PAWLET — Several candidates for the Select Board are running for multiple seats — an unusual situation in an already heated contest.
The two one-year seats are being sought by Daniel Banyai, Martin Kravitt, Estella Leach, John Malcolm and Jessica Van Oort.
The three-year seat is being sought by Banyai, Kravitt, Leach, Maureen Brown and Richard Hulett.
Town Clerk Deb Hawkins said in the race for the one-year seats, the two with the most votes will get a seat. Should a candidate win a one-year seat and a three-year seat, they’ll have to pick one. The seat they decline will not automatically go to the candidate with the next highest votes, rather the board will have to appoint someone to fill the vacancy.
Banyai said he’s from Hyde Park, New York, and came to Pawlet for some “peace and serenity.” He opened his business, Slate Ridge, in 2016 and teaches firearms safety and related skills there.
“Basically, I am currently a firearms instructor, and I like to teach people firearms safety, firearms maintenance and general firearms knowledge,” he said.
Banyai’s relationship with town officials and his neighbors has made headlines in Vermont media in recent months. VTDigger reported on Jan. 21 that an environmental court judge ordered a preliminary injunction against Banyai, ordering him to temporarily cease his operation at his Briar Hill Road location. The town is saying that Banyai has operated his facility without the necessary permits, which he denies. On Jan. 19, VTDigger also reported that a Rutland Superior Court judge granted an order of protection for Mandy Hulett against Banyai, based on accusations of threatening posts made toward the Huletts on the Slate Ridge Facebook page.
Mandy Hulett is the wife of Richard Hulett.
“I’m running a campaign of trying to end favoritism, nepotism and corruption,” Banyai said. He claimed the town is racist, anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ. He said too many members of the same family hold town government positions and if elected, he would seek to have town officials removed from office, specifically the treasurer, and would use his access to town records to trigger federal investigations.
Brown and Van Oort are running as a team.
Brown has lived in Pawlet since 2006, and is raising three children on her own, she said.
“I really want there to be representation, and for people who often feel invisible to be heard,” she said. “I am really interested in a lot of community engagement, and I’ve been taking some online workshops and learning a lot of that,” she said.
She grew up in Maine, and in the warmer months runs a perennial gardening business.
“I’ve been doing some advocacy work and some volunteering with the Rutland Area NAACP,” she said, adding that she’s pushed the local school district to create a social justice program. She’d like to see the town make housing more affordable.
Van Oort said she grew up in rural Wisconsin and has lived in several states, having come to Vermont three years ago.
“Here In Vermont, my wife and I purchased our very first home and, we intend it to be our last home if it’s at all possible,” she said.
She was a professor at a small Catholic University in Oklahoma until it abruptly closed. She and her wife run The Five Wits Wigs, which makes costume wigs primarily for the cosplay and convention communities. They also have a handmade, blended-tea business that sells at the Dorset Farmers’ Market.
“I got politically activated about four years ago, like a lot of other women, and I’ve been involved with women’s marches, and when I lived down in Oklahoma I was involved in some marches against the Dakota Access Pipeline,” she said.
She joined 350Vermont, a climate change group, when she came to the state. She joined the Pawlet Planning Commission this summer and serves as its chair. She shared Brown’s goals of having more representation and equity in the town, and more affordable housing. She said she believes much progress could be made with the latter through a few simple, inexpensive zoning bylaw changes.
Hulett said he was born and raised in Pawlet and runs Deer Flats Farm, a maple sugaring and trucking business. He’s been on his dairy farm since 1960. Finding good help and being able to diversify has led him to remain in the dairy business.
“I think it’s important that the town of Pawlet has a board that will listen to their voices, investigate requests on their behalf, seek advice and act in response to each individual in a timely manner,” he said, adding that he wants to see a Select Board with defined goals that will listen to both sides of a debate and not make hasty decisions. Also, he wants a commitment to following the zoning bylaws.
He’s wanted to run for many years, but said he never had the time. He said he feels that he’s now established enough to devote the time needed for the Select Board. He said he believes the skills he’s learned as a dairy farmer, being able to manage complex changes and work with people, will make him a good choice.
Kravitt is a licensed architect who’s been in Pawlet since 1977. He built his own house there in 1997. He owns Martin Kravitt Architects and Planners and has done commercial, municipal and private residential work in the area since the 1990s. He’s done work on the local library and said his projects have won several awards.
“I’m used to the area. I’ve been involved with the town for quite some time. I follow town business, and so suddenly I’ve decided to run for office,” he said.
His reasons for running, he said, can be summed up in one word, “accountability.”
“I’ve just had a feeling, sitting in town board meetings and watching decisions being had, that there needs to be a return to sound management principles in the town,” he said.” I know that sounds very political and everybody says it, but I think there have been an awful lot of questions about how decisions are made in the town, how resources are allocated, monies are spent and there’s not a great deal of clarity to the public about how these decisions are made or where the resources are going.”
He said he’s concerned about rising taxes, the coronavirus pandemic, and wants the town to be run in a more efficient and transparent manner. He’s a library trustee and feels that his professional life has given him an understanding of how to work on a public board. “I want to see something that approaches professional management,” he said. “I don’t think that’s unreasonable. I know that in a small town you have a small pool of people to run for offices, but the people who are put on a town board and put in a position of responsibility should have skill sets that are commensurate with the role, and I happen to feel that I have those skill sets.”
Malcolm is the only incumbent in the race, having served three one-year terms so far.
He was born in Pennsylvania, but has spent the bulk of his life on dairy farms in Pawlet. He came to town after graduation from Williams College, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, just across the southern Vermont state line. He said he was thinking about attending veterinary school, but wanted a more outdoor-oriented life. After working on a few local dairy farms, he started his own on some land his family owned.
“I’ve been on this same road for 50 years, on Rupert Mountain,” he said. “I had a dairy farm, I still live there, I worked that for many years and am proud of my accomplishments. I got awards for land conservation and milk production, had the highest milk production per cow one year in the state,” he said.
Malcolm was Dairy Farmer of the Year at one point, he said. He left dairying 15 years ago after getting hip surgery. He said he still cuts hay and sells to locals. He served on the board of directors for the Agri-Mark Family Dairy Farms co-op and was tapped for some publicity work. He also represented Pawlet’s district in the House between 2005 and 2015, serving on the House Committee on Agriculture and later the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy. Beside his 3 years as a selectman, he’s been on the town’s Board of Civil Authority and a justice of the peace.
“I think I bring mostly experience,” he said. “I have a short-term and a long-term view of things — I can provide that.”
He and his fellow board members have managed several changes in town, namely the move away from elected listers to hired professionals and the hiring of an outside firm to manage the town’s wastewater.
Leach did not return multiple calls seeking an interview.