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Joe Wetmore

Joe Wetmore (D) is running for Lansing Town Board.  He is running on a platform of keeping the public involved in the decision making process, "getting the communication flow from the public to public officials, and back to the public again."  This is his first run for municipal office, but he has participated in Lansing, notably as a member of the Comprehensive Plan Revision Committee.  While he hasn't held municipal office, he is on the Board of Directors of the Downtown Ithaca Partnership.

Wetmore has actually lived in Lansing for five years, but says he has been involved here for 10 or 12 years, as his wife lived here before they were married.  He grew up mainly in Michigan and New York City.  He stopped by the Lansing Star to talk about why he hopes to be elected.

Lansing Star  Lansing Star: Why are you running for Town Board?  What makes you a better choice than your opponents?

Joe Wetmore  Joe Wetmore: As I've been in Lansing I've gotten more and more involved in local politics.  Ive been watching the Town Board and attending some of the informational sessions over the years.  Then I got on the Comprehensive planning Committee.  After working with some of the members of that committee -- it had been going on for about three or four years before I actually joined the committee...

When I got on the committee I was very concerned about how the public kept getting marginalized in the process.  I can give you several examples, but the two strongest are: when I started off I had served on comprehensive planning committees before.  One of the things we did was enable our meetings to draw out the neighborhoods, to get them involved in the process.  You go around.  You have a couple of members of the committee go to different parts of the neighborhoods... split it up and have that dialog at the beginning of the process so we could get the public involved and get some issues out of them.

For the most part, nobody on the committee was interested.  They poo-pooed it as taking way too much time, even though I came to them saying, 'I've done this.  It was very valuable and I think we should bring that idea here.'

I was concerned about that, and then, at the end when we had our public hearing and we took public comment, both written and at a hearing level... At the very next meeting I said 'Let's discuss the public comment we just received.'  I was told 'no' in no uncertain terms.  'We're not going to listen to it.  We're simply going to send this on to the Town Board.  We're done.'  The group voted to pass it on without a minute of discussing the public comments.  I found that really disturbing.

I think there were other little things, but that kind of attitude from public officials, and there were many public officials on that committee, was a problem.  I want to try to fix that.

I come to this with a lot of experience.  The main job that a town board does is planning issues.  We do highways, we do recreation, but really the meat of what we do is planning.  I've worked with the city, I've worked with the Town of Ithaca, on these issues for the last 20 years.  I come with a lot of experience on that level and I come with connections throughout the entire county.  I know a lot of people on the various town boards, different town supervisors.  I think that's a very valuable thing that I bring to this town board.

Lansing StarThere seems to be some opposition to the projects proposed for the so-called ‘Town Center’ land across the street from the town ball fields.  What is your vision for that land, and what issues do you think its sale should answer?

Joe Wetmore  I think it's been dealt with really badly.  I don't think that we've been doing the planning job that the Town's responsible for, especially on town land.  I have heard lots of complaints, for lack of a better word, for how the buffer zone has been dealt with.  The Town's been selling off buffer pieces, essentially pitting neighbor against neighbor instead of trying to find a way to draw people together.

We came together as a community and put together a proposal for a town center.  Good or bad, that didn't work, and there are reasons for it that are pretty clear and aren't going to change -- mostly nobody wants to pay for the sewer.

So that fell through, and instead of going back and saying we still have this large chunk of land and planning it out, we just said we'd sell it off to the highest bidder and let developers plan it.  Lo and behold when you just throw it out open willy-nilly, people aren't happy with the results.

This goes back to my initial thing:  why aren't we having that community conversation and saying 'Alright, plan A didn't work.  What will Plan B be?'

I hear people are really happy with the trail system.  They really like it.  Whenever I go by there are many cars parked there, showing that people are using it.  When I go there in the winter I see ski trails back and forth showing heavy use.  So it is getting used for that.  I don't know if it's the best use, but we need to have that community discussion of 'This is town land.  How would it best be used?'  That's how I would deal with it, bring it out and start having discussions.

Lansing StarThe new comprehensive plan revision has taken many years to craft, and it may not be ready this year.  Has it taken too long?  How would you have handled it if it were up to you?

