Whitefield voters will decide two contested elections when polls open at the municipal fire station Friday, March 18 from 4-8 p.m. Three people are vying for two seats on the Whitefield Board of Selectmen.
Incumbents Tony Marple and Frank Ober are seeking re-election for three-year terms on the board. Bruce Mathews, a former selectman, is seeking to return to the board after an eight-year hiatus.
There are also three contenders for two seats on the planning board. Chairman Jim Torbert and member Mike Panosian are seeking re-election for two-year terms on the board. Jake Mathews is also seeking a seat on the planning board.
While the two individuals with the most votes will win seats on the planning board, the recent resignation of Carl Ribeiro makes a third seat available, and the Whitefield Board of Selectmen will appoint someone to fill the vacant seat.
Selectman Tony Marple is seeking election to his second term on the board. A resident of Whitefield since the mid-1980s, Marple is fluent in numbers. Marple moved to Maine to take a job as vice president of finance for Kennebec Valley Medical Center, now MaineGeneral Health.
He went on to work as Medicaid director for the Office of MaineCare Services, but was relieved of his duties in 2011 by a newly elected Gov. Paul LePage, just weeks before rolling out a new managed-care approach to MaineCare that would have placed management of the program out to bid, according to Marple and media reports about his departure.
Marple went on to work as the vice president of finance for Mercy Hospital before retiring. A member of the school board for four years before the creation of RSU 12 and the budget committee for about eight years, Marple ran for a position on the board of selectmen because he finally had time post-retirement.
“It’s a great town,” Marple said. “I like to be involved.”
For Marple, the mix of people in Whitefield is what gives the town its unique flavor. Bringing the various groups in Whitefield together and increasing residents’ involvement in the town are some of Marple’s major goals.
During his term, the board of selectmen created a newsletter committee to increase communication between the board and residents. The newsletter is popular around town, Marple said, with several residents writing articles for it.
The board of selectmen also created a trails committee, whose volunteers opened three new trails in Whitefield: the Happy Farm River Trail, the Marr’s Ridge Trail, and the newly created West Branch Trail, which opened in November 2015.
The trails get a lot of traffic, Marple said. If the removal of Coopers Mills Dam is approved at town meeting, the town would be given an additional $25,000 to improve public access to the river, which would support the creation of additional trails, he said.
Maintaining the rural nature and natural beauty of Whitefield while still encouraging economic development to help lower the tax burden on property owners is a balancing act the town is grappling with, Marple said.
The reason taxes are high in Whitefield is because the town has a low tax base, he said. “We need to look at areas in town where we can encourage business without changing the character in town,” Marple said.
Improving Whitefield’s road infrastructure through the creation of a long-range plan is another highlight from his time on the board, Marple said. In addition, Whitefield was able to decrease its mil rate through a revaluation of Central Maine Power Co. lines during Marple’s tenure.
For Marple, one of the most satisfying aspects of serving as selectman is working to prevent foreclosing on residents who are behind on their taxes. “You learn a lot by listening to people and hearing about their situations,” Marple said.
Through selectmen’s outreach efforts to struggling residents, several property owners have been able to catch up on their tax bills, he said.
After serving three years in the U.S. Army, Bruce Mathews moved to Whitefield in the late 1970s and has been involved in town affairs ever since.
Mathews served for eight years as the coach for the athletics association, served for 10 years as a volunteer on the Coopers Mills Volunteer Fire Department, was a member of the budget committee and planning board, and served 19 years on the board of selectmen.
There have been major changes to the board and the town since Mathews last served about eight years ago, he said. The board was a three-member board when Mathews last served on it. It has since grown to a five-member board.
The board was also responsible for payroll and bills at Whitefield Elementary School, a responsibility it no longer has with the formation of RSU 12. Previously, selectmen also assessed properties for tax purposes, work it now employs an assessors’ agent to perform.
The changes are positive ones for Whitefield, Mathews said. His decision to run for a seat on the board was prompted by his recent retirement, which has given him more time. “I like Whitefield,” Mathews said. “I like giving back to the town.”
