Final Darien debate moves beyond Shuffle
Three candidates, three debates, one first selectman. With the Nov. 8 election lurking around the corner, candidates Chris Noe, Jayme Stevenson and John Lundeen had one final opportunity for a public debate, this time it was a press-mediated event at the library.
With the clock ticking on the Representative Town Meeting's special session to vote on the proposed facilities Shuffle this Tuesday, Nov. 1, first selectman candidates expressed what they would do should the vote pass or not.
"I don't think there's anything I can do" if the vote passes, said Noe, who is running as an Ultra Conservative.
Democratic candidate Lundeen discussed the current Republican administration's choice to pursue the Shuffle — which involves moving the Board of Education to the old library at 35 Leroy Ave., and moving the senior center to the current Board of Ed space at the town hall annex — when the previous Democratic administration under Evonne Klein had other senior center plans that were ignored when the GOP took over.
"I've made it very clear, in the course of my campaign, that I oppose the Shuffle," Lundeen said. "As my first act, I would make sure that we agree to separate the questions of the disposition of the old library building, from the question of what to do about the senior center."
The Democratic selectman candidates have been outspoken about the Shuffle, citing an inadequate cost estimation and creating an unnecessary problem by involving the Board of Ed in the plan. Republican candidate Stevenson, who is currently sitting on the Board of Selectmen, was asked what she would do should the RTM vote against the Shuffle.
"If the project doesn't pass," Stevenson said, "then my first order of business is to keep the highlight on the seniors. We will be left with a still crumbling facility at Edgerton, and it will be incumbent on me to make sure that the seniors' needs come first and foremost."
The candidates then each stated what they considered the most important capital project facing the town, aside from issues within the Shuffle. "I'm not sure that there is an obvious next capital project that the town needs," Lundeen said. "At a time when families in our community and families in our nation are experiencing something of an economic duress, it's probably not a good time to be talking about major capital projects."
Stevenson said that capital projects are always on the table, as the town has assets it needs to maintain. "Most probably, our next important capital project will be continued improvements to our drainage infrastructure."
Noe agreed, and talked about the need establish a long-term plan to fixing the flooding at Noroton Heights and other parts of town. He also said the sewer line at the pump station needs to fixed, which would cost roughly $1 million. If the line fails, "We'd be thoroughly embarrassed," Noe said, "with millions of gallons of sewage flowing down Stony Brook."
Aside from the Shuffle, "there are a lot of smaller things that we really need to be addressing," Noe said.
When asked about what plans the candidates had to make cuts in the town's operational budget, Stevenson said she would focus on "shared services" between the town and the schools.
"In order to make dramatic reductions in budgeting, you have to make cuts in personnel and benefits," she said, adding that this is a complex task that deals with unions and threatens to decrease quality of services. Stevenson also noted that the Board of Ed's budget is a large portion of town spending, and her job as first selectman is to keep the selectmen's portion of the budget "as efficient and effective as possible."
Noe joked that President Barack Obama would solve every one's problems, so the town didn't have to worry about it. Getting serious, he reaffirmed his plan to "dismantle the unions" in town. "We'll spend more money in legal, analyzing the contract and settling the contract, than all the unions are going to get, with the increases that they want," Noe said.
Setting an example of budgetary discipline to the rest of the town should be a first selectman's priority, according to Lundeen. "We can ask department heads," Lundeen began, "and the leaders of those different service groups, to think seriously about ways that they could create efficiencies, and I would propose to ask them for five and 10% reductions, and what would that really imply in your department..."
Countering his statement, Stevenson said that a "10% overall blanket reduction in budget would have an immediate and dramatically negative impact on service delivery in Darien."
Lundeen argued that she misinterpreted his statement. Noe said he understood Lundeen's point, but "we've beaten down all department heads so much, that we have to look at another way," like dismantling the unions.
The candidates were then asked what they would do to support local businesses. "Anything that the town does to private business is negative as far as I'm concerned," Noe said, adding that there are buildings left vacant because of town policies, and that the town should promote renovations. "We need to keep businesses in business," he said.
Lundeen said the town "could do more" to encourage business growth. "I think it's important that we pick up the legacy that was done in the Darien business district during the (Darien Revitalization Inc.) days, and that we try and take advantage of some of the those plans."
