NORTH STONINGTON — Economic development was the phrase of the night for both voters and candidates at Wednesday’s Meet the Candidates Night at the Wheeler Library.
The event included time for more than 50 residents to speak with all those seeking a board or commission position in November, as well as a one-hour debate among the Board of Selectmen candidates.
The debate, based on questions submitted beforehand by residents, highlighted the town’s economy as the top priority. With the town’s conservation plan redeveloped this year in accordance with Connecticut law, the complex issue of balancing the need for economic growth with preserving what many refer to as the town’s “rural character” was once again front and center in the wider discussion.
All five Board of Selectmen candidates voiced support for the plan.
Nick Mullane, the incumbent first selectman, described the plan as “the most important document in 10 years,” referring to the fact that it was previously updated in 2003. The next step, according to Mullane, is to develop the economy without compromising the conservation efforts outlined in the plan.
Mullane’s running mate and selectmen candidate Brett Mastroianni said the input from residents in creating the new plan is what will make it a success. “It’s about working together, not just shoving our ideas down people’s throats,” he said.
While challenger Robert Testa and his running mate Tim Pelland also praised the plan, Testa added that the focus on the town’s natural beauty must be balanced with economic development. Throughout the debate, Testa emphasized “affordability,” explaining the importance of reducing the property tax burden and ensuring that residents are not forced to leave based on the high costs of housing and other services.
One of the questions referred to local state Rep. Diana Urban’s push for “results-based accountability” in government (Urban works as a consultant for a Maryland-based firm that sells leadership programs and services based on this concept).
Testa came out with strong support. “I believe there should always be an evaluation of our operational practices,” he said.
Mullane responded: “Do I support it? No, we practice it.”
In terms of the types of businesses the town should attract, the candidates agreed that a mix of retail, light manufacturing and industry was essential.
Testa and Pelland both proposed focusing on filling the vacant buildings already in town before finding new locations for businesses to settle.
Testa also said that changing the attitude of the town toward new business was key. “It’s no secret, we’re not a business-friendly town,” he said, prompting rebuttals from Mullane and Mastroianni.
As vice chairman of the Economic Development Commission, Mastroianni said he and the other commission members have been working hard to improve the business climate. “To say that is a slap in the face to the Economic Development Commission,” he said.
Mullane reminded Testa that his beliefs and actions as an individual would be ineffective without the help of the town’s other boards and commissions.
“The one thing that will sell this town is teamwork,” he said. “It’s only through teamwork with all the boards and commissions that we can make this town the best for people to live and work in.”
“How’s that all working out for us?” Testa responded, citing the example of a local McDonald’s restaurant that was closed and leveled. “We’re regressing as a community. You can’t tell me we’re better off now than we were 10 years ago.”
The incumbent Selectman Mark Donahue, the only Democrat in the debate, offered some number-crunching on the effects of economic development. “At some point, we’re going to have to make some decisions about the level of services we offer,” he said. According to Donahue, the town would need to double its commercial development to provide a 10 percent reduction in taxes for residents.
“We’re not going to really grow the tax base through just commercial development,” he said.
Other topics covered in the debate included the idea of term limits for municipal offices.
The question was originally directed toward Mullane, who has served 14 terms as first selectman, but the other candidates weighed in as well.
Mullane credited the lack of interest in his position as the reason for his lengthy time in office.
“We don’t have faith in some of the other candidates,” he said. “I believe I’m experienced, capable and I haven’t caused the town any problems.”
Mullane, Mastroianni and Donahue said term limits were unnecessary, but Testa and Pelland expressed interest in the idea.
“We all have a shelf life,” Testa said.
For Bob Boissevain, North Stonington resident and former member of the Economic Development Commission, the focus of the debate matched his concerns for the town.
“My biggest thing right now is a good economic development program for the town,” he said.
Ed Scarchilli said he was concerned about the town’s property values and how to pay for infrastructure projects without hurting taxpayers.
Scarchilli, a former school board member, said he thought Testa did well in the debate and remains his pick for the town’s top office.
“I’ve lived here 13 years and am still seeing the same questions being asked,” he said. “Nothing’s changed. I’m open and ready for that change.”
While resident Andrew Slitt agreed with Testa that losing the McDonald’s was representative of poor foresight in terms of economic development, he said the debate influenced him more in choosing which candidates not to vote for than who he most supported.
“I’m disappointed there aren’t more people running,” he said. Since most town government positions are unpaid and time-consuming, Slitt said the most talented people might be deterred from running.
Slitt also expressed disappointment with the responses in the debate. “I don’t think there was a lot of in-depth policy or planning ideas in their responses,” he said. “There seemed to be a lot of catch phrases, not a lot of substance. In that way, it’s really no different than a national election.”
Town residents Kerri Perez and Heather Rudd said they were also dissatisfied with the debate because of its focus on economic issues.
“It’s definitely a very important issue,” said Perez. “But I think there was too much an economic development. I wanted to see a broader range of issues.”
Specifically, Perez and Rudd, both mothers, said they were interested in improving and increasing services for youth in the town.
Urban said she was pleased by the attendance at the event.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a big turnout,” she said, describing it as “gratifying” and an indication of the competitive nature of the races this year.
The debate was moderated by Judy Dolphin, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Connecticut, one of the sponsors. Other event sponsors included the Informed Citizens of North Stonington (ICONS), the Wheeler Library and The Day.