Public comment, Pear Tree among topics at Candidates Night
Whether or not public comment should be allowed at public meetings was one of the hot questions of the evening at Wednesday’s annual League of Women Voters Candidates Night.
The yes or no question was addressed to candidates for first selectman, selectmen, and Board of Education. Everyone who was asked the question was in support of public comment with the exception of Board of Education candidate John Sini who answered, “Maybe. There are certain meetings that don’t require it.”
Candidates Night, which lasted two hours, was moderated by Jean Rabinow, director of outreach for the League of Women Voters of Connecticut.
Candidates for the Board of Finance and the Planning and Zoning Commission also spoke at the event, which was held at Town Hall.
Allowing public comment was on the tops of minds, perhaps since it was the topic addressed in a Darien Times’ editorial that focused on last week’s Parks & Recreation meeting where public comment was not allowed.
Pear Tree Point Beach renovations
The issue on which many members of the public had wanted to comment pertained to another current issue in town — the proposed $2.5 million renovation project at Pear Tree Point Beach. Hundreds of residents have expressed strong opposition to this project.
At Candidates Night, when asked if the project should go forward, First Selectman Jayme Stevenson disagreed with her opponent, Chris Noe.
Stevenson said the “process needs to go forward” before she can make a fully informed decision on it, and added that the process is in its “beginning phases.”
By the time it comes back to the Board of Selectmen, she said they will have all the “necessary information to make a well-informed, fact-based decision on whether it’s a project that will be supported by our town residents.”
Noe, however, said that the project is currently in its final stages, and also said he would “throw out” most of the plan, right now.
He further said the plan “clearly was drawn by someone who has no knowledge of the beach because that parking lot does fill up frequently, and to lose 45 spaces is insane.”
Four-day work week
Stevenson and Noe also clashed on the question about a four-day work week for town government offices.
Noe was adamantly opposed to the idea, saying it shouldn’t have ever been considered at all.
One of his reasons was if residents need town business taken care of, “if you don’t get it done by Thursday, it’s going to be four more days.”
“You have to kill it,” he added, in regard to the idea for a shortened week.
Stevenson said town administrators had only inquired if there is a “flexible schedule opportunity that would benefit town residents,” as opposed to officially considering a shorter week.
She further said many residents work long hours or commute long distances and “it’s difficult for them to come back and take care of their town business during the typical 8:30 to 4:30 Town Hall day.”
She added that any change that would be made to Town Hall hours would be made with residents “as its highest priority.”
In regard to addressing town safety, Stevenson said the town strives to have “the very best” in its law enforcement personnel. She mentioned that the town fully funds its three volunteer fire departments.
She brought up school and pedestrian safety measures, including adding new sidewalks and an ongoing bicycle plan that will build “safe bike routes between our town and New Canaan.”
While Noe agreed with Stevenson that Darien is very safe, he said the town has “problems” in this regard and brought up the topic of rape.
He said a jogger was raped as well as two of his girlfriends.
“Rape happens in this town,” he said. “You have to be careful. All of us have to be careful about where we are at all times and it’s not that we are immune to this.”
Board of Education practices
The recent issues of contention within town boards’ transparency practices were brought up by a question regarding whether or not the Board of Education has become partisan. The Board of Education election is not contested.
Board of Education member Jill McCammon said there are “favors” within the board. “You see that in how the different people who sit up at the table, in how they talk and how they position themselves,” she said.
She added that the board has more work to do on how to work better together. “We need to be on the same page about what it means to run a healthy board,” she said.
Board of Education Chairman Tara Ochman disagreed with McCammon, saying that when she joined the board the day after the election, “all partisan lines disappeared.”
She added when board members are working together, “partisanship is out the window.”
In his response to the question, Board of Ed newcomer candidate John Sini said the board has a “process issue,” as opposed to a partisan issue.
“I think the board can be led slightly better,” Sini said. “There needs to be more focus on process. Once you get the easy things done right, then you can tackle the harder things.”
He added that the board should avoid getting hyperfocused on smaller issues.
He said that he ran a board that was very nonpartisan, referring to his recent service on the Planning & Zoning Commission, where he was most recently chairman.
Another topic where Board of Education candidates disagreed was regarding the use of OpenGov, a financial software program used to track expenditures.
Currently, the Board of Education doesn’t use OpenGov, and its members have been asked about this on several occasions in the past.
Ochman said the reason for this is that the schools’ superintendent asked the board to give him time to evaluate whether he thought OpenGov was the best program for them at the time, and the majority of the board at that time granted him that period.
However, Sini implied that OpenGov should have already been instituted when he quoted Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodzky’s words in a town address. “‘We have gently asked the Board of Education to adopt this product, to no avail. It’s now time for the board to do so and I wholeheartedly support that,’” Sini said.
He brought up an often referenced transparency issue in the spring that involved a data request by Board of Finance member Jim Palen.
The other town boards quickly supplied the requested data, but the Board of Education resisted. The issue continued for several weeks.
Sini said he would support providing any information or any help that is asked by another member of another board, provided it’s not confidential.
“I’d support the immediate transparency and full cooperation,” Sini said. “Anything less is an absolute disservice to this town and the taxpayer, and what happened was “absolutely silly and a waste of everybody’s time.”
Curbing town spending
In response to a question about curbing town spending, Selectman candidate David Martin brought up the nearly $2 million surplus the town had.
Martin said he would take a close look at the town’s budget process in regard to unnecessary spending.
He added that having a surplus is good “if the surplus is small because it means that you budgeted conservatively and you live within your budget.”
However, he said if there is a large surplus, “it sort of implies that we overtaxed the residents during the current calendar year,” Martin said.
In response, Selectman Kip Koons said a $2 million surplus on a $140 million dollar budget “isn’t that much, but the fact of the matter is it’s a surplus and it’s going to be used to pay down debt, saving on interests.”
Martin then responded, saying the aggregate surplus was 2.7 million dollars, “roughly $400 of that was money that was resolved from dormant accounts that the Finance and Budget Committee worked with the Board of Finance on. Roughly $350 is the amount of the surplus that was returned by the Board of Ed and the balance was found by the town, so it was just shy of 2 million dollars at the town level. The town budget itself is only 30 million dollars. The education budget is the big portion of that amount.”