STONINGTON — Another standing-room-only crowd jammed the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center on Wednesday to watch the second debate of the Board of Selectmen candidates running in the Nov. 5 municipal election. The differing managerial styles of the four candidates were evident as they touched on subjects ranging from planning and zoning issues to police officers to a controversial lawsuit.
When asked if the town needs a director of planning, a position that has been vacant since the death of William Haase in April 2012, all four candidates agreed that the job should be filled. However, they disagreed on the reason for the vacancy. Republican Glee McAnanly, who has served as a selectman for the past four years, said the position wasn’t filled because First Selectman Edward Haberek Jr. didn’t fight hard enough for the funding. Haberek, the Democratic incumbent, blamed the Board of Finance for not restoring funding for the position when he requested it.
All candidates also said that if West Broad Street School is no longer used as an elementary school, they want it to remain a town building.
“On my watch, West Broad will not be sold,” said Democrat George Crouse, Haberek’s running mate and a two-term veteran of the board.
McAnanly suggested it might be a good opportunity for collaboration with Ledyard, which is going through a similar process with a school building. She also proposed alternatives, such as using the building as the district’s central office, or as a center for children.
“We can be creative, but we need a community conversation,” she said.
Neither first selectman candidate had a solution for the vacant storefront on Route 1 that once housed a Stop & Shop grocery store. Even though Stop & Shop moved its store to a bigger building elsewhere in Pawcatuck, it kept its lease on the old building for the past few years to prevent competition from moving into the shopping plaza. In the meantime, other merchants in that shopping plaza have said that the lack of an anchor store hurts business.
Haberek said the lease will be up in nine months and two weeks, but didn’t know what will happen next.
“It goes by what the market wants,” he said.
McAnanly’s response was “that’s what happens when you have free enterprise.” She also said she wants the empty seats on the Economic Development Commission filled.
When asked about potential conflicts of interest on the Planning and Zoning Commission, and whether or not residents with perceived anti-business attitudes should be allowed to serve, all four candidates said they hoped that conflicts would be weeded out during interviews.
“You do the best you can when you do the interview process,” said Republican William Brown, McAnanly’s running mate.
The candidates disagreed on whether or not an ethics committee should be seated before or after an ethics complaint is made. Haberek stressed the committee didn’t need to be convened until a complaint is filed. McAnanly said it should be prior to that.
“Per town charter, it needs to be established now,” she said.
The ethics question sparked a sharp exchange between Haberek and Brown, a former selectman and first selectman who served on the board for 20 years. Haberek accused Brown of ethical lapses, such as taking a campaign donation from a developer who had an application pending before the town, while Brown defended his administration. Haberek also criticized McAnanly for calling Brown her mentor.
“I pick my mentors a little differently than Glee,” Haberek said.
McAnanly responded that she has many mentors, including Democrats Don Maranell, a former first selectman, and Peter Balastracci, a former selectman. Haberek said his mentor was Jim Spellman, the town’s longest serving first selectman.
There was more criticism when McAnanly mentioned Haberek’s unilateral discussions with a developer. If she was the first selectman, she would invite the neighbors in for the discussion as well, she said.
The two sides also disagreed on the results of the town’s 2010 blight ordinance. McAnanly said it ignores the town’s many vacant mills, while Haberek touted its successes, particularly the once decrepit building on the corner of Route 1 and Mechanic Street owned by Stephen Vacca of Branford.
“I didn’t think the Vacca building would be occupied in my lifetime,” Haberek said.
Moderator David Tranchida, editor of the Westerly Sun, also asked the candidates if they felt the lawsuit against Haberek and the town, filed by resident Tracy Swain, would have an effect on the election. Swain alleges that Haberek sent her a lewd photo of himself, causing migraines and other physical problems.
“I vehemently deny the allegations,” said Haberek, adding that he didn’t believe it would affect the outcome of Tuesday’s elections.
McAnanly said she thought it might affect the election, but stressed that once the town is removed from the suit, it’s only a personal matter for Haberek.
Crouse defended his running mate. “It’s never entered into anything he’s ever done,” he said.
One question dealt with the role of the first selectman.
“Day in and day out, you never know,” Haberek responded. He described himself as a hands-on leader, who is out in the town speaking with residents and employees. “That’s how you get the pulse,” he said. “It’s not easy.”
McAnanly replied that she would also work hard, but she would do it from Town Hall. “You need to be in Town Hall,” she said.
Both first selectman candidates said the town needed more police officers.
In her closing statement, McAnanly mentioned accountability, collaboration, conversations, and transparency. “Public service is public trust,” she said.
Brown mentioned his 20 years in office, and said he was willing to run again because he “felt it was really important that we make a change in Town Hall.”
Haberek noted a number of projects that he finished during his six years in office, and was critical of McAnanly’s repeated mention that the town needs a 10-year strategic plan.
“My opponent talks about a plan. What is that plan?” he asked.
Like Haberek, Crouse also pointed out the work that’s been done.
“I’m here for Stonington,” he said. “Keep us in office for a better Stonington.”