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Huge turnout expected for Hawley election

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>John Sears of Hawley

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    John Sears of Hawley

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Charles Stetson of Hawley

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Charles Stetson of Hawley

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>John Sears of Hawley
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Charles Stetson of Hawley

HAWLEY — After a year of discord that has plagued this hilltown of roughly 338 residents, town officials are expecting one of the largest voter turnouts in recent years on Tuesday, when a three-way selectman’s race is to be decided.

In more typical times, elective offices have gone begging for candidates.

“This is expected to be one of those voting days when we have a very high turnout for the election,” said Town Clerk Lisa Turner, noting that at least a dozen new voters have come in to register this past month, pushing rolls beyond 250.

“Some of them have lived here for years and have never registered to vote,” said Turner. “They know we have some issues in town and we’re trying to heal from these issues. They want things back to normal.”

In recent years, disasters befell this tiny town like dominoes, beginning with Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011, which washed out town roads, stranding pockets of residents, damaging the new town garage, and washing out the banks of the Chickley River. Pat and Tex LaMountain, who owned property on the Chickley River bank, watched two cabins and three barns they owned along Route 8A in West Hawley get washed down the river — with a rider-mower, refrigerator, water heater and all the other contents washed away as well.

Emergency work on road repairs began, and so did emergency work on the Chickley River, in which the channel was dredged, some of the meandering curves were straightened, and high berms of river silt were used to build up the banks, some of them in the flood plain.

Some residents, the Connecticut River Watershed Council and the state Department of Environmental Protection were critical of the extensive river work, and the DEP found the town and its contractor, ET&L Co., guilty of exceeding the scope of work allowed under an emergency permit.

Townspeople were very divided over the Chickley River repair: Some felt the work was essential to public safety and were grateful it was done as quickly as it was, while others felt the work had ruined the river, making it more susceptible to future flooding and ruining it for trout, other fish and wildlife habitat.

The town and contractor reached a settlement with DEP for a river restoration plan, costing Hawley between $184,000 and $259,000.

More than $1.7 million was spent on Irene repairs in Hawley, with $1.23 million reimbursed and another $150,000 expected from FEMA, and an estimated $175,000 from its Massachusetts counterpart.

Town officials estimate that work on Forge Hill and East roads, as well as a berm behind the highway garage, will cost the town another $210,000, if FEMA kicks in its usual 75 percent. The town expects another $130,000 in work not eligible for reimbursement also needs to be done.

Add that to the DEP penalties, and it comes to $524,000. Were it all to be done at once, with short- and long-term borrowing, it would raise the town’s property tax rate by about $1.60 per $1,000 valuation for seven years.

Since Irene, selectmen Darwin Clark and Richard Desmarais have died. Clark was replaced by Selectman Tedd White in last year’s annual election, but he and board Chairman Phillip Keenan have been at an impasse over several issues — including who should be board chairman.

White walked out on two meetings in January, and announced at the Jan. 23 meeting that “there is no point in having a selectmen’s meeting other than to sign warrants and address any emergency actions needed to keep the town running.”

The level of campaigning has been quite high, as all three candidates have been visiting residents, sending out letters townwide and erecting signs throughout the town, according to the town clerk. “For Hawley, that’s going to be a busy day. This race is important to us, as we have been managing the town with only two selectmen, and we’re only doing what’s necessary to keep the town running,” said the clerk.

Running Tuesday for the 15-month term of selectman are:

∎ University of Massachusetts prelaw student Hussain Hamdan of West Hawley Road, who is currently serving on the Hawlemont Regional School Committee.

∎ John Sears of Pudding Hollow Road, an historian who has long been active in the Sons and Daughters of Hawley, a private, non-profit civic organization.

∎ Town Treasurer and Tax Collector Charles Stetson, who has also served for several years on the Hawlemont School Committee.

In brief interviews with The Recorder, all three candidates have said they are running because they want to heal the rift that has polarized Hawley.

Hamdan said the one positive thing to have emerged from the Chickley River controversy is that it prompted people “to take a very active role in town government.”

“I would like to see this town move forward from a lot of disagreement over the river. I’m hoping I can bring some constructive skills to the table,” he said.

“I hope I can heal the bitterness of that dispute and help the town move forward,” said Sears. “We can’t change what happened to the river, and we can’t change the expense to be covered by the taxpayers, but there are things that we can do. We have roads that still need repair. There are roads in the Hawley State Forest we should get (the state) to fix. And if there’s a way we can ease the burden of the river repair on the taxpayers, we should work on that.”

“I would like to try to get the town back together again, so that we’re not at odds with each other. Before this river issue came up, the town used to run pretty smoothly,” said Stetson. “This river issue has split the town.”

On Tuesday night, immediately after the votes are counted, the winner will be sworn-in, and the board will hold its first meeting in three months.

You can reach Diane Broncaccio at:
dbronc@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 277

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