discussion on moped accidents and operation on the island?

KS: I think it is essential for us as a town, to be not just grateful to the EMTs and firefighters, but to make them feel that they have everything they need in order to accomplish their jobs successfully. If that means paying volunteers, giving volunteers bonus points for affordable housing, or property tax relief for volunteers — I think we need to look at the full range for that. It is an overwhelming amount of work, and it has been even more overwhelming when the manpower is down this summer. You can’t expect volunteers to go through that kind of trauma, and not say ‘what do you need, what can we do for you.’ On the volunteer and fire front, I think the volunteer fire department should be as well funded as they need to be — that Volunteer Fire Department is an essential part of a social infrastructure. I view it as a really important part of our youth and social infrastructure. 

I don’t feel like I need more data. Every single person I speak with on Block Island who lives here says we have a problem. We rent mopeds to kids who can’t rent a car, I think we need to change the age for rental moped to 25. The agreements and statutes do not mean that a community cannot protect its public safety and health. I happen to think that hiring a couple of security guards is a nice gesture, but it’s not sufficient. When you have a moped driver, we have a problem — this is an urgent issue that needs attention. On Weldon’s Way — it is not their road and something has to give there. On some days, it’s like we are providing exclusive access to one of our private roads. The fact that they have a business there, training 100 moped riders a day on a public street, it just is unacceptable. It’s dangerous, presumptuous and it has to stop.

ME: As a rescue squad member for over 20 years, I have put band aids on the arms of young children, as well as giving people their last breaths. I don’t need any more data. The past Town Councils, town managers, and police departments should be ashamed of themselves. Our police department is grossly underachieving with enforcement and education in what should be a crusade to prevent accidents on their part. I was a member of the Moped and Bike Safety Commission, and it was a joke. It was overseen by the police chief and the moped operators, more so than the community members at large. As I recall, almost none of our suggestions were implemented. Most of our suggestions could have remedied problems the very next day, and others were more long term.

Block Island is forgetting who the people wearing the white hats are. It means those who are compliant and doing more than the right thing.

Q: The Black Lives Matter movement and weekly walks continue in the island community, raising awareness to the injustices and racial discrimination towards Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. Block Island is home to individuals from all walks of life. What steps and actions would you take to ensure all island residents feel included, seen, heard and safe in the community?

KS: I think this is an important moment in our culture since the 1960s. I have been participating in a tiny way by doing the weekly walks. I don’t really know what steps town government ought to be taking, other than to say ‘to ask, pause and listen’. And listen actively, attentively, and creatively and not impose their view. I think a lot of our problems with social issues have been created by what other people think that are needed. I think it is important to march for People of Color. I think all of us should be on a journey of process and being honest with ourselves. It’s such a sentimental moment in our culture.

ME: The horizontal lynching of George Floyd was beyond obscene. I believe that this November’s national election will begin the process of healing. Simply put, treat others the way you would like to be treated.

Q: The Cherry Hill Lane project, an affordable housing project, was recently completed for selected island homeowners. What are your thoughts on affordable housing/rental properties, and how would you help push for more affordable housing/rental property projects on the island?

KS: If you want a robust and functioning community, you can’t have that if the cheapest housing on the island costs about $800,000 to 900,000. To me, affordable housing is not just about the people who are fortunate enough to win a lottery ticket, but about what our community looks like, and the ongoing survival of our community. One of the things I liked about Cherry Hill Lane and the affordable housing community was having affordability across the island in different locations and different sites. I feel like the community has taken this affordable housing issue seriously. When you look across the island, there have been some very cool [projects] happening and we should be proud of that. But it’s not a process that ends. I want the community where people live, work, engage and educate their kids. If you want to have all those things, you need sufficient affordable housing.

ME: I am one of the island’s biggest advocates for good, affordable housing. While I say good, it’s because sadly there are examples of abuse presented on Block Island with affordable housing. This is totally unacceptable and needs to be addressed. I tried to address that issue while on Town Council four years ago, and the First Warden refused to put it on the agenda. Good affordable housing must have stewardship. It’s an excellent time to thank Doug Michel and Cindy Pappas for an outstanding job. I thank them and all the past members of the Housing Board for an outstanding job.

Q: More than 40 percent of the island is preserved as open space through conservation organizations. What will you do to help protect the future of Block Island’s natural environments and resources?

KS: I am proud to live in a community that is focused on conservation as Block Island has been. I enjoy the legacy of some incredible leadership and foresight. We have to honor that leadership by staying extremely vigilant and seizing opportunities to preserve more. I also think the important part is protecting what we have, in terms of what development looks like in the future, as well as what our strategic thinking is around sea level rise and how that is going to impact not just development but roads and bridges. It is all part of how the island interacts with nature and the world. I also think the Town Council has to pass that ordinance around development rights, increasing density for people that have sold and been paid their development rights.

ME: We must be more opened minded about the use of open space. A perfect example would be the Ball O’Brien property. That was very restricted at one time. After many meetings and common sense prevailed, we now have a facility that our residents and guests adore. Another example I would like to see is more open space opened up for hunting during the permit season. If we are going to and should eradicate the deer, we need the help of the conservation groups. I have always been a proponent of open space on Block Island – it is what people who visit us love to see. It’s good for the island from an environmental standpoint, but there is a point where we have to stop and reevaluate just how much open space is best for Block Island.

The upcoming primary election date in Rhode Island is September 8, 2020. The general election is November 3, 2020.

To learn more on the upcoming primary, information on voting, and to check to see if you are registered, reach out to Town Hall or check out https://vote.sos.ri.gov/