The selectman candidates' forum held by the League of Women Voters was taped at Town Hall with moderator Mindy Hackner; there was no audience.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The two candidates for a three-year term for selectmen stressed at a forum on Wednesday night that serving the town was the most important factor in their runs.
"I think the best thing that people can do is exemplified by Justin [Adkins]," said Thomas Sheldon, chairman of the Selectmen, referencing his challenger in response to a question about how citizens can help the town. Getting involved, giving time and asking questions were the most important things, Adkins and Sheldon agreed.
'Williamstown is a perfect place for young people to start a business ... we have to keep building on that.' — Justin Adkins
The half-hour conversation with Sheldon and Adkins was moderated by Mindy Hackner as a "Citizens in League" program for the Williamstown League of Women Voters. The forum and a following half-hour review of the warrant with Sheldon and Finance Committee Chairman Charles Fox were taped for broadcast on WilliNet.
"I hope the people of Williamstown are as impressed as I am by your desire to serve your community," said Hackner. "That's a remarkable thing and thanks to you both for mentioning that as your prime concern."
Adkins, assistant director of the Williams College Multicultural Center and a website developer for Brainspiral Technologies, moved to town about five years ago.
"One of the main reasons I moved to here is because I wanted to be somewhere where I could live according to the values that are most important to me," he said. "To be in a town where I can participate in all aspects of the town."
He's been involved with the Youth Center and high school, among other civic and community activities. His decision to run for selectman came on a rainy night last fall at Zuccotti Park with Occupy Wall Street. He was struck by the general assembly's similarity to town meeting: "It dawned on me one night ... that's why I live in Williamstown."
In response to questions about his youth, Adkins laughed that he's "inching up to 40; I look a lot younger than I am."
He stressed his experience at alma mater Marlboro (Vt.) College, which requires a lot of participation in governance, and his work with a large human services non-profit based in Texas. "I've held a lot of responsibility in my life," he said.
Sheldon, who was elected in his first run for selectman in 2009, has a 35-year career in the New York education system that saw him rise from intern to assistant deputy commissioner and then acting commissioner.
"It's been an interesting ride and, over the last year, a very exhilarating one." —Thomas Sheldon
"I have a longstanding commitment to public service and community," he said, but the demands of job and family limited what he could do. He moved to Williamstown a year before retiring. "I vowed that I would get more involved in community activity once I retired."
He immediately begin volunteering at the Milne Public Library and has since tutored at Brayton Elementary School in North Adams and become involved with Images Cinema, currently as chairman of its board, and with the Sustaining Educational Excellence Fund at the high school and with Higher Ground, which is working on affordable housing and aiding Spruces Mobile Home Park residents left homeless by Hurricane Irene.
"It's been an interesting ride and, over the last year, a very exhilarating one," he said of his three years on the board of Selectmen. "I think there are significant challenges yet ahead so I decided after a lot of thinking to run again for a second three-year term."
Among the challenges he sees ahead are the capital planning for a new police station, the library, road work, working with the Mount Greylock Regional School District on repairs or rebuilding the high school and, especially, increasing affordable housing.
"That's a huge piece of unfinished business that's important to making this community more accessible to people, more diverse," said Sheldon of affordable housing efforts "closest to my heart." "We need that variety in our town."
Adkins agreed that affordability was paramount, noting that the town's 5 percent affordable housing rate was half that recommended by the state — and it didn't include the Spruces retirement community.
That made it harder for young people in their 20s and 30s to find places to live in Williamstown, he said, talking of his own difficulties in affording a place to live.
Sheldon and Adkins shake hands after the forum.
"Our kids also need to see a way to stay in Williamstown ... something to stay here for," said Adkins, adding there's an entrepreneurial spirit alive in the land. "Williamstown is a perfect place for young people to start a business ... we have to keep building on that."
Sheldon said there have been a lot of missed opportunities and there was a need to make the town hospitable and attractive to businesses without compromising environmental imperatives.
"We also need to find the right balance point, generally speaking, between development and environment. We can't emphasize one to the exclusion of the other," he said, adding that for the forseeable future, "we will not be lacking for meaningful, challenging thought-provoking issues."
The election is Tuesday, May 8, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the elementary school gymnasium.
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