Election hopefuls face off at League of Women Voters’ candidates night
Darien’s League of Women Voters hosted their annual candidates night debate on Tuesday night at Town Hall. Candidates for First Selectman and Board of Selectmen, Board of Finance & the Planning & Zoning Commission took selected questions from the audience, discussing the impact of the state’s fiscal crisis, new housing developments in town and other local issues.
First Selectman Jayme Stevenson is seeking a fourth term in office, campaigning against Democrat Selectman Rob Richards and Ultra Conservative candidate Chris Noe. As the chairman of the Western Connecticut Council of Governments Stevenson has said that her leadership puts Darien in the best position to prepare against state budget issues.
While Stevenson leaned on her experience, Richards has advocated for increased transparency and community outreach to help keep residents informed of ongoing issues in town. Richards said he was surprised to see the strength in some of the responses to the town’s parks master plan, comparing the situation to kicking a beehive. But he also said that the situation had helped bring some latent community concerns to the forefront of discussion.
“I will always engage the community to discuss what their problem is,” Richards said on Tuesday. “I think it’s a waste of time for us to sit back, especially at a leadership level, and allow something that upsets people to move through that process and then come to us to vote on, when I know perfectly well that there are people in the community that are not happy. I believe it is my responsibility, and I will always believe that, to address your concerns.”
Stevenson acknowledged the ongoing controversy over the parks master plan but also said it was important for the Parks & Recreation Commission to have a guiding document. She said the town will have opportunities to choose and discuss new amenities chosen from the park plan as they are adopted.
“One of the hardest things we have to do as selectmen, particularly as first selectman is to make decisions that are for the greater good for the majority of taxpayers,” Stevenson said. “Sometimes you have to make people a little unhappy, sometimes those are people you really care about and love, your friends and your neighbors. But that is our job, that is why you elect us.”
When asked what his priorities would be as first selectman, candidate Noe spoke about reclaiming control over the town’s finances from the state government and raising more funding for the town’s school system, possibly through a school tax.
“I think we need our school system to just rock, blow the whole state away. We’re a real small town, we’re a real special community, we can do these things. We don’t have diversity that gets in our way, we have unity and with unity we can just push forward,” he said on Tuesday.
Noe went on to complain about issues with the town’s sewage system at length, referencing his time with the RTM Public Works committee several years ago. He accused Stevenson and other town officials of failing to take action to repair portions of the system that were polluting the Long Island Sound, a claim that Stevenson said she plans to address in a later public statement.
Board of Selectmen
In the race for Board of Selectman, incumbent Democrat Marc Thorne Thorne, a longtime resident, frequent volunteer and former RTM member, will be running for his second term on the board with new candidate Pam Sparkman and First Selectman candidate Rob Richards.
Running under the moniker of Darien Moving Forward, the Democratic candidates are attempting to take the board majority and have focused on their desire for transparency and collaborative community efforts. Both Richards and Sparkman said they would like to change the way that town officials engage with residents by hosting town halls and creating a dialogue they feel is not present in the current format of public hearings.
Republican Selectmen Susan Marks and Charles “Kip” Koons are joined by First Selectman Jayme Stevenson on their Best for Darien platform which focuses on experienced and responsible management as well as longterm sustainability. Marks is running for her third term with the board while Koons is campaigning for his second.
Marks said she believes that health and public safety and delivering a responsible budget should be the highest priorities for the Board of Selectmen. As Darien prepares to negotiate new expenses from the state Koons said it was important for the town to retain the best level of service possible and continue making “sensible investments.”
Thorne also acknowledged the coming budget problems and the reality that the town may need to defer some initiatives to rein in expenses. Both he and Sparkman also spoke to the recent outcry from youth sports organizations over the parks master plan and the rising demand for outdoor recreation opportunities and field space in town.
Sparkman said she believes that an inventory of all of the town’s fields, including those under the purview of the Board of Education, should be conducted to find usage solutions that are in the best interest everyone in town. In contrast, Selectman Susan Marks said the Parks & Recreation Commission should be allowed to complete its planning process focusing on town owned parks and beaches before other elected officials weigh in on the process.
Board of Finance
The candidates for the Board of Finance will be running unopposed this year but there are several newcomers. Republicans Rob Cardone and Paul Hendrickson, a former Darien selectman, are campaigning to join the Board of Finance, replacing departing members Bruce Orr and David Lopiano. Cardone has worked closely with the board as a member of the RTM Finance & Budget Committee, serving as vice chairman of the selectman’s budget during the most recent budget cycle. Hendrickson is currently the business manager of Ridgefield Public Schools and has been a resident of Darien for more than 30 years.
Board chairman Jon Zagrodzky and vice chairman Frank Huck are also up for re-election and the group discussed how Darien can prepare for new expenses coming from Hartford. Huck said the town should be prepared to phase some of the additional spending into the budget in the immediate future, but some projects and initiatives may have to be deferred to remain fiscally responsible.
“There will be however, less consensus on the degree to which long term Darien should adjust its own spending to balance out the impacts of state action,” Huck said. “I’m hopeful there will be shared goodwill in that discussion since a contentious process in Darien might do more harm than the other side winning.”
Earlier this year the state cut Darien’s education cost sharing grant entirely, removing about $400,000 in funding. Town officials have also expressed concern that Darien could lose additional funding for special education and be made responsible for paying teacher pensions.
Planning & Zoning Commission
Candidates for the Planning & Zoning Commission are also running unopposed, with four commissioners looking to return and one newcomer. Chairman John Sini and Secretary Stephen Olvany will be seeking re-election, while current commissioners James Rand and Elizabeth Riva are looking to be elected for their first full terms. Rand and Riva were both appointed to the commission in the last year after the departures of Susan Cameron and Richard DiDonna.
Democrat Jennifer Leahy is running for the fifth available seat on the commission and would replace vice chair Eric Voigt, who opted not to run. While this will be Leahy’s first political position she has 10 years of experience in real estate.
The commission recently completed its update of the town plan of conservation and development and has been reviewing three major redevelopment projects proposed for Noroton Heights and downtown Darien.
Tuesday night’s debate will be replayed on Darien TV79 several times before the election this year. Polls for Darien’s 2017 local election will open on November 7 and will also include candidates for the Representative Town Meeting.