Mathews, formerly a building contractor, worked for community action programs for 10 years, where he oversaw weatherization programs, lead testing, construction management, and housing repairs.
He went on to work for the Maine State Housing Authority, where he supervised subsidized housing programs.
Now semi-retired, Mathews works part-time as a building inspector and in the hardware department at Hussey’s General Store.
He is not running for the board with any particular agenda or platform, but simply to be involved once again with municipal government, he said.
During his previous tenure on the board, Mathews helped move the town office out of its former location at the school to its current location. He also was on the board when the salt and sand shed was built.
The National Guard provided 80 percent of the labor to construct the buildings, he said. Mathews was on the board when the town switched from a calendar year to a July-June fiscal year for budget purposes in order to coordinate with the school’s fiscal year.
Mathews was also involved in updating the record-keeping system at the town office by creating property tax cards. “That was a really big deal at the time,” Mathews said.
Property taxes are always an issue, he said, and one he will pay close attention to on the board. Much of what impacts property taxes, such as the school budget and revenue sharing, are beyond the control of the board, he said.
“You have to go line item by line item” through the budget, Mathews said.
While Mathews is not seeking a seat on the board because of any particular agenda, or something he would like to change, he is open to listening to anyone’s ideas.
“I just want to encourage people to vote and to attend town meeting,” he said. The board of selectmen fields residents’ complaints and Mathews said he would always ask residents if they attended town meeting.
If residents vote, they “earn the right to complain,” Mathews said.
Selectman Frank Ober is seeking his third term on the board. The Washington County native has lived in Whitefield since the early 1970s, when he sought out the community because he wanted to live in the country.
Ober was drawn to Whitefield as part of the “back to the land” movement in the 1970s, which is now in its third generation in town, he said.
A registered nurse, Ober worked at the Togus Veterans Hospital for decades before his retirement.
He became involved in town government through his work on the building committee for the town office. When the town purchased land on Townhouse Road, a building committee was formed to discuss creating a new town hall.
The building committee’s plan to construct a combined library and town hall was ultimately defeated.
Ober’s involvement in town government, however, would continue. Through his work on the committee, Ober was asked to serve on the budget committee. When a position opened on the board of selectmen, he was encouraged to run for it.
He has now been on the board for six years.
Since his time on the board, there have been several significant changes in town, he said. The three volunteer fire departments consolidated into one municipal department, which Ober pointed to as a major highlight of his tenure as selectmen.
The municipal fire station opened its doors; Ober was also a member of the building committee that led to the station’s construction.
The creation of a long-range strategic plan for Whitefield’s road infrastructure is another point of pride, Ober said. The full benefit of the long-range plan is not yet visible, but already significant improvements have taken place, he said.
Ober pointed to the paving of Balltown Lane as a visible example of the upgrades taking place to the town’s roads infrastructure.
In his six years, there has been high turnover in the town office with a new clerk, assessors’ agent, tax collector, and office worker. The turnover was tough, Ober said, especially in the past year with three different tax collectors.
“We have a great crew now,” Ober said.
Ober has also been active in small-town forums where selectmen from Windsor, Somerville, Randolph, Chelsea, and Palermo join together to swap stories and share knowledge. Networking with other selectmen “is wonderful,” Ober said. “We compare notes. It’s a really good thing.”
Ober is also active in reaching out to residents who are struggling with their property taxes.
“Somewhere along the line we were given the mantra that we need to do everything we can and we like that,” Ober said. “Our attitude is we need to help people stay in their homes.”
The outreach effort has had an impact, Ober said, with several residents now current on their property taxes.
Helping people is the best part of being a selectman, Ober said. It is one of Ober’s primary pursuits both on and off the board. As a hobby, Ober transports unwanted furniture to social service organizations that distribute it to families in need.
He also coordinates a group of volunteers who visit with inmates at the Kennebec County Jail as part of the Dismas Ministry, which is part of St. Michael’s parish in Augusta.
Ober would like to encourage more small businesses in Whitefield, which he said is the current trend in economic development with major industries shutting down.
The current board of selectmen is a really good board with selectmen engaged and active with the community, Ober said. “I’m glad to live here,” Ober said. “I’m here because of the people.”