March 13, 2010

Development a key issue as three vie for two seats


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Staff Writer

Three Topsham residents are vying for two open seats on the Board of Selectmen. All three candidates have local government experience, either on the Board of Selectmen or on the town's Planning Board.

Ronald Riendeau, 72, is completing his third term as a selectman and is currently the board's vice chairman. Riendeau was born and raised in Topsham. He said his roots in the town as well as his experience qualify him for the selectman's job.

''I just enjoy it, serving the town and serving the people. And not running with any agenda in mind, just coming in with an open mind, which I have every time I've run,'' Riendeau said.

Riendeau said he thinks the major challenge the board faces is keeping taxes down, while balancing that with the needs of government and the taxpayers of Topsham.

''We certainly need development for tax base, but we should manage that,'' he said. ''I don't mean stop it by any means. We need it, but it should be managed.''

Riendeau is opposed to the proposed town charter, which residents also will vote on Tuesday.

The charter would replace the current town meeting structure with a seven-member town council. Riendeau said he doesn't buy the argument that Topsham should move to a town council form of government because few residents show up for town meetings.

In recent years, about 300 of the town's 9,700 residents have attended town meetings.

Riendeau argues that with a seven-member council, four would have the majority vote, which is a lot fewer than 300.

''Four people could theoretically control the town, whether it's budget or property,'' Riendeau said. ''So my argument is I'd rather have 300 people deciding at a town meeting than a council who could be dysfunctional.''

Riendeau is also opposed to the charter on principle.

''I think if the charter passes, the citizens and taxpayers are going to lose a little bit of their individuality and give up some of their democracy. To me, the town meeting form of government with selectmen, I think it's the purest form of government you can get, and why would anybody want to vote that away?''

Paul S. Bennett Jr. has served on the Topsham Planning Board for a year. He said he is running for selectman because he and other residents have been turned off by the behavior and decisions of some town officials and staff, especially when it comes to development issues.

''We need somebody who is going to listen to the people and recognize that a homeowner is just as important as a business owner that's been in town for any length of time,'' he said. ''We need to work together in this town.''

Bennett said that while some of the big box stores that have come to Topsham have been good for the area, he thinks the town needs to focus more on bringing in light industrial and manufacturing jobs.

He would also like to continue the town's efforts at land conservation to balance the need for development with preserving natural resources.

Topsham recently had an energy audit done on its new buildings to find ways to save money, and Bennett said he would like to see the town pursue similar savings at its other properties through more energy conservation and recycling.

Bennett said he is ''for the most part'' against the town's proposed charter.

''I believe it's going to take away from the town's ability to govern itself,'' he said. ''It doesn't allow for residents and voters to come to a meeting and make changes to ordinances and the budget at these meetings. Part of my reason for campaigning was to try to encourage people to become more involved in the town, to bring them back to town meetings so you don't have 300 or 400 people making decsions for the town.''

Bennett, 40, was convicted of manslaughter in 1996 for the 1993 shaking death of his 11-week-old son, Aaron. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, with all but five years suspended, and six years of probation. He was released in 1999.

Bennett said the death was an accident that occurred when his son stopped breathing and he tried to revive him. He encourages residents to question him about the incident so they can better understand what happened.

''That happened 15 years ago,'' he said. ''I am still pained every day by what happened. My son died because of something I had done. Even though at the time I thought I was doing the right thing -- I was trying to help him -- it was wrong. I want people to talk to me about it and learn from my mistake.''

Like the other two candidates, James Trusiani, 48, said he opposes the town charter because it puts too much power into too few hands.

The majority on the seven-member council would have the power to ''modify or make new land-use regulations without going to a vote of the people.''

Trusiani said between the closing of the Brunswick Naval Air Station and the economic times, ''I think the budget process, just to maintain the services at the level we have them now, it's going to be a challenge. Revenues are not keeping up with the costs of doing business as a municipality, with gas prices, salt prices, hot top prices, insurance, wages.''

Trusiani, a construction worker, said the town needs to be more proactive in allowing development in appropriately zoned areas.

''Lately, we've been pretty anti-development,'' he said. ''I think we need more commercial development to take the burden off the residential taxpayers.''

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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