I am running for Selectman because I believe that now, more than ever, we need strong town leadership to ensure our financial sustainability without compromising the things we value as a community: diversity, education, and environmental sustainability, with full buy-in from, and transparency to, the entire community.
All of my experience as a School Committee member, as a business owner in town, as an attorney, and as the parent of two Sharon High School graduates, have given me a set of skills and experiences that are a match for the work facing the Town. In my business life and in my work on the School Committee, I have negotiated contracts, made significant personnel decisions, set and implemented goals within budgetary constraints, and resolved disputes. I have run difficult meetings with many different viewpoints and steered toward resolution. I have built consensus where appropriate and stood my ground where necessary. I take seriously the obligations of elected officials to seek and hear input, make fair and principled decisions, and allow visibility to the workings of public boards.
One of the things I have learned as an elected official is that it is important not to prejudge an issue before hearing from all concerned. For this reason, I am not running with a specific issue-driven agenda, but rather in a larger sense to bring my experience and abilities to the critical task of positioning Sharon for the future.
That said, I do have opinions and a perspective on a variety of issues, which you have a right to understand before making a decision on May 15. Set forth below is a summary of my thoughts on some key issues facing the Town. If there is an issue you would like more information on that is not addressed here, feel free to email or message me and I will update this page as I am able.
Though it is critically important for all of our sectors to continue to manage spending, the biggest source of pressure on Sharon taxpayers is the high percentage of our revenues that comes from our residential tax base. This pressure can be especially hard on our older residents on fixed incomes, and families of any age of modest means who struggle to stay in Sharon, for the schools or simply because this is their hometown. And it is not just an act of kindness to recognize this hardship- if we cannot keep residents in town after their children finish in the Sharon Schools, we will face even deeper and more painful financial constraints, if all or most of our taxpayers are also actively using our most expensive resource (the schools). It is in all of our interests to find a sustainable economic path forward.
Because we also care deeply about the natural beauty and small-town character of the Town, there are limited opportunities to increase the commercial tax base without compromising those values. But those opportunities do come along, and we need to be in a position to make them work for us when they do, if it can be done consistently with our core values as a community. This is always going to require difficult choices, and balancing of the needs of different parts of our community, but it is so important that we position ourselves to make good choices for the entire town when an opportunity is presented. To this end, I believe the Board of Selectmen can facilitate this process by working closely with the Master Plan Steering Committee to identify issues that may arise, developing a clear and transparent set of criteria for evaluating opportunities that includes a system for gathering and considering community feedback and involving the other boards and committees whose expertise and/or jurisdiction are relevant to the decision.
It may be hard to imagine how the practices of one town can affect global climate change, but the reality is that towns and cities across the country are recognizing the threat posed by climate change and each doing what they can to address their own carbon footprint.
There are many ways, large and small, to do this. I believe that, in addition to addressing our solid waste and recycling policies to encourage sustainable behaviors, Town leadership should be focused on the biggest drivers of carbon emissions that any community creates: energy, transportation, and land use.
Energy: we have already, in both the School and the Town sectors, looked for opportunities to put more efficient alternatives in our buildings, which reduces our energy usage and has the added benefit of saving operational costs (the motion-activated lights put in at the Cottage Elementary School, for example, have already resulted in substantial cost savings in that building). The Selectmen have also entered an agreement with a solar provider that both reduces costs for electricity in Town buildings and helps create more renewable capacity in the grid at large. We may have the opportunity as well, if the voters approve the municipal electricity aggregation article at Town Meeting, to leverage the combined bargaining power of the Town to negotiate for more environmentally responsible sources of electricity for all of our residents.
Transportation: the fact that we have a commuter rail station creates a fantastic opportunity for our residents to commute to the city without driving, but constraints on parking at the train station limit that opportunity, meaning commuters opt to drive, or at least drive to a different station on the commuter rail line. In addition to the (well known) inconvenience to residents of having to do this, it means more fuel consumption and emissions. I believe a solution to this problem is not only a good idea, but should be a priority for the Town, as well as working with the MBTA to explore the possibility of additional cars on peak-hour trains that may be made necessary by expanded parking options.
Land use: preserving open space when feasible brings so many benefits to the Town. First, it is in most cases the most cost-efficient thing to do with land, because open space is not a consumer of the most expensive municipal services (i.e., schools). Second, there is a reason we announce ourselves to the world as “a nice place to live because it’s naturally beautiful,” which ties directly to the conservation decisions that have already been made over the years. Finally, any acre preserved in its natural state not only lacks the energy consumption of a residence, but produces the vegetation and woods that offset our carbon contribution. There are some situations in which the location of a piece of land makes it uniquely suited to help us with our revenue needs, or in which there are other reasons that purchase for conservation does not make sense, but I believe this should always be an option given serious consideration.
