Select Board candidates call for improvements to town communication

Mar 17, 2024

Over a dozen community members joined Select Board candidates at the North Branch of the Dartmouth Public Library for a Candidates Night Saturday, March 16, where residents voiced concerns about communication and long-term planning in town. 

There are three candidates running for two open seats on the Select Board. John Sousa, who currently serves on the Finance Committee, is running against Planning Board Chair Christoper O’Neil for incumbent Frank Gracie’s seat that expires this year. 

Incumbent Chairperson David Tatelbaum is running unopposed for what he said will be his third and final term on Select Board.

A few of those attending the meeting were with the Historical Commission. For months, the town, Select Board and Historical Commission have debated the value of the old police station on Russells Mills Road.

Members of the Commission voiced their concerns with the lack of communication from the current Select Board. They stated they have yet to be contacted about a subcommittee formed for the purpose of drafting an article for the June Town Meeting that will decide the future of the old police station.

While none of the candidates are involved with the subcommittee and therefore could not speak on this specific issue, the group agreed communication among town boards and commissions needs to be resolved.

However, concerns with communication did not end there. Multiple residents shared disappointment in the custom service at town hall and also voiced desires for more face-to-face meetings and opportunities to share feedback. 

Tatelbaum said he believes “a bit of good customer relations” were sacrificed when many of the town’s services were transitioned to online formats. 

While he believes this worked well, the town hall now sees less visitors on a daily basis, which has brought about concern among residents when seeking the town’s assistance with issues.

Tatelbaum said he hopes to work with the town administrator and his staff “to better inform and better treat people as they come in and out of town hall.”

O’Neil highlighted how understaffing could also be a contributing factor to customer service issues in town hall, but added that it is still important to keep holding people accountable.

Sousa agreed, stating the town owes it to the taxpayers: “Accountability needs to start from the top.”

Much of the meeting’s discussion also revolved around the town’s aging infrastructure and resulting problems that lay ahead, including capacity issues at the sewer treatment and refuse facilities — both of which candidates argued should have been addressed years ago.

However, the candidate consensus was that transparency, proactivity and communication is also key to long-term planning success.

Tatelbaum said discussions on long-term planning can be tricky. 

He said it is important for the town to start a dialogue about each aspect of its future, but that doesn’t mean the bulldozers start tomorrow. 

The town is in the process of finishing its Long Range Capital Plan that looks ahead 50 years into Dartmouth’s future, but also breaks down its goals by years. 

Tatelbaum emphasized the importance of ensuring residents have the opportunity to become informed and fully understand the plan leading up to the June Town Meeting where it will be voted on. 

O’Neil said, “[We are] behind the eight ball on some of this stuff, but we are trying to catch up and I think the trajectory is right.”

He added he is personally feeling better about Dartmouth’s position, with the possible reestablishment of the Long Term Capital Stabilization Fund as well as the town’s low debt ratio and “good bond ratings.”

O’Neil said it is also important for the town to focus on its American Rescue Plan Act Funds; the town received $5.76 million in ARPA funding this year. The application process is time consuming and the clock is ticking, he said.

Sousa said the town’s budget shortfall is only going to worsen in the coming years and Dartmouth needs to get serious about what “wants” and “musts” it will inevitably choose to prioritize. 

“Our infrastructure in town is aging. It really needs some attention,” he said.

Sousa said he understands the value in increasing recreational opportunities in town, but said many of the town’s “wants” may have to wait a few years.