FRANKLIN — Franklin voters chose Ward 1 City Councilor Jo Brown as the city’s new mayor over interim mayor Olivia Zink and narrowly elected former councilor Vincent Ribas to a Ward 2 council seat over current City Councilor Karen Testerman.
Voters who turned out on Tuesday expressed hope for an upward trajectory for Franklin, signaled by the construction of Mill City Park, a whitewater park that could mark a turning point for the city that has continued to struggle economically decades after mill closures.
Brown, a former Air Force officer and owner of the nonprofit Franklin Cafe, has been a proponent of the city’s revitalization, including pushing for the new water park.
She received 498 votes on Tuesday, and Zink, who had served as interim mayor after former mayor Tony Giunta stepped down in January, received 378 votes. There were four write-in votes.
Ribas eked out a win against Testerman for the Ward 2 council seat, winning 116 votes to Testerman’s 113.
A total of 887 ballots were cast in the municipal election, a low voter turnout of 5 percent in each of Franklin’s three wards.
Issues at stake in the contested city council race included the future of the city’s redevelopment and how to balance spending priorities when it comes to managing the municipality’s limited tax dollars.
In Franklin, tax increases are capped and questions of funding for services loom large — especially when it comes to education.
In 2018, the school district was forced to lay off 14 teachers after a $813,832 budget shortfall. The City Council voted to break the tax cap to give $708,623 more to schools but subsequently reversed that decision.
Ribas, a 33-year resident of Franklin, was a city councilor between 2016 and 2019. He said he was excited about Franklin’s recent progress, but wanted to shape the future trajectory of the city.
“Development is good, but you want it to be positive development,” Ribas said. “One of my concerns is if the water park kicks off, which I believe it will do and hope it will do, iI think traffic and parking are going to be a big issue.”
Ribas and Testerman differed on spending. Ribas insisted that altering the tax cap was not at issue in this election, and said he would consider finding new ways to fund Franklin schools.
“I’m definitely more amenable to considering alternative revenues than my opponent,” Ribas said. “The school system has been consistently underfunded.”
Meanwhile, Testerman was concerned about past attempts to break the tax cap, saying that increases in taxes could harm the city’s senior citizens and blue-collar workers.
She was less eager to find more money for schools, citing an increase in education federal funds due to the pandemic, and hoped that spending could go instead towards updating police and fire department dispatch equipment. “In that respect, I’d like to see the schools help us a little bit,” Testerman said.
As Franklin residents trickled in to vote on Tuesday, excitement about the new whitewater park and the business it could bring in was matched with questions about how new development will impact the city’s character.
“I like the town but it’s just so ghostly,” Eileen Lynch said outside Franklin City Hall, the polling place for Ward 2 residents.
Lynch has lived in Franklin for 16 years with her husband, a two-time war veteran, and she wishes the town would do more to honor former U.S. soldiers. Other towns put out flags on holidays like Memorial Day and Veterans Day, she said, and Franklin should do the same.
Lynch said she was concerned about rising taxes, and she complained about the noisy construction trucks associated with the whitewater park driving up and down her street. She said she voted for “a new mayor” with that those concerns in mind.
“The town needs a lot of work,” Lynch said.
Kathy Haines at the Elks Lodge in Ward 1 said she voted for Brown for mayor because of her work to improve Franklin, including making the waterpark a reality.
“She’s been very active in that whole thing,” Haines said. “It’s been a positive change, drawing people to town.”
Franklin School Board seats were also on the ballot on Tuesday.
Deborah Brown was re-elected to school board for her third term representing Ward 3 with 199 votes over challenger James Chaisson, who received 100 votes.
In Ward 2, where there were no school board candidates on the ballot, write-in candidate Sam McLaughlin won the position with 23 votes, beating another write-in candidate, Laurie Cass, who received 11. Delaney Carrier, also unopposed, will be representing Ward 1 on the School Board after winning 230 votes.
Other voters at the polls had broader concerns about the role of government in Franklin schools.
Justine Koch, voting in Ward 3 at Franklin Middle School, said she was most concerned about government overreach, specifically what she sees as too much interference in parents’ ability to make choices for their kids.
“I’m really against that, they should mind their own business and try to do the laws they were put in power to do instead of fighting back and forth with each other and do nothing for the country,” Koch said. She voted for Chaisson for school board.
Rita Keefe, who also voted for Chaisson in Ward 3, said preventing governmental overreach and emphasizing the Pledge of Allegiance in schools were foremost in her mind in this election.
“I just think the government’s got too much of a say, and the people of the town should be heard,” Keefe said.
She said she was disappointed in a lack of emphasis on patriotism in schools.
“That’s probably the greatest loss in the country, that the children aren’t taught to love our flag and love the country,” she said. Keefe also said she opposed people protesting the police and marching in the streets.
In Ward 1, George Dzujna, who was running unopposed, was elected Ward 1 Councilor by 252 votes. Valerie Blake was elected city councilor in Ward 3 with 278 votes.
Franklin voters also approved a revision to the city charter governing mayoral vacancies. The change clarified that a city councilor chosen as interim mayor will serve until the next scheduled city election. The interim mayor retains a vote on the council but is not allowed to break a tie or veto council actions.