Joe Wetmore  Part of what has taken a long time is not having an organized planning department.  We've hired a couple of different consultants who worked on it.  I think that was one of the snags.  When Jonathan Kanter left, and there was a break, I think that was a long period of nothing happening, because there was no planning staff support.

One of the things that I would do would be a lot more community outreach.  We started out with a Comprehensive Planning Committee.  When I got on it they had a somewhat diverse group of people, but I still would have wanted to reach out to the community, and make it a community project.  A comprehensive plan is our vision for the next ten-plus years.  You need to have the whole town buy in on that.

If you have a group of people who do this all off by themselves, and not have regular places for the public to come in, hear what the group's been putting together, comment on it, you're not going to get the public feeling like it's their plan.  You're going to feel like its some isolated group's plan. That was probably the bigger problem than how much time we spent on it with not involving the community more directly, more consistently and in different ways.
Lansing StarThe absence of a new comp plan revision has been used as an argument to postpone development, and that may have been a factor in killing the original batch of town land proposals.  Should the Town move forward with proposals using the officially approved 2006 plan as a guide?  Why or why not?

Joe Wetmore  Legally we have a comprehensive plan in place.  I think the current  comprehensive plan is far too vague to really give us the kind of guidance we'd like.  I think that it does need to be dramatically updated for a number of reasons.

I think before the Town embarks on trying to make any major changes it should finish off that plan to make sure that whatever changes it's making are consistent with the vision that it has put in place.  In that sense I would wait to do a lot with the town center until we got the comprehensive plan done.  But, on the other hand we don't have the ability to stop all development just because we haven't finished the new version of the comprehensive plan.

Lansing StarProtest groups, particularly environmentalist groups have attacked the repowering plan from Cayuga Power Plant and now are calling state mining permits for the Cayuga Salt Mine into question.  Where do you stand on these two companies and the issues the protests have raised?

Joe Wetmore  The first thing to think about is that the issues that are being discussed are, by and large, not issues the Town deals with.  The Town doesn't decide whether or not the power plant stays open.  The Town has no control over mining activities.  Those are all state regulated.

What the Town does have the ability to do is plan for whatever is going to happen.  I think that is where the mistake has been.  The power plant is the clearest example.  The power plant is on shaky ground.  I think everybody agrees there is no long term vision of it right now.  It's an older plant, and it's going to be hard to modernize it to the point where it's going to be competitive with the other plants online right now.

So far, what I have seen from our town officials has been a focus on begging the state to keep it open.  To keep it subsidized by the ratepayers so we can continue to get tax money and have a few jobs here, as opposed to saying, 'What if it closes?  What's plan B?'  Plan A is easy: we can just keep cashing the checks.  Plan B take planning and saying, 'What dod we do if the plant closes?' and start exploring that, again, as a community discussion.  If that plant's going to close what are we going to do?  How do we want that land to be re-purposed?  What other alternatives do we have?  There's been no Plan B.  That's a mistake.

Lansing StarWhat do you think the best solution to the natural gas moratorium in Lansing should be?

Joe Wetmore  Oh I think that's been fairly clear.  The moratorium is because there's not enough capacity to expand Lansing's natural gas use.  But what also has been shown by a county study that was released, the plan of action that we can take right now is to start moving people from natural gas heating, which is the predominant use of natural gas, to heat pumps which are efficient, and are technically available right now.

Many of the projects you're seeing are using heat pump technology right now. We can do that right now.  We don't have to wait.

The alternative that I keep hearing from my opposition is, please let us have a bigger pipeline.  Please let that come in.  So what we have are two alternatives: keep heating with natural gas, but we're going to have to wait two or three years for a pipeline to come in if we can get it approved.  That's what they're focussed on.  What seems like the better approach is start building things with heat pumps and we can build them right now.  We don't have to wait for any other projects to come forward.

We can start moving over people who are using natural gas for heat right now to heat pumps and open up capacity, because there are two ways to increase our gas availability.  One is to move people who are using it now and don't need to be to another way of heating their homes.  That creates gas availability.  Or building a bigger pipeline.

