Is it possible? Selectman candidates talk working past differences
As the Board of Selectmen race heats up this fall, candidates will have a chance to show whose fire burns for Darien, giving residents an opportunity to decide who is merely blowing smoke.
All candidates seem determined to work together, regardless of the outcome in November. However, claims that the current Republican administration has trivialized the opinions of their Democratic counterparts by labeling them as "partisan" or "for political gain" has led to tension in the ranks.
Republican First Selectman Dave Campbell, who is running for selectman this time, told the Darien Times that these claims are false. "I don't see the issue," he said. "We've discussed every issue that's come to the town and listened to everything that's been said."
Democratic Selectman David Bayne begs to differ. "Too often in the past two years, opposing points of view have been dismissed by the current majority," Bayne wrote in an e-mail. This suggests "that there is no principled basis for the opinion or that it is not being offered for any reason other than to score 'political points.' This sort of second-guessing of motives is destructive to a healthy working relationship and to the establishment of trust."
Regardless of who's at fault, repairing that trust and ensuring Darien's elected officials serve the best interests of the town is what all candidates said they are interested in.
"In the next two years I want to be productive," said Republican Selectman Jerry Nielsen, who also seeks re-election. "I am willing to work on things with the opposite party, and I do, and I have... Both sides have to continue to reach out to each other to continue to discuss these issues. And I will."
Bayne said a hostile tone was set since the Republican candidates were sworn in without the Democrats by their side. However, Town Clerk Donna Rajczewski, who is a Republican, said the swearing-in ceremony has been traditionally informal, as many elected officials have day jobs and it can be difficult to arrange a time when everyone can meet.
Democratic selectman candidate Vickie Riccardo, who currently sits on the Planning & Zoning Commission, said she would like to see all selectmen sworn in simultaneously as a sign of solidarity.
"Having them swear in separately is quite unusual," Riccardo said. "All five should get sworn in together. We're starting a unit, and I think that's important."
Bayne and Riccardo also said that meeting times should be arranged so that all selectmen have a chance to make the meeting. "I think that we should be scheduling with volunteer service in mind," Riccardo said. "Four out of five (selectmen) are unpaid volunteers and have jobs and lives. They are volunteering because they are enthusiastic about the town. I think being mindful of that is important."
When it comes to the issues, compromise is often king, Riccardo said. "I think if you can get information that is persuasive, it's not a bad idea to change your mind," she said. "That's part of what the job is — to get all the facts and get that in the context of the town. You could have started with one thought and get more information and learn and adjust your position."
She said an example of that was when she agreed, as a P&Z member, that the Republican-led plan to move the senior center to the Board of Education offices at Town Hall was consistent with the town's plan of conservation and development.
"I was persuaded by the other members that yes, a consistency can be found," she said, "but provided in our findings that we wanted a full needs and uses assessment to have the move take place." She said that while she doesn't agree with the plan, she did find it was consistent with the town's established agenda for development.
Campbell said he also changed his mind about the proposed ban on plastic bags in town. Republican selectmen "aren't excited about that bag ordinance," Campbell said, "but we decided to vote on it for the (Representative Town Meeting). We thought the legislative body should vote on it. We could have blocked that. That's an example of compromise."
For Bayne, the Republican's decision to send the ordinance to the RTM could be a sign that times are changing. "We had a very respectful conversation," Bayne said. "We agreed to disagree, maybe that shows the board is maturing and getting better."
The majority of Bayne's recollections of collaboration go back to previous Democratic First Selectman Evonne Klien's administration between 2007 and 2009. "The result of this effort at finding common ground was that... every major decision made by the 2007-09 Board of Selectmen was accomplished with a unanimous vote," Bayne said. "In my opinion, that is the way that Darien's Board of Selectman is supposed to be run."
But getting a unanimous vote shouldn't necessarily be the goal of the selectmen, according to Campbell. "There are times when there will not be compromise," he said, and "there are times when it won't be unanimous. It will happen on larger issues."
Nielsen said it's important for the selectmen to support each other after a decision is made, regardless of the voting. "Some opinions will not have room for compromise and it results in less than a unanimous vote," he said. "That is what government is all about."
Bayne and Campbell's running feud is fueled with he said/she said claims against the other for not being open and communicating. Both said they are interested in repairing past damage, to move forward on the town's behalf.
"I'm hoping we reboot that relationship and put that nonsense aside, and roll up our sleeves and try to work together," Bayne said.
Overall, everybody tries to be flexible and compromise to achieve the goals of the town, according to Campbell. "We have opposing views sometimes that take more time to hammer out," he said.
Bayne, however, still maintains that communication from the first selectman's office has been restricted to Republicans, and that he and fellow Democrat Callie Sullivan have been left out. Bayne heard about the Department of Justice investigation into Darien's affordable housing practices through phone calls from the media.
"These are things that I, as a selectman, should not be learning about from the press," Bayne said. He also learned, in the same fashion, about a recent Freedom of Information request filed by Darien's Friends of Animals to get information on the town deer hunt.
Bayne added that getting things done "simply for the sake of getting things done should not be a goal of any administration. The critical question should be, 'Is the course we are charting the right one for Darien and its taxpayers?'"
Riccardo agreed, and said a good leader requires a balance of conviction and compromise. "I try every day to learn from the people I talk to," she said. "I always want to have that open mind. That is one of the most important qualities, to be thoughtful and want to work hard, be diligent, and use the information that you can use."
If she disagrees on a decision, Riccardo said she's fine with that, as long as the discussion and voting process was fair. "I think I can continue to disagree with (a) decision and accept that the decision was made," she said. "If the process was fair, then you can accept the system works."
Maintaining a nonpartisan attitude is also important for Nielsen. "When you have a different view on how an issue should be resolved you always have to keep an open mind on the opposing opinion," he said.
As first selectmen, Campbell said his success during the past two years speaks for itself. "I think I've done a good job listening and understanding the big picture and the inner workings of the town," he said. "I'm a problem solver that looks at town issues and looks at solutions — you can point towards the (affordable housing) moratorium, getting the fireworks, or the facility utilization plan and also the leadership during storms."
The Darien Times received many letters commending Campbell for his work during Tropical Storm Irene. But Bayne recalled the March 2010 nor'easter when Campbell went out of town after the storm, and with nearly half the town without power. He didn't return until several days later, which was how long it took much of the town to regain electricity.
Bayne also noted that both he and Sullivan were left out of an e-mail to organize a meeting in preparation for Irene. It "is symbolic of the institutionalization of the exclusion of Callie Sullivan and myself from information in this administration," Bayne said. "No one seemed to have thought twice in Town Hall about the fact that we were not included in the early morning e-mail alerting everyone to the meeting."
Campbell said the e-mail debacle was an accident, and that he never sent the e-mail personally. "I do agree that honesty and truthfulness is the most important way to address the relationship," Campbell said. He also said the he has reached out to Bayne, but his efforts were never reciprocated. Bayne refutes this claim, and charges the opposite is true.