"We need to make sure that town hall is actively trying to be a partner," he said.
Stevenson agreed with Lundeen's assessment that the Darien Revitalization Inc. should be revisited. She also said the town's inclusionary zoning rule is a "wonderful way to incentivize local developers to develop quality mixed-use amenities for our town."
She, like Noe, urged little government involvement with local business. "I firmly believe that we need less regulation for local business," Stevenson said, "and to that end, that is why I am a strong opponent to the plastic bag ordinance. I do not want town hall to implement ordinances that place an undue financial burden on our hard-working local merchants."
Stevenson voted to approve the plastic bag ban, with only her Republican running mate for selectman, Jerry Nielsen, voting against the ordinance.
Both Noe and Stevenson said improving public parking availability could also attract more businesses to town. Stevenson also said she shops locally, and hopes that other residents do the same.
When asked about how each candidate would work across party lines for the betterment of the town, Stevenson said "we all want the same things for our local community."
"It's the way we approach solving specific issues" that is different, she said. "I have every hope that with an open communication style, and encouraging my fellow board members in being active participants in the day to day decision making, that we will in fact function as a nonpartisan group."
Noe sees himself as a referee between the two parties. "We're all going to focus and work in the same direction, because we're going to have to," he said. "Wouldn't it be so great if we could forge ahead as five people focused in the same direction, and we're going to prove to the town of Darien..."
Mid-speech, Noe's emotions became apparent as he choked up, and was consoled by Stevenson. Lundeen stepped in to comment.
"Realistically, we know that there are ultimately no party solutions," Lundeen said. "We are a small town, and we need to be able to get along together."
Lundeen then said how he and Stevenson each have daughters in the same class at the high school, and how he and Stevenson agreed to sing Christmas songs together this holiday season.
The candidates then were asked to say something nice about each other, and each one commented on various positive aspects of the other two. For Stevenson, it was her motherhood and her leadership positions in various town enterprises. For Lundeen, it was his extensive credentials, and for Noe, it was his ability to come up with a "free flow of ideas," according to Stevenson.
Commuting then became to the topic of discussion, and both Lundeen and Stevenson said that they had been commuters in the past, and were sensitive to the need for sidewalks on Hoyt Street and infrastructure repairs at the Noroton Heights train station.
Lundeen, however, was adamant something be done soon about the sidewalks. "I know it's not going to happen overnight," he said, but "they simply need help, and we really need a plan."
Stevenson said there is a plan, but as a state road, the town has a number of issues to consider, including homeowner liability regarding the sidewalks. She added that, while it's an issue worth exploring, renovating the Heights station or lengthening the platform would be a "very expensive capital project."
She said that she would like to talk with commuters to determine their needs. Lundeen said he has spoken with residents on Hoyt Street and the need for sidewalks is a primary concern.
Stevenson added that the current GOP administration has taken the sidewalk issue farther than the previous Democratic administration, bringing in the Department of Transportation and the Southwestern Regional Planning Agency to determine a course of action.
Noe said parking and sidewalks are still a problem and should be addressed.
When it comes to flooding, all candidates said a small-scale, long-term solution was needed and not temporary fixes. Noe said the Noroton Heights businesses should be condemned the next time there is a flood, or the town should buy the properties outright.
Lundeen and Stevenson advised the RTM to move forward with the establishment of the Flood & Erosion Control Board, which was recommended by the current board of selectmen to help find a permanent solution to the problem, and was part of the Milone and MacBroom report commissioned by the town to devise a town-wide strategy for flood mitigation.
As an RTM member, Noe said that RTM members were "cherry picking" elements of the Milone and MacBroom report, without considering all elements, something he considered was imprudent.
When asked about management styles, Lundeen said he is "inclusive and consensus-seeking" and that he prefers to "facilitate over a meeting, rather than preside."
Stevenson said her best quality is her ability to listen. "I encourage divergent opinion," she said. "I listen, I take the input I get, and I put it in the larger context of all of the needs of the town."
Noe said the best leadership advice he received came from former longtime Selectman Barbara Thorne, who Noe referred to as a first selectman. "I rely on the experts," he said, quoting Thorne. "She's right... Before I do anything I find somebody who is an expert to sit down and tell me how it is."