By SOPHIA BUCKLEY-CLEMENT
BRANDON — ‘Diversity’ and ‘equity’ were key phrases among the candidates during Brandon’s 2021 Select Board Candidate Forum on Feb. 16 as citizens called into question some of the most pressing matters facing the town.
The forum was sponsored by the Brandon Area Chamber of Commerce and drew 86 viewers, the largest Zoom gathering Moderator Bill Moore said he’d managed so far. The full 90-minute forum can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/aJpr8LH6JfE
“Brandon has come a long way, yet we know we have an opportunity to do even more—especially when it comes to social equity,” candidate Alexandra “Allie” Breyer said when asked for her vision for Brandon. “I’m envisioning a town where there’s more affordable housing options, where everyone is food secure, and we’re really thinking about the long-term impacts of COVID.”
Breyer, a 31-year-old communication coordinator and injury prevention specialist for the Vermont Department of Health, is running on a shared platform with fellow candidate Lindsey Berk. Berk, 37, is the executive director of ACORN, a non-profit that promotes the health and growth of agriculture in the Champlain Valley.
The two spent much of their time on the forum discussing their top platforms — marketing Brandon to new families, addressing food and housing insecurity, and diversifying the town’s civic leadership.
“When we talk about diversity, I want to clarify that Allie and I are only representing a different gender, age bracket, income bracket and occupation,” said Berk on the importance of diversity in a select board. “These are just a few identities that could be better represented. There are others such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and physical abilities that should be welcomed as well on our town’s leadership.”
Select Board Chair Seth Hopkins, 44, is seeking reelection for his seventh term. First elected in 2015, Hopkins, reacting to the same question, argued that the board does have different kinds of diversity and is just lacking in some respects.
“I hope the fact that I’m a 44-year-old white man with a receding hairline — I hope that doesn’t make me who I am. It’s not who I feel I am,” said Hopkins. “I have a lot of different identities and those identities, to me, are a lot more important than the fact that I have pink skin and blue eyes.”
Mike Markowski is a 35-year-old former lieutenant for the Brandon Fire Department who characterizes his leadership style as “realist.” He, too, agreed that diversity can appear in a variety of forms and when asked to define equity and what it means as a select board member, Markowski did not hesitate to echo his peers.
“Equity is beneficial for everyone in town,” said Markowski. “And not everybody in just Brandon, but it would be nice to see, say, Vergennes come and be envious of us and ask us how we accomplished something. That’s equity in my mind. When they become kind of envious of what you’re doing and inquisitive on how we can do better.”
Markowski works at his family’s business, Markowski Excavating, which has assisted the town’s roadway and sidewalk reconstruction efforts in the past. In combination with his experience as a member of the Prudential Board, Markowski argued he knows when a plan is viable or not.
Another hotly debated topic of the night was the safety of roadways and sidewalks in Brandon —specifically Route 7 and Park Street. The state of Brandon’s roadways and pedestrian crossings are a work in progress which some believe can only be taken on by the select board to a certain point each year. Both Markowski and Hopkins argued that there may just not be enough money in the budget to address every roadway-related issue in a single year.
“Everybody’s got to understand safety comes at a cost,” said Markowski. “[Route 7] is a state-owned highway, it’s town managed but state-owned, so anything coming through that road has to have gone through engineers, approved by the state, stamped, and then we got to come up with the funding to do it.”
Berk, having spoken prior to Markowski on the roadways issue, used her time on the next question on reviewing budget items to respond to her competitor.
“The quote ‘Safety comes at a cost’? What do lives cost?” Berk asked. “If our community members say that they need more sidewalks because they don’t feel comfortable walking their children? To me, that’s worth finding the money to do the sidewalks.”
Also discussed on Tuesday at the forum were candidates’ positions on rumors of a new Dollar General coming to town. Markowski, Breyer, and Berk all agreed the discussion would result in a big debate — with pros relating to food security and cons relating to its ultimate economic impact on the town.
Though accidentally overlooked twice at the end of the time-crunched forum by moderator Bill Moore, Selectman Hopkins used his time to relay his message on the select board’s role on matters like this.
“The select board can, and I think does, a pretty good job at setting the scene as well as it can —setting the stage as well as it can — for independent people and independent businesses to make their own decisions based on what the market needs,” said Hopkins. “It’s not really the board’s place to say that a certain store — a certain brand — shouldn’t be in Brandon.”
Other areas of discussion included a possible noise ordinance and what the law might look like, how the candidates plan to address property tax increases for fixed-income residents, what experience the candidates have managing budgets, and how the candidates believe police and animal control should collaborate on animal welfare issues in town.
Candidates ended the night with closing remarks emphasizing a great respect and love for Brandon and hope to see positive voter turnout on March 2.
Sophia Buckley-Clement is a journalism intern and a student at Castleton State University.