Between these two alternatives you've got one which we can move forward right now, or one where we have to wait two or three years.  I don't understand why our town officials are focused on something that's going to, at best, cause a two or three year delay instead of moving forward with the option that allows this development to happen immediately.
Lansing StarHas the spottiness of rural broadband in Lansing been solved with the Clarity Connect/County wifi solution?  Should the town do more to bring high speed broadband to its citizens?

Joe Wetmore  From someone who doesn't have high speed broadband at the moment, I'd say it's not complete.  Services I've seen are not nearly as good as what I can get off of the telephone system.  So, no it's not complete.  I feel that myself.

Broadband service is becoming a necessary utility in much the way the phone system was coming in in the '20s.  I think Lansing needs to take that on as an important development thing for our citizens, because we don't want to leave the people who are out in the sticks unconnected to the world in so many different ways.

Lansing StarAre town taxes what they should be?  Too high, too low?  If elected what will you do to adjust them?

Joe Wetmore  The Town of Lansing's tax rate is the lowest in the County.  I think the question we need to ask is: are we getting the proper value for the money that's paid?

Most of our tax money goes to road maintenance, snow removal and stuff.  We could reduce taxes dramatically if we stopped plowing, if we stopped filling pot holes.  But I don't think that's what our community wants.  If you were suddenly told we're not going to plow any more, it's going to save you a lot on taxes, but you're responsible for plowing the road in front of the house every day, I think people would object, especially some of these larger farmers who have got a lot of frontage.

The issue with taxes is people don't feel the value for what the Town's doing.  There could very well be some adjustments here and there that could be made.  But what's important is, rather than saying 'how can we keep taxes as low as possible' what we need to be looking at is 'are the citizens getting the value for the tax money they're spending?'

Lansing StarAre they?

Joe Wetmore  I feel value in the way the roads are being kept up.  I think that's very dramatically done.  I was hugely impressed during the major rains we had in the spring, and how quickly roads got cleared of debris, the drainage ditches got cleaned up... that was done fast everywhere through the Town.  That was hugely impressive and it cost money.  In that sense it's done well.

The other major budgetary item is our recreational department.  I've heard nothing but wonderful things about that.  So I think we're getting a lot of value for our tax money.  We need to keep looking at it.  As a town official we need to be careful because it's everybody's money we're spending.  But I'm seeing a lot of value for the tax money we're spending right now.

Lansing StarWhat one or two issues we have not talked about, if any, should be addressed in the next four year term and what will you do to address them if elected?

Joe Wetmore  The issues that really bother me the most are seeing the public pushed out of discussions.  The Planning Department created a sub-committee to rewrite some of the zoning stuff and explicitly said the public was not allowed to observe those meetings.  That's not even legal.  The Open Meetings law is quite clear.  You can't do that.

I'm frustrated that the budget process has been streamlined to the point that we, the public is not able to watch how our money is being spent.  We're not able to attend those discussions.  I think that's vitally important for the public to have the opportunity to see how our money's being spent.

Again, when I talked about the comprehensive plan, I think it's really vital to keep that communication going between the public and the Town Board.  One of the things I want to set up is town meetings that are informal, in which we go to a fire station on one corner or a church somewhere else, and the public has the opportunity to talk to town officials like me, if I'm elected, and say 'Here we are, what are your concerns ?'.  It gives me, a town official, time to say 'Here's what's going on.  You might be interested.'

If we have those once or twice a year to give people a chance to get involved, that communication will help pull the town together.  It will help keep the populace informed of what's going on, and the town officials connected to the general population as well.

I really think the most important thing that needs to change is getting that dialog going between a diverse group of people in the Town of Lansing and a small group of people who are the elected officials.

Lansing StarWhat else would you like voters to know about your campaign?

Joe Wetmore  I come to this community with a lot of experience in planning.  I come to it ith a lot of connections throughout the community.  And I come with a history of trying to keep the community involved in the discussions that I am a part of.  I'm very open about what's going on, and tell people, and try to relate information people I know are specifically interested in.  I want to continue doing that as a town board member.

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