WILMINGTON, MA – Town Moderator candidates Robert Peterson, Jr. and Leigh Martinson squared off in a 30-minute debate last night, broadcast live from the studios of Wilmington Community Television.
Sponsored by the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, Wilmington Town Crier, Reading Cooperative Bank, and Wilmington Community Television, the debate was moderated by Town Crier News Editor Jayne Miller, with questions coming from a panel of local journalists, including Lisa Kennedy-Cox of the Town Crier, Tom Zuppa of the Lowell Sun, and Bruce Coulter of the Wilmington Advocate.
The debate had four parts – (1) each candidate made an opening statement; (2) each candidate answered the same questions posed to them by the panel; (3) each candidate asked one question to his opponent; and (4) each candidate made a closing statement.
Both men were asked about (1) how they would improve voter participation; (2) how they would go about cutting off debate; (3) how they would keep residents informed about issues and processes related to Town Meeting; (4) whether low Town Meeting participation was attributable, in part, to disruptive individuals who attend it; (5) whether they would support electronic voting at Town Meeting; and (6) how they would manage a situation where Town Meeting struggled to reach a quorum.
Frankly, there appeared to very little difference in the candidates’ answers to these questions. Neither supported altering the 150-voter quorum. Neither supported taking petitioned warrant articles up in order, preferring to stick with the random draw selection. Both were open to learning more about electronic voting, but neither seemed particularly supportive of it. Both agreed you must hear from “both sides” before cutting off debate. Both stressed, multiple times through the debate, the importance of fairly enforcing the established rules (Robert’s Rules Of Order) that govern the meeting. Both assured voters they can handle potentially disruptive town meeting attendees.
The disagreements arose during the opening statements, closing statements, and portion of the debate where candidates each asked a question of one another.
Below are four lines of attack that were heard throughout the debate:
Peterson attacked Martinson’s Town Meeting attendance record.
“A review of your voting record indicates that over your 12 years [living in Wilmington], you’ve voted in only 2 local elections and have attended only 2 town meetings, both in 2014,” Peterson said to Martinson. “Town Meeting and Town Election are the very foundation of our local government, yet your records don’t seem to reflect any commitment [to it].”
Martinson appeared prepared for the question. He discussed how his career required constant travel, forcing him to be away from his family for weeks and months at a time. Martinson recalled having to make “hard choices” and prioritizing spending his weekend time with his family, rather than getting involved in town government. Martinson, now a partner at the 17th largest law firm in the country, says he currently has more control over his schedule and the time necessary to dedicate to serving as Town Moderator.
Martinson attacked Peterson over whether Peterson would use the town moderator position as a “stepping stone” to higher office
“Let’s be perfectly clear about my intentions,” stated Martinson. “I’m committed to this position the way Mr. Stewart and Mr. Caira was before. I intend to serve you as Moderator not only for the next three years, but for as long as you will have me. This is not a stepping stone to another position in government for me. Can I call on my opponent tonight to make the same promise to you?”
Peterson appeared prepared for the question. “If someone forced that question upon Mike Caira when he ran, we would have missed out on a pretty good Town Manager.” (Caira was Town Moderator before becoming Town Manager.) Peterson emphasized he doesn’t know what five, ten or fifteen years down the road will bring him, but stressed that he’s running for Town Moderator because he believes he’s the best candidate.
Martinson attacked Peterson on potential conflicts of interest involving his family’s law firm.
“Your law firm, and specifically your father, has represented several landowners, citizens and developers alike seeking to rezone their land,” Martinson said to Peterson. “If you’re the Town Moderator, you’re going to have to recuse yourself from those situations. However, it’s often the case that when a property owner goes before Town Meeting to rezone his property, he already has a contract to sell his land to a developer who then brings that property through the permitting process with the town officials… If elected, will your promise the people of Wilmington that neither you, nor another member of the Peterson law firm, will represent a developer who buys and permits property that has been rezoned at Town Meeting?”
Martinson later emphasized the point in his closing statement: “My law practice doesn’t conflict with the town’s business. I don’t represent clients for town meeting. My firm will not appear at Town Meeting on behalf of any client. I’m free from conflict. Just not today or tomorrow, but for all-time.”
Peterson was ready for the line of attack. “I have contacted the State Ethics Commission. I have made sure I have dotted every I and crossed every T. I am 100% cognizant of what I need to do so that I’m operating within the rules of the Ethics Commission…. If needed to, I would recuse myself from a certain article.” Peterson stressed that his firm has decided not to take any more business related to articles that will come in front of Town Meeting. “[The decision] will have a financial impact on our office, but that’s how much this means to me because that’s how much Wilmington means to me. I’m willing to forgo those clients because I believe I can best serve our town [as Moderator].”
Peterson touted himself as the candidate that best represents Wilmington.
“I’m 28 years old and have called Wilmington home for my entire life,” said Peterson. “I’m running for Town Moderator because I am a candidate who best represents the people of Wilmington… Further, because I’ve been actively involved in our community through coaching youth hockey, as a Rotarian, being a member of numerous organizations, and having a legal practice here in Wilmington, I feel I’m in a unique position to serve as Town Moderator and to serve alongside the Chairman of the Board of Selectmen and the Chair of the Finance Committee in our joint effort to appoint qualified residents to our Finance Committee.” Peterson later stressed how he knows the personalities at Town Meeting as a longtime attendee; he knows the legislative process as a former aide to Wilmington State Representative Ken Gordon, and that he’s the first member of the third generation of his family to serve the community.
“The race for moderator isn’t about who is more Wilmington,” Martinson responded. “It’s about who’s best qualified for the job. If you compare my qualifications to those of my opponent, I believe that you will find that the choice is clear. I’m the better candidate. As a seasoned litigator, I’m an attorney that spends his time in the courtroom. I prepare & examine witnesses. I argue to the jury. I’m no stranger to pressure situations and the need to make quick, fair and effective decisions. Knowing the rules and applying them to fluid situation is part of what I do everyday.”
Wilmington, we’ve got ourselves a race! Want to share your thought on last night’s debate? Comment below, comment on our Facebook page, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Got a letter of support for a candidate? Email it to email@example.com.