Watertown News reached out to candidates running for Councilor At-Large in the Watertown Election on Nov. 7, 2017 and asked them the same six questions. Here are the responses for Michelle Cokonougher:
1) Tell us about yourself, and why you are running for Councilor At-Large.
I’m originally from Boston and I’ve lived in Watertown now for a little over 7.5 years. I’ve been involved in Watertown’s government for about two years, attending over 200 meetings. I have really enjoyed participating in Watertown’s Government and creating connections with many of the residents. I’ve spent a lot of my time in the Town Hall over the past two years; most weeks I will have attended two or three meetings. I have gained a lot of knowledge about issues facing Watertown at these meetings and also through talks with residents. In addition to attending town meetings, I’ve done a significant amount of research on many of the issues facing Watertown. I have regularly shared my research with some of the current Town Councillors and they have put that research to good use. I’ve also spoken at meetings, asking pertinent questions and sharing my ideas and concerns.
The Town Council is a nine member council and it is the culmination of the thoughts, actions, and responsiveness of those nine members. I know that I will add value to the Town Council and that it is a position where I can effect some real change. I am ready for and look forward to the challenges of being one of your next Town Councillors.
2) A common thing to hear around Watertown is that it is getting more expensive, and more difficult for people who already live here to stay in town. What would you do to try to help people remain in Watertown?
One solution would be increasing the Residential Tax Exemption. Another would be increasing the Affordable Housing Requirement. Right now we require a 15% set aside and we should think about increasing that number. Of the required 15% set aside, 10% is calculated at 80% of the Area-Wide Median Income and the other 5% is calculated at 65% of the Area-Wide Median Income. I would like to see a greater percentage calculated at 65% of the Area Median Income.
We also have to consider ways in which can cut household expenses for residents. One of those expenses is the cost of transportation. Driving your car to and from work, dropping off and picking up kids from school, and running errands, such as going to the grocery store can all add up very quickly when it comes to the cost of gas and repairs from the wear and tear on automobiles. I’m not asking anyone to give up their car, but I know that people would use Public Transportation more often, if it were improved. We need to keep demanding more from the Public Transit System.
This past May the Developers of the Arsenal Yards put in a request to the Town for a cap on their property taxes. The Arsenal Yards development is going to be increasing costs to the town significantly and in order to offset the additional costs this development will bring, we need the increased taxes; otherwise, those costs will be shifted to and will create a burden on residents. I would not vote to cap the taxes for the Arsenal Yards Developers.
These are just some of the ways in which we can try to help people remain in Watertown. I will continue to look for new solutions to solve this problem. Other cities and towns have faced and are now facing this same issue. I will be looking into what solutions other cities and towns have come up with to deal with this issue.
3) Development has been a big issue the past few years. How would you like to see the Town handle new proposals for major building projects?
One of the things I would really like to see happen is that we require new development proposals to have Impact Analysis Reports completed, before any decisions are made. These reports would tell us what the potential increased costs will be to public safety, DPW, schools, other general government expenses, and any other additional public services. With more information, we can certainly make better decisions.
We also need to be more cognizant of the effects major building projects have on the surrounding neighborhoods and we should be listening to the concerns of the residents in those neighborhoods that are undoubtedly impacted by large developments.
4) As a Councilor, how would you communicate with residents to find out their needs and concerns?
I would hold as many office hours as possible to meet with residents in person to discuss issues. I would offer to arrange meetings or phone calls with individuals and groups. I would make every effort to respond to emails in a timely manner and send out updates to residents on critical issues. I would also encourage residents to attend town meetings on issues of concern to them. Conducting online surveys is another way in which I could gain some knowledge of the needs and concerns of residents.
5) Do you support making changes to the Town Home Rule Charter that spells out how Watertown’s government operates? If so what changes would you make?
Yes, I would support making changes to the Town Home Rule Charter. I think there are a number of things that should be considered and discussed thoroughly. One thing that is on the minds of many is whether Watertown should have a Mayor; we should definitely start a discussion on whether this should happen. Other things to consider are the size of our boards and the size of the Town Council. Watertown’s population is growing and we need to discuss whether that population is being fully represented with the Government as it is now. I would favor increasing the number of members to our Planning Board, Zoning Board, and the Town Council. There are many other aspects of the Town Home Rule Charter that should also be reviewed and discussed for potential changes.
6) What will be the next big issue in Watertown that is not yet on the front burner?
I really feel that a number of the issues Watertown is now facing will be holding the position of “front burner” for a very long time. That being said, one thing that we are going to have to soon deal with is how to best coordinate the large number of projects that will be taking place in Watertown over the next several years. We have the renovations of all three of our elementary schools and potentially the High School. There are also a number of roadway reconstruction projects about to take place. And of course, there are more developments being built. People’s lives are going to be disrupted significantly by all these changes, but if we don’t have a good plan in place as to how all of these changes will be coordinated, their lives will be impacted more than they have to be.