Who will be Saranac Lake’s new mayor?
SARANAC LAKE — Two candidates have thrown their hats into the ring to run for Saranac Lake mayor so far — current board member and deputy mayor Melinda Little and Franklin County Industrial Development Agency CEO Jeremy Evans.
The candidates have a lot in common. They both moved to Saranac Lake a number of years ago, fell in love and made it their home; both see the village at a “crossroads” which needs to be navigated carefully to head in the best direction; both are highly involved volunteers who spend their free time studying community issues; both are members of the village’s Housing Work Group; both see housing as one of their key issues; both want to revamp the way the village interacts with the public; and both admit it’s a little crazy to want to run for mayor right now.
They have different past experiences, views of the current village government and approaches to what being a mayor means.
The election is March 15.
Little said she’s been thinking about running for a year. She wants to finish what she’s started and believes that leading the village will allow her to see these projects through.
By running for mayor, she’s leaving an opportunity to run for reelection to the village board. If she isn’t elected mayor she’ll have to leave village government. Little was asked what makes her want to take that risk.
“Because I think that I can be effective as a leader,” she said. “This is going to sound really sappy, but I really, genuinely love this community.
“At this time in Saranac Lake’s history and evolution, I think a different style is needed, and I think my style is well suited for it,” she said.
Last summer, Village Mayor Clyde Rabideau announced he would not run for reelection to the seat.
“I think Clyde has done a lot of really good things for the village. He’s been a great cheerleader,” Little said. “My style is a bit more low-key and in the background, but I also am pretty good at bringing groups of people together.”
She said she’d like to work with Harrietstown more.
“I think I’m more inclusive by nature than the existing mayor … I think I am more open to being open,” she said.
She was asked about people wanting to see “fresh faces” on the board. Little said she’s been there for one term — not forever — but long enough for her to grow.
“Don’t discount experience,” she said.
As a potential mayor, Little said she’d like to focus on filling up downtown’s empty storefronts, increasing housing and making the village’s various advisory boards more inclusive in terms of race and cultural background.
Little said housing is a “top priority” for her. She’s been the head of the village Housing Work Group for several years now. This group’s Housing Plan, a large research and solution-gathering effort, was approved by the village last week.
She feels action is urgent.
Evans said it’s an exciting time to live in Saranac Lake, but also a crucial time. As the village grows, he said its attractive image comes with costs.
He said people are worried that the attention and growth could jeopardize their sense of community. They’re facing a lack of affordable housing, good jobs and want more businesses that provide what they need at prices they can afford.
“They worry that they’ll be left behind, that the growth won’t benefit them,” Evans said.
They’ve got every right to be worried about this, he said.
“The landscape is littered with communities who have had a certain way of life for a long time and then something happens that triggers growth, and then that’s lost,” he said.
Some communities have missed opportunities and others have let a good thing overtake them. Striking the balance is difficult, he said, but growth needs to benefit the people who made this village the vacation hub it is.
The village board and the mayor set the tone, he said — positive or negative.
“I think I can be useful,” Evans said.
Evans believes he can bring “empathy” to the job.
“Having the patience to listen and understand where people are coming from, and not just cast them off as naysayers who don’t want any change,” he said.
Evans said the village should make sure the Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant projects funded through a $10 million state grant provide the transformation they promise.
Evans has worked for the village before. Spending nine years as its community development director was a “dream job,” he said.
In that job, he saw shimmering dreams and harsh reality.
He watched large economic and community development projects come to fruition and met people who were “struggling immensely” with life’s challenges. He remembers meeting an elderly woman who was heating her apartment with her stove because her landlord hadn’t fixed her heat.
These meetings would snap him “back to reality,” he said.
He wondered if the great things the village was doing was helping people like in these situations.
He said the village can’t solve the national and global problems that impact Saranac Lake — housing, climate change and poverty — but their local impacts are not out of the village’s control.
“Almost every issue that communities face have been faced by other communities,” Evans said.
