While also considering changes to the town’s school choice policy and alcohol sales rules, Alna residents will vote in a pair of contested elections for the first selectman seat and RSU 12 Board of Directors representative on Friday, March 23.
Alna Second Selectman Melissa Spinney and Shanon Cotta are running for first selectman, a seat currently held by David Abbott. Abbott, who has been a selectman on and off for the past two decades, decided to retire from the position and is not seeking re-election.
Ralph Hilton is seeking to return to the RSU 12 Board of Directors after a year’s absence. He faces Abigail “Abby” Manahan for the seat.
Polls will be open at the fire station from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Cotta, a lifelong resident of Maine and 14-year resident of Alna, is making his first foray into municipal government by throwing his hat into the ring for first selectman.
Cotta is a combat veteran, having been deployed in Iraq from 2004-2005 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He has served for over 26 years in the U.S. Army, U.S. Army Reserve, and the Maine Army National Guard.
Cotta holds a Master of Arts in teaching from the University in Maine and taught history at Gardiner Area High School.
Cotta has focused his campaign on three main issues: supporting both public schools and local private schools, lowering property taxes to help keep residents on fixed incomes in their homes, and reducing “wasteful spending.”
Currently, Alna is in the midst of a townwide conversation regarding proposed changes to the town’s school choice policy. Hilton submitted a petition for the school choice referendum, which would modify Alna policy to restrict the town’s commitment to pay for school tuition to public schools.
The town would continue to pay tuition for high school students attending either public or private school. The change, if approved by voters, would go into effect June 30.
Children who live in Alna as of June 30 would not be affected by the change, according to the referendum. RSU 12 has indicated that it will seek a legal opinion on that part of the referendum.
Cotta said he does not support the referendum question proposing changes to Alna’s school choice policy.
“I’m a passionate supporter of Alna families making the best choice for themselves and picking the best school for their children,” Cotta said. “I’m confident that the referendum will be soundly defeated.”
If elected, one of Cotta’s focuses will be on the town’s fire department and first responders to ensure they receive “the highest quality of training” and to encourage volunteers to join.
Cotta also hopes to “reduce wasteful spending” at the municipal level, he said.
“I’m very concerned about the town building a new town office,” he said. “I would much rather see those dollars used to reduce the property tax burden, because we have people on fixed incomes and we need to do what we can to help.”
First elected to the Alna Board of Selectmen in 2015, Spinney was halfway into her second two-year term as second selectman when Abbott said he was thinking about retiring. The encouragement Spinney received from both Abbott and Third Selectman Doug Baston led her to seek the first selectman’s seat, she said.
“I talked to the two of them and other people in town thought it was a good idea,” Spinney said. “I have a very flexible schedule, which gives me the time to work on things here. I like being involved in the community, I care about the people, and I have the knowledge and time to do the work required.”
Over the past three years, one of the board’s biggest accomplishments was the revaluation of Central Maine Power Co. and Maine Electric Power Co., which resulted in a decrease in the tax rate in 2015, Spinney said.
Regardless of whether the school choice referendum passes, Spinney expressed hope that residents will be able to come back together as a community.
“Whatever the vote is, I hope everyone respects it,” Spinney said. “I know it’s always tough after adversity, but there are a lot of good-hearted people here. I think everyone’s very passionate about this, and voicing their opinions.”
Looking ahead, Spinney said the board plans to continue its work on repairing the town’s historic buildings. An October 2017 report by Doreen Conboy, archivist of the Committee for Alna History, found that the town’s 228-year-old meetinghouse and two one-room schoolhouses need repairs.
The town is applying for grants to make the repairs, Spinney said.
Spinney described herself as semi-retired, having previously worked as a statistician and data analyst. She helps Alna resident Tom Albee at his farm on Route 218.
After a one-year hiatus, Hilton is seeking to return to the RSU 12 Board of Directors for a three-year term. “I served eight years on the board, and I would like to get back on,” Hilton said. “There’s a lot of work left undone I want to see through.”
Hilton said he’s proud of his work during his eight years on the board, including his successful petitioning of the board to amend its funding method to a “cost per student” formula. He was also a member of the contract committee, and many of the district’s contracts will expire this year, he said.
“I was a union rep for 25 years, so I can utilize my experience in problem-solving,” Hilton said.
If elected, other areas of focus for Hilton will be addressing bullying in schools and finding “creative financial solutions” for the upkeep of school buildings, he said.
With the vote on Hilton’s proposed school choice amendment looming, he said he doesn’t know how the town will come back together after such a divisive conversation.
“It’s a hard question, because of the animosity of the people who are against any changes in the policy. It’s not the same town it used to be, and it never will be now,” he said. “But my focus has always been on public education, and we need to do everything we can to provide that for all children. This is a changing world, and without a good education, you would be lost.”
In addition to his work with the RSU 12 board, Hilton has been involved at the municipal level. He served on the town’s comprehensive plan committee, building committee, and, most recently, the Head Tide Dam Committee.
During the 2017 annual town meeting, residents voted overwhelmingly to enter into a contract with the Atlantic Salmon Federation to modify and improve the Head Tide Dam, bringing two years of discussion to a close.
Hilton worked for Bath Iron Works for 31 years and retired in 2013.
Manahan was inspired to run for the seat on the RSU 12 board due to the renewed conversation about Alna’s school choice policy. With a 7-year-old son, Manahan felt she “had more skin in the game.”
While this is her first time pursuing an elected office, Manahan said her knowledge and experience from working in schools would be of benefit to the board. She works for Boothbay Region High School as the technology integrator.
When it comes to the issue of school choice and the upcoming referendum, Manahan said she “can see and understand both sides” of the issue, but that she wishes there had been more conversation before the petition was filed to make sure it met everyone’s needs.
“I appreciate the (petition) author’s effort to include the grandfathering. I am concerned about the legality of it,” Manahan said. “Grandfathering is great if it works, but there could be some real damage that comes out of this vote if it’s not legal.”
In the event the change does pass, Manahan said she isn’t sure that eliminating private school choice for new families would diminish Alna’s draw. “We have something very special here,” she said.
However, as “contentious” as the conversation about school choice has become, Manahan said the discussion has led her to meet and get to know her neighbors better than ever before.
“After the vote, I hope some of the momentum will continue and that the community can occasionally come together and have those events,” Manahan said.
RSU 12 is “going through some tough times,” and Manahan said she hopes to bring some pragmatism and open-mindedness when it comes to finding solutions for issues such as bullying. She also hopes to bring more transparency to the board and to increase the level of communication between the board and the town.