One of our most valued and valuable resources in this community is our public school system. As a purely economic matter, the quality of our schools is a key driver of home purchases, and therefore affects all of our home values. At a broader level, our education system defines who the young adults are that become leaders and citizens here or wherever else they choose to go.
The management of the schools is of course entrusted to the School Committee, not the Board of Selectman, and it is ultimately the voters at Town Meeting that approve the school budget. At the same time, it is important to remember that the schools are not only the biggest consumer of our tax revenues but also a critical community asset. I believe it is a benefit to the Town to have representation on the Board of Selectmen by someone with deep familiarity with the operation of the schools, and a deep commitment to public education as one of the core values of our town.
INFRASTRUCTURE AND BUILDING PROJECTS
There are three significant public buildings in the Town which are long overdue for significant renovation and/or rebuilding: Town Hall, Sharon High School, and the Sharon Public Library. The Town Hall project has already been approved by Town Meeting, as has the feasibility study for the Sharon High School Project, while the Library project is still in the planning process.
Approval of the funds for the High School and Library projects is ultimately up to the voters, but whatever the outcome, the fact that there are these serious infrastructure needs in the Town means it is more important than ever to consider and maximize revenue- enhancing opportunities from sources other than the residential tax base (for example, Sharon Gallery, and if approved by the voters the Four Daughters dispensary). I believe this also means it is more important than ever to have leadership on both the Town and School side who can work effectively together, and with other stakeholders in the community, to plan for and manage either these projects or the maintenance and repair expenses that will still be needed if the projects are not approved.
Like the building projects, the ultimate decision on this issue rests with the voters, but I think it is only fair to be clear about where I stand on this. I believe that reasonable people can disagree as to whether recreational marijuana should have been legalized, and there are plenty of people I like and respect who voted for and against the ballot measure two years ago. I am mindful of the research about long-term effects when used by adolescents, the complexities and challenges created for law enforcement by legalization of a drug that is not as easily tested as alcohol, and the potential safety implications of impaired drivers.
However, I believe that each of these are challenges we already face, and faced long before the vote to legalize was taken. In the seven years I had children at Sharon High School, and the eight years I have been on School Committee, I have had plenty of opportunity to review data from risk assessment surveys and to gain insight into what students are doing and thinking about marijuana. All of which leads me to conclude that we have always had reasons to be concerned and watchful about risky behaviors in teenagers, reasons that were already increasing before the legalization vote in 2016.
Will legalization increase that risk? Maybe, and I think that is a fair question, but we no longer have that choice to make. Will a dispensary in Sharon on Route 1 increase the risk to our community more than a dispensary in a different town? I am not convinced of that. In the meantime, allowing the dispensary to move forward will result not only in additional revenues to the Town from sales taxes to help alleviate the burden on our residential taxpayers, but also the opportunity to negotiate additional mitigation funds to address the very things we are concerned about like law enforcement resources and substance abuse prevention and counseling in our schools.
If elected Selectman, I will faithfully implement whatever the voters decide, within any constraints under state law. If we move forward with the recreational dispensary, I will work hard to ensure that we have made a full inventory of the risks and concerns of all of our residents, and to make sure that whatever deal we strike with Four Daughters will give the Town and the Schools the resources they need to address those concerns. If the voters turn down the recreational dispensary, we will still have a relationship with Four Daughters as it relates to the medical dispensary and cultivation facility, which will still require a thoughtful and diligent process to make sure this relationship works as a net positive to our community.
DIVERSITY AND RESPECT
When Sharon was named the “Number One Small Town” by Money Magazine, our diversity was a key factor that influenced our score. Even without that accolade, it was clear from the 90 banners hung in town last year by the Rotary and Lions Clubs that we have a richness of diversity in this town that is unusual in a small suburban community, and from the outpouring of support for those banners when one was challenged that we believe recognizing that diversity is valuable and important. I know I was proud, and comforted, to see the banners around town last summer, and proud and comforted to see the "Hate Has No Home Here" lawn signs appear around town over the past year and a half.
But diversity is not just about banners and signs. It also means that we must understand that people of different races and ethnic or national backgrounds, different economic means, different faiths, different genders and sexual orientation, and different abilities have vastly different experiences in this country and in this town. It means when we hear someone expressing one of those experiences, we should respond with curiosity and empathy, not defensiveness and anger. If this is a core value of our community, as I believe it is, we have a right to expect that our elected officials model that behavior.
Thank you for reading this, and I look forward to seeing you on May 15 at Sharon High School!
Emily Smith-Lee for Sharon Selectman
46 South Main Street
Sharon MA 02067