Four candidates have thrown their hat into the ring to win the city of Rutland coveted mayor’s seat in next month’s Town Meeting election.
The race includes incumbent Christopher Louras, Mike Coppinger, the executive director of the Downtown Rutland Partnership and a former member of the Board of Aldermen, Dave Allaire, a 19-year veteran of the Board of Alderman and three-time mayoral candidate, and long-time campaigner Kam Johnson.
For the mayoral election, candidates do not campaign associated with party affiliations.
Self-described fiscal conservatives, Coppinger and Allaire pose the greatest threat to incumbent Louras, who is on rocky ground after a year of widely reported refugee and budget controversies.
Vermont Watchdog asked each candidate to participate in a question-and-answer style interview.
Louras did not respond to Watchdog’s initial request for an interview and Johnson could not be reached before publication. However, Watchdog plans to follow-up with Louras and Johnson before the Town Meeting vote.
Watchdog: Why did you decide to run for mayor?
Michael Coppinger: This is my community. I grew up here, and I care deeply about it. I think it’s time for a fresh, new perspective. There’s a rift and divide between the government and voters, and I don’t think either Louras or Allaire can heal it.
David Allaire: The city has experienced a number of issues that have become controversial, and this has been troublesome for people in the city. There’s the refugee issue, where the process was conducted behind closed doors, a budget increase with no regard for taxpayers, and a fire department reorganization with no room for compromise. People need an alternative.
Watchdog: What would be your top priority if elected?
Coppinger: City infrastructure. I don’t believe the current administration has properly addressed the problem. In 2012, the city passed a capital improvement program directing the mayor to address the city’s crumbling infrastructure. The mayor has ignored it, and the aldermen sat by and let that happen.
Allaire: To bring trust and transparency back to the mayor’s office. As far as policy, I want to focus on jobs and economic development. I want to begin working together regionally with Rutland Town and Killington.
Watchdog: Will you raise local taxes?
Coppinger: I am proposing a 1 percent local option tax; 75 percent of that revenue would go towards infrastructure, and 25 percent would go towards the city’s underfunded pensions. Other towns like Killington, Rutland Town and Middlebury have implemented such a tax. I would place the tax as a non-binding referendum on the ballot to get voter’s temperatures. Also, the money would go into a dedicated fund, not dumped into the general fund.
Allaire: I have zero plans to raise taxes. That’s exactly the wrong way to go. I don’t support my opponent’s plan. We’re already overtaxed and have some of the highest taxes in the state. I want to encourage business, and taxes don’t do that.
Watchdog: Are there spending changes you would make in the budget?
Coppinger: I’ll look to put the brakes on the construction of the city pool. City voters said yes to a $2.5 million pool, but when the Board of Aldermen took bids, they were $1 million over budget. They’re planning a pool that’s under half the size with no bathrooms or locker rooms. I’d like to go back to voters with the proper information. Voters approved the project 3-to-1, so obviously, getting it right is important.
Allaire: I want to sit down with department heads to discuss and reassess budgets. We need to streamline where we can and go from there. My priority will be public safety departments.
Watchdog: Do you believe this election will be a referendum on the city’s refugee policy?
Coppinger: It’s never about a single issue. There’s the fire department and a number of other things to take into account.
Allaire: Talking with voters, it’s one issue that’s very concerning.
Watchdog: Do you believe Mayor Louras did right by voters in his handling of refugee settlement in the city?
Coppinger: I support refugees, but I disagree in the manner in which he went about it. It should have been done in a responsible and reasonable manner. Keeping the Board of Aldermen, and therefore the people, out of the process was wrong. The mayor missed the opportunity for greater discussion.
Allaire: I totally disagree, and that’s the feeling of the majority of people I’ve been talking to. I’m critical of the process, not refugees themselves. The mayor had it totally backwards. His first stop should have been the public.
Watchdog: What are your views on transparency in government?
Coppinger: Transparency is essential when dealing with the public. With our checks-and-balances system of government, we have to have communication. That’s why things have gone askew in our government. We can disagree without being disagreeable, and the mayor has been antagonistic on several issues.
Allaire: My record speaks for itself. During my time on the Board of Aldermen, I made every effort to include my fellow members and the public with information as soon as I could. In the mayor’s office I will conduct myself in the same fashion.
Watchdog: What do you believe is the proper relationship between the mayor’s office and the Board of Aldermen?
Coppinger: They should work together for (the) public interest but at the same time provide checks and balances. Again, they can disagree without being disagreeable.
Allaire: The Board of Aldermen and mayor have an equal stake in running the city of Rutland. While the mayor is the executive leader, it is important the board have an equal role. The board should be included to better understand the thought process behind what the mayor does. They should be included on decisions and would be an equal partner moving forward.
Watchdog: What happened with the fire department funding? Where do you think the process broke down?
Coppinger: There was a lack of communication. The mayor didn’t explain and lay out his vision. He was playing politics with public safety.
Allaire: The firefighters lost confidence in their chief. Originally, he was hired in a short-term capacity. That didn’t go well, and it set up the problems we’re encountering now. I want to start the process of regaining the department’s trust, including beginning to hire a new chief.
Watchdog: What is your message to undecided voters?
Coppinger: I would ask everyone to look closely on which candidate has a plan laid out in full view. I’m the only one who is putting both issues and solutions out there. (Louras) says “trust me, I know what I’m doing” and (Allaire) just points out problems. I’m the only one with a clear vision for the city.
Allaire: I am the one candidate with the experience and temperament to heal our city and move us forward in a positive direction together.