The newly formed Sharon Chinese Association has been on high gear lately to organize a sequence of meetings that aim at increasing awareness of the local matters within the ever-growing Chinese community. Among them are the open forums with the selectmen candidates for the town of Sharon in 2016.
The first such meeting of the two was held at the library of the Sharon high school in the evening of May 6. The invitee put on the spot is the challenger Liz Dichiara. A total of 43 attended the meeting in person and simultaneously shared with a large community through the instant message app WeChat, hundreds of members that is closely watching the event and the upcoming election on 5/17. According to the Association president Liming Liang, this tight-knit online community only represents a small portion of the whole Chinese American population living in Sharon.
With Dichiara having deep roots in Sharon including within residents of Chinese origin, the 23-year Sharon resident was introduced by two members from the community. She was frequently praised as being very passionate about her endeavors, enthusiastic about protecting the environment we all live in, and someone who hardly gives anything up once she is onto it.
In the opening remark, Dichiara points her reason to stay in the heavily-taxed town to (her) long-time friends being here, the amazing lake, and the widely available green space. Her motivation to run, as her puts it, is the determination to change the “top-down” approach to town affairs the incumbent William Heitin takes to a “bottom-up” approach. As examples of Heitin’s “top-down” approach, she cites the proposed Gavins pond soccer field construction and the commuter rail parking extension project. She also sharply criticized the lack of touch with regular residents by Heitin exemplified by her own experience dealing with the board as a member of the No Sharon Gas Pipeline group. In wrapping up her remark, she articulated her mission as a selectman that includes being transparent, improving efficiency, closely examining the budget, and communicating better with her constituent.
Here is a list of questions and answers (edited by the author at times) between Dichiara and the audience led by moderator Zheng Liu:
- Q: As a selectman, how do you survive the first 90 days?
A: My experience working as a computer programmer and as a manager training people would allow me to figure things out quickly. Being teachable and a retiree would also help. In fact, I have already learned a lot regarding how things are done in this town.
- Q: Your opponent Mr. Heitin is on the job for 13 years (thus having a lot of experience), what do you think makes you a successful selectman?
A: Heitin has 12 years of experience, with another selectman having 17. The third one on the board has been on the job for 2 years who is the one out listening to people. Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason. (Editor: quote from Mark Twain). I will call people up and review their performance, as I did in private industry.
There are numerous places (in town governance) that are inefficient, I will look at all of them with a fresh set of eyes. As an example, they propose (in the town meeting warrant) to spend more than $200K on the Ames St playground and clumped that together with many other proposals. (This practice) makes residents vote either all or none. I will convene a committee for this kind of projects to study them in detail. If things seem to be fine such as in the case of the Ames St. playground, (I would refrain from initiating these procedures).
- Q: What would you do with respect to the high property tax in Sharon?
A: We are the 19th highest in MA in terms of property tax, with an average house paying around $9000. We need $15K to support one child in school. This means that we have to retain more people with no kids. (In terms of land development) we only have 4% of land undeveloped or not protected. I am not in favor of commercial developments due to the economy and the availability of nearby lifestyle malls.
- Q: What is the history of the Sharon Commons project?
A: It is (a history of) the economy! We are saturated with shops already. For example, Target (Corp) has enough stores in the area. For details, I urge you to ask Mr. Heitin (as he is the one involved with overseeing the project).
- Q: You will be the most junior selectman, how can you make a change once elected?
A: There are 2 selectmen who tend to vote together. I will have closer philosophy to the third one. (Therefore, to get things done) I would vote with him.
- Q: If we have a particular idea, how can we move forward to implement it?
A: Anybody can make an article. Once you collect 10 or more signatures, the board of selectmen will take a vote on it. It will then be voted it on in the town meeting.
I would listen closely to people with ideas and do my own research on them to figure out whether it is good. (On the other hand), Mr. Heitin once said “I never vote for citizen’s petition”.
- Q: The town of Sharon has 64 Million in long term debt. What is your plan and how would you handle our financial situation in the long term?
A: We can not keep kicking the can (down the road). We have to look at it. As an individual, I am very frugal. I tend to not spend.
[Follow up] Q: How to bring more revenue?
A: We can build more, but it need to outpace the number of children we bring in. My ears would be open to any ideas.
- Q: Can you break down that a bit? For example, (as you pointed out) the IT department should be well funded but our website is not very helpful. When you see issues like this, how do you plan to improve and how would you implement your ideas?
A: I will look at them item by item. For each item such as buying new trucks, spending 23 – 25 Million on the police and fire (facility), and updating the high school, I will look further into each of them. Does it really need 23M? Can we incorporate more energy efficient items?
- Q: What will you do to improve transparency? Who would review projects such as installing new carpet with each room costing $9000?
A: The selectmen are mangers of managers. I will watch each project and study who get bid out. I will make sure we have a better town website. I would invite more voices to each process.
- Q: Is there any possible Conflict Of Interest in terms of the town’s pension investment? How many bidders do they invite to each project?
A: I will bid out projects publicly, and give way more information to the public.
- Q: What are your top 3 priorities once elected?
A: I would come off speed, ask questions. Before opening any big development, I will examine closely. Do we really need a new school or just (what is equivalent to) half of a school?
- Q: I have a neighbor who is retired, 70 years old, and complaining about high tax. (I am here complaining that), I often did not get any response from the town personnel when I emailed them, will you respond to people like us?
- Q: Let us get back to transparency and the participation rate (within the town residents for town matters), what are the existing channels of communications? Do you have concrete ideas on improving communication and participation rate?
A: Currently, there is a town website but there are no phone numbers or emails on it and the schedules of the meetings are not there. I will put more information on the website. In particular, I will put all the minutes there, and organize them better so for example if a resident wants to research on a particular topic, he/she does not need to go into each minutes. Lastly, I would embrace new technology and be open to any new ideas.
- Q: Can you articulate the most ideal Sharon, the Sharontopia?
A: There will be more participation and kinder dialogue. We would welcome people with different views. We can not just ignore people and grow. For example, we are sitting on all water we have with no connection to outside source. There have been people telling the board “We are out of water”, but the board is not listening. We have to be kind and open to others’ views as we all live together in this town.
To let the candidate return the favor, Liu gave her a chance to ask the audience questions. Dichiara polled the audience for who has lived in Sharon for 5 years or less, 10 years or less, and how many plan to move out of town after their kids’ graduation.
The night ended on a high note with a team of middle schoolers interviewing people who are not their teachers. They took advantage of this rare opportunity and asked the candidate 4 questions ranging from snow plow issues to priority of the town’s budget. Dichiara answered with kindness and patience.