The village has to investigate how they’ve handled these issues, he said, but not take too long.
“Act boldly,” he said. “We can’t study these things for 10 years. We don’t have 10 years.”
Little said she’s “very concerned” about vacation rentals.
“In the past week, I received an email from a couple and their kids who are scared to death about having to leave their long-term rental because their landlord wants to turn it into a short-term rental,” she said.
She supports a registry for STRs in the village, with rules regulating operations at these locations to maintain neighborhoods.
“They’ve encroached into our neighborhoods,” Little said. “I’m all for free enterprise, (but) … I think that there is a distinction between people who are doing it to make a little money on the side to survive … versus people who are doing this commercially.”
She wants to prioritize people renting rooms on-site, not people converting apartments into investment properties.
“Short-term rentals have the ability to bring a lot of good to the community, but they can also bring a lot of cost,” Evans said.
He said he applauds the village community for having a “proactive” discussion on STRs before there’s a problem. He said he is against a ban on vacation rentals, but said reasonable regulations are needed to keep their impact positive.
He also said that there are neighborhood concerns about long-term rentals, too. He said he’d like the village to be more “corrective” and amend its codes to address these concerns.
Little said the village’s police reform report was the “envy” of the local area last year, but that the village’s police interface committee has more work to do.
She wants to make police “more accessible and less intimidating,” and feels communication is the best way.
“There are folks who feel very intimidated by police in their uniforms and weapons,” Little said. “I think trying to find opportunities for more casual interaction is important.”
The village is currently looking to hire a new police chief, and has been for many months. After interim Chief Leigh Wenske retired last month, the village has appointed a sergeant and village Manager John Sweeney to take on administrative control of the department until a hire can be made. Evans said this points to “a department in crisis.”
“How did we get to this point?” he wrote on his campaign Facebook page. “How is it possible that a department that accounts for almost 29% of the village budget is in such disarray?”
Little said she believes this problem is more caused by the salary and housing issues with bringing new hires here.
Evans said Saranac Lakers are more engaged than the average community, and he loves that. He said people want to know how decisions are made, see the data and they want to learn.
He is proposing that the village publish budgets, plans and financial data online and regularly review laws and policies.
Little said she’s heard criticisms of the board and wants to increase communication, too.
“It’s good to be pushed. As much as we all hate it, it’s good, because then we get better,” Little said. “I think a lot of it, and this is just life in general, boils down to communication.”
She would like to start asking village department heads to attend board meetings and give reports each meeting to “put a face to the name.”
Evans was asked if his job at the IDA would ever put him in a weird position as mayor and if he’d have to recuse himself from potential votes the village takes on IDA grants.
“I would never say it’s not possible,” he said. “But, I’m not worried about it.”
He said the IDA has review systems to avoid conflicts of interest. He also sees his job as an asset.
“I know the game and the system. I know the people,” he said.
Evans is village Trustee Kelly Brunette’s supervisor at the IDA. Brunette is running for reelection in the election. Evans was asked if their working together conflicts with his push for village transparency.
“If you know us, it’d be pretty disingenuous to say that somehow us working together would somehow unduly influence one or the other,” Evans said. “If they really knew either of us they’d know how much time we put in to thinking about the village off-hours.”
He said Brunette is an “independent thinker.”
Caucuses and petition deadlines
Evans had been registered as a Republican up until Nov. 14, when he changed his registration to be independent of any party. He said he’d been thinking about doing this for a while, and as he entered his campaign, he liked the idea of running as an independent.
Evans said he wants to be focused on village issues, not on state or national debates the two major parties are engaged in.
It was also a strategic move. He said some people just vote by party affiliation and he wants their votes.
The Republican caucus will be held on Jan. 24 at 6 p.m. at Say Real Estate, 87 River St.
The Democratic caucus will be held on Jan. 25 at 6 p.m. at the North Country Community College Sparks Athletic Complex gym.
The deadline for independent candidates to submit petitions is Feb. 8.