Darien candidates debate local control, flooding and trees

Photo of Erin Kayata
Those running for first selectman in town were among the offices included in the Darien League of Women Voters' candidates' night on Oct. 5, 2021.

Those running for first selectman in town were among the offices included in the Darien League of Women Voters' candidates' night on Oct. 5, 2021.

Darien TV79 and the Darien LWV / Contributed photo

DARIEN — Residents got a chance to hear from candidates in next month’s local elections, including three candidates vying for first selectman.

Democratic candidate Tara Ochman, Republican candidate Monica McNally and petitioning candidate Chris Noe all took the stage to discuss everything from how to protect the town from flooding and climate change to how to approach planning and zoning in the face of potential changes at the statewide level.

Jean Rabinow, debate moderator and membership chair of the League of Women Voters of the Bridgeport Area, asked the three candidates what the town should do about flooding, preserving greenery, Pear Tree Point Beach, and maintaining local zoning control.

Ochman pointed to her five years on the Board of Education as an example of how she could lead on a town level and emphasized the importance of a plan to map out where and how the town can spend on capital projects which would help with projects like Pear Tree Point Beach. She also advocated for the town taking zoning into their own hands to set an example, saying she went to Hartford to speak out against other Democrats’ proposals to have the state take control of local issues, such as school regionalization.

“I hear my opponent talking about what was and what failed and not what could be,” she said. “I think that’s where we need to focus ... Darien’s future needs energy, enthusiasm and pragmatic open mindedness focused on results-based solutions. We face challenges gone unaddressed for years and we have an opportunity to plan for our future with fresh ideas, forward thinking and meaningful solutions.”

Meanwhile, McNally pointed to her experience in the nonprofit, private and government sectors, including eight years on the RTM and a recent appointment to the Board of Selectmen as equipping her for the top job. She said her focus is helping Darien stay the course while maintaining local control, especially given how developed the town already is and the struggle to balance growth with the need for open space.

“Hartford yearns to take hold of Darien’s destiny and I promise to work tirelessly to preserve local control and decision making,” she said. “I’ve spoken with many residents. I know most of you want Darien to grow and prosper in ways we can all share. I also know most of us do not want Darien to lurch left or veer right...I want to keep the Darien dream alive.”

Noe, now on his seventh race for first selectman, said he spent four years on the RTM calling out problems in town. His insights fell on “deaf ears” which is why he’s continuing to pursue office.

“I don’t have party support but I do have ideas on what needs to be done and how to do it,” he said. “I learned a lot on how the town works and doesn’t work. Right now it has a lot of things that don’t work and I don’t see them getting repairs so I continue to run...someone has to do it and it’s just not getting done.”

On the issue of flooding, which has affected the town heavily in light of recent storms, McNally advocated for working with landowners to improve impediments, widening channels, and increasing waterway capacities while Ochman suggested soliciting feedback from those most affected, advocating for more infrastructure funding from the state and federal government, and doing an updated flood plan.

Noe said his own home was flooded recently and while the town has tried to address this before, nothing’s happened.

Ochman and McNally also said they were both in favor of working to regenerate and preserve trees in town, something that’s also become an issue due to the outages Darien’s greenery has caused in recent storms. Ochman suggested updating plans to help figure out where trees can be added without power line interference whereas Noe advocated for “free rein,” claiming town officials have ordered invasive species to be planted in the past.

“The stupidity is deep in this town,” he said. “So I think we should allow owners to plant whatever trees they like.”

First selectman candidates were also asked about whether town boards should have to obtain financial data from each other via Freedom Of Information Act requests, something Noe and McNally were against and Ochman said was “a great resource.”

“We have to be very, very careful,” Ochman said. “We’ve received legal council advice. This is the proper way to do things. FOI requests aren’t adversarial at all.”

The issue came up again as a point of contention doing the selectman’s portion of the debate where Democrats Michael J. Burke and Sarah Neumann and Republicans Marcy Minnick and Jon Zagrodzky faced off. Candidates mostly agreed on taking a holistic approach to the flooding problem, the tree plan, and keeping the four-day work week at town hall when asked about these topics. But Zagrodzky also used his time to mention that when he was on the Board of Finance, they requested information from the Board of Education, which Ochman was on at the time, and had their request denied until a town attorney said the BOE was required to turn the information over.

“The reality is we’re all elected officials working in the same town,” he said. “The idea we had to go through that much time and effort...is simply outrageous. When Ms. Ochman talks about transparency, I can tell you...in that particular capacity it was not transparent.”

Burke, who also previously served on the Board of Education, objected to the comment.

“The BOE is the most transparent in this town,” he said. “All our meetings are in public. Every single cent spent, every dollar proposed is vetted and discussed in public long before it gets to (The Board of Selectmen). I feel his remarks were tailored to attack our candidate.”

The school board candidates also debated Tuesday night, sharing their positions on masks in schools, vaccine mandates, and parental involvement in curriculum, all hot-button topics over the last year. While state orders require masks in schools until at least next February, candidates said they’d be open to making a different decision based on medical advice come that time.

This story has been updated to correct that Ochman went to Hartford to oppose school regionalization.