FAIRHAVEN – The town is poised for a leadership change in 2012 amidst a politically charged atmosphere and signs of resident discontent.
On Thursday, longtime Fairhaven Selectman Michael Silvia opened the door to a new leader on the town’s three-member board when he said he will not seek another term in 2012. Silvia, who has been a selectman for the past 12 years, said he is leaving for personal and family health-related issues.
“It’s been a tremendous experience in my life and a welcome challenge,” Silvia said of his service. “(But) in my personal life, I will be taking a step back.”
Silvia’s decision opens up a board seat at a time when several groups of residents have criticized the town’s government style, particularly citing a lack of transparency and openness. At least three new issue-based groups have formed in the past two years and one was revived, all but one of which has criticized the town. The most recent group, Fair Action for Fairhaven, said it was created to promote transparent and fair politics.
“Voices aren’t being heard,” said founder Christopher Andersen. “When it goes against the town officials, people are not being heard. We’re not being put on agendas at meetings. We don’t have access to meeting minutes or the minutes are incomplete or we’re not seeing things on public access TV when they should be available.”
Amid the unrest, a petition has begun circulating seeking to hold a special Town Meeting to approve changes to recall procedures, set term limits and shut down a controversial wind turbine project.
In this unsettled atmosphere, two candidates have stepped forward to fill Silvia’s seat, both noting that this is a uniquely opportune moment to be running for selectmen.
Phil Washko, who credited his experiences as chairman of Yes for Fairhaven for his political decision, has taken out papers for the selectman seat as has Jaime DeSousa who said he was asked to run by people he respects.
Washko, 41, led a recent effort to provide information on the town’s new school building project that resulted in a successful townwide ballot vote for the planned new school. An information technology professional in the real estate industry, he stressed the need for more communication in town, noting that candidates need to be able to collaborate successfully with others. Through Yes for Fairhaven, Washko said he showed his ability to work with town groups.
“It’s not enough for you to be able to make your own mark; you need to be able to work with others effectively,” he said. “The board will suffer if you’re not able to do that. And the town will suffer.”
DeSousa, who won his first town position last year, is wrapping up a one-year term on the Planning Board. The 35-year-old construction professional, who ran unsuccessfully for New Bedford’s City Council in 2002, said he has managed millions of dollars in construction projects and knows what it takes to come in under budget.
“In the private sector, you have to make that project work within that budget,” he said. “I can’t go back to the client and say ‘Oh, by the way, we screwed up,’ or ‘By the way, we (spent more than we expected).'”
DeSousa, too, stressed communication needs and felt the town’s website could be improved. “I really want to bring relationships, respect and results to Town Hall,” he said.
Both candidates said they oppose term limits, suggesting the people can put any official out of office by their vote. Silvia also supported letting the people vote for who they want and stressed the positives the town has enjoyed through its experienced leadership.
“Brian (Bowcock) and I both started on the Finance Committee,” he said. “I think that is good training and good experience because it gives you a good background.”
Silvia argued that discontent is not new in Fairhaven and countered accusations of closed government by pointing to open selectmen meetings, televised access, and respected Town Meeting procedures.
“People seem to forget that the legislative body of town is Town Meeting. They set the priorities and goals,” he said.
Of all achievements during his tenure, Silvia highlighted a well-managed budget with no extreme cutbacks, successful renovation projects at Town Hall and Millicent Library, the building of one new school and a successful planning process for another as the ones he’s most proud of.
“We have a good record of balancing peoples’ needs and the resources we have at hand,” he said.
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