Seven-year Selectboard and 4-year Planning Board veteran Sean Stanton said that when he was younger, service to country “was very important” to him, and the reason why, he said at the April 27 Candidates Forum, was that he had served in the United States Coast Guard. Later, he said, he wanted to be near family in Great Barrington, where he had lived since he was 10, and decided to serve here at home. He now lives in Housatonic.
As a town official, he said he has “enjoyed listening and speaking with people from all walks of life,” and that the working of town government is “not a fast process, but it is a democratic process, and that’s the important part.”
Stanton, 39, who recently became a father, is an organic farmer who owns North Plain Farm, which, in conjunction with Blue Hill Farm, runs an operation that sells organic eggs and meat to area stores and the Blue Hill restaurants in Westchester and Manhattan, as well as at the Great Barrington Farmers Market, and at the farm, where he also sells milk.
Stanton went to Monument Mountain Regional High School, the renovation proposal for which was a lightning rod for the town’s economic issues, mostly over school funding methods that are buried in a dated regional agreement between the three towns in the district, and which can only be opened — or changed — if all three say yes.
“We all agree on this,” Stanton said to his fellow candidates. “We should do this. If it’s not legal we should ask Smitty [Rep. William Pignatelli] and Ben [State Sen. Ben Downing] to change it on state level. All students and district will benefit if we can rebuild the school. We need to be investing in our education and community so that we just don’t keep losing residents. How do we get people to stay and encourage them to come? We need to get that agreement changed.”
But Stanton said he didn’t agree with candidate Karen Christensen about the “role” the Selectboard should have in school business. As co-founder of GB21, Christensen has actively pressed for all manner of school district changes after the proposed Monument High renovation project threatened to raise taxes and further burden Great Barrington, which is already paying the bulk of the school district’s bill.
“The School Committee does that,” he said. “The Selectboard has town business. It is the responsibility of the School Committee to be involved in the district. The [regional] agreement is the responsibility of the town.”
He added that what happens at town meeting is often “a gauge of where to put our time,” and that the “the school budget gets passed every year.” Stanton agrees, however, that “the [school] choice [in] rate is ridiculous,” and believes in “finding a pathway to a change.” Stanton was referring to the $5,000 school choice state refund cap, when the cost of educating a student is at least three times that amount.
Someone asked the candidates how to build consensus in the community after the divide over the defeated renovation plan.
“Consensus is great — when it works it’s great,” Stanton said. “But I don’t think it always works.” Getting “into the process” is more important, to “see if West Stockbridge and Stockbridge will play ball,” he added, referring to making changes to the regional agreement between the three towns, and changing the way the schools are paid for by each.
What does Stanton think of Finance Committee member Michael Wise’s tax reform analysis that shows that progressively shifting the property tax burden to households with more expensive homes, and upping the commercial rate, would help 80 percent of households, many of which are struggling to pay taxes in this rural economy amid declining state aid.
“It is a work in progress and none of it is set in stone,” Stanton said. “Every year we set the tax rate and discuss what it would mean to change the tax rate. Usually it’s not a good idea because of the amount of disruption…Mike [Wise] has taken great pains to…relieve some of people in lower income bracket who are struggling. It may not be perfect.” But Stanton said that he appreciated Wise’s work on the issue, and said it was “generous.”
“I appreciate being able to go through this exercise without having to pay somebody to do all the work.”
Stanton thinks the town’s award-winning Master Plan, a vision for the town that took three years to create, “needs to be referred to.” He also supports, “in principle,” a master plan for the school district as “a good way of nudging the school committee and the three towns,” to make changes that will help Great Barrington taxpayers afford a renovation of the 48-year-old high school and reduce the load on the town.
Stanton said that he wants to “encourage young students” to participate and understand town government. “We need to start a lot sooner,” he added. At previous board meetings Stanton, for instance, has bemoaned low turnout rates at annual town meetings, and has wondered how “democratic” that process is when only around 10 percent of voters — and even less of the town’s total population — show up.
“Young people are coming here because of the lifestyle,” he said, referring to the much bandied about census analysis by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission that showed a decreasing Berkshire County population, and an increase in seniors, by 2030. But even BRPC analyst Mark Maloy cautioned that these projections could be thrown out by a quick shift in trends like birth rates and migration in or out, and he even went so far as to say that “these are estimates based on guesses.” Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin said that based on her experience as a planner in New York City, she was skeptical about using “census data to guide strategy.”
Stanton later told The Edge that it might “ultimately be dangerous rely solely on census data to make decisions, and we shouldn’t react to a decrease in population that only cuts spending. How do you know you’re not just exacerbating the problem? If we stop fixing roads because there aren’t enough people driving on them, then people won’t come.”
Also, Stanton said he personally sees young people moving here for the “lifestyle,” and the food culture in particular. Stanton said, for example, that his 27-year-old intern moved here from Brooklyn because she wanted to learn to farm.
Food culture, he added, may be part of solving the economic development puzzle here, as well as high speed Internet, “which needs to happen,” though “we need to figure out how to pay for it.” The service industry is a “lifestyle choice,” but not “known for high wages.” He thinks the town would benefit from more “cottage industry, crafts and ‘Made in USA’ manufacturing.”
Stanton says that “diversity” of businesses and industry is important as well, and so is “making sure that we’re doing as much as we can to get government out of the way while also not compromising the areas where government should be involved, like the environment and public health.”
The town has to strike a “balance” between taxes and services, he said. “It’s easy to say we want to cut taxes, but it’s not so easy to say which employee or service to get rid of.” Stanton told the forum he thought the town has “done a pretty good job” in this regard.