On Tuesday night candidates for First Selectman, Selectperson, Town Clerk and Tax Collector shared their views at a debate sponsored by the Round Hill Association. The questions were submitted by the public and were reviewed by a Democrat, Republican and Independent member of the RHA board in advance.
For incumbent First Selectman Fred Camillo (R) and his challenger Bill Kelly (D), it was the second debate, the first having been hosted by the Greenwich League of Women Voters on Oct 13 (Selectmen Candidates Talk Priorities for Greenwich during LWV Debate).
The heat went up a notch, and candidates were even given a chance to question each other.
Mr. Kelly said his and Mr. Camillo’s priorities were different. He said he was familiar with the back country because when he was on the RTM he, along with Jim Clifford and Joan Caldwell, did a comprehensive study of the Fire Dept following a fatal accident on the Merritt Parkway. He said the study received a “Selectman’s Award.”
He said he shad served 8 years on BOE, 4 years on BET and 6 years on the RTM, including service as district leader. He said in his career had had founded a law firm that employs about 45 attorneys.
“Our priorities are different,” Kelly said. “I’ve talked about schools and maintaining the school system. My opponent has talked about bump outs and developing Greenwich Avenue.”
Camillo said he was fourth generation in Greenwich and had founded Greenwich Recycling. In addition he said he’d been a high school baseball and basketball coach, and worked in real estate for many years. He said he’d been a State Rep for 11 years and was assistant minority leader in Hartford where he co-authored many bills.
“Public service is my passion since I was 19. I served 3-1/2 terms on RTM, was chair of the Parks & Rec Board, served on many boards, committees and task forces.”
As for public-private partnerships in Greenwich, Camillo said in the past the town had been hesitant to engage in them. He said he was chair of the Parks & Rec board when the town took the donation from the Bendheims for the Western Greenwich Civic Center.
“Last night we finally got the approval from the RTM for the biggest grant for a public building, $5 million (for the Eastern Greenwich Civic Center). If we really want to keep our mill rate the lowest in the state – that’s a big draw.”
“If we did not do that, where would we find that money without raising taxes?” he asked. “I don’t see any problem at all of someone giving money to the town of Greenwich for the enjoyment of residents now and future generations.”
Mr. Kelly said public-private partnerships could be utilized to “show interest in a project” or for “non essential items.”
However, he said, “For essential items we need such as schools and firehouses, there should not be pubic-private partnerships. If essential services are needed, the town should provide them.”
“Last night you brought to the RTM a gift, with a contract agreement that was seven pages long, that apparently took 90 days to develop since you knew about the actual donor on June 30, and it took July, Aug and Sept to draft the seven-page document,” Kelly said to Mr. Camillo.
“I’m not going to go into detail, and the members of the RTM will understand why – because at the bottom of page two of that document, and God forbid I create a controversy… It’s planning. You cannot plan and rely on a public private partnership. You have to plan and set a policy. But there is no policy on naming.”
“The BOE has a policy, #7551, that specifically states when they will use a name. Fifty-three members of the RTM wanted to adjourn the matter so they could develop a policy, and you pushed them to make a decision on that gift, even though that money is not going to come in until next February 15.”
“If someone wants to give you a check for $5 million free and clear, sure, I’ll take it,” Kelly said.
Mr. Camillo said, “When we get these donations, they’re not done in ten minutes. The Bendheim donation took ten years.”
“People want to have a morals clause put into it going forward. I’m okay with that, but that was a slowdown tactic by a few people who tried to make it political,” Camillo continued.
“It’s not political, it’s policy,” Kelly said. “It’s not a delaying tactic, it’s policy.”
On the topic of creating more affordable housing in Greenwich, Kelly and Camillo were on the same page.
As for the challenge of adding 1200 more units to meet the state mandate that all towns have 10% of their housing stock be affordable, RHA president John Conte said the 8-30g law allowed developers to circumvent local zoning regulations, making possible much larger buildings, with tighter setbacks and more overall lot coverage than would otherwise be allowed.
Mr. Kelly said he believed the town already had 10% of its housing affordable, but it didn’t qualify per the state’s definition because it was not deeded affordable for 40 years.
“We need to assert local control an say why can’t we have a grandfather clause?” he said. “Do we want more? Absolutely, but we don’t want to impact the character of this town….Most of the developers live in town.”
He noted that 8-30g placed the burden of proof on the town, whereas normally a developer has to prove that there is adequate water, sewer, traffic and other infrastructure to accommodate a project.
Camillo said he planned to meet with the governor to ask for a moratorium, but it was not within the governor’s purview. He said he was proud to work with Greenwich Communities (formerly the Housing Authority) to develop more properties to chip away at the 1200 units required to achieve 10%
“They’re on their way to making (Greenwich) the best public housing in the state,” Camillo said, adding that the housing authority had done renovations at every single complex in town.
Camilo said he had testified to defend local control of zoning during recent hearings.
Camillo said at a plaque unveiling at Armstrong Court, Governor Ned Lamont had said, “Freddie is right. We don’t need Hartford telling us what to do because we’re doing the right thing here in Greenwich.”
“One of my focuses is the infrastructure,” Mr. Kelly said. “The First Selectman controls the priorities of the capital projects. The school submits their priorities. The town has their priorities. The First Selectman looks at it and decides where the priorities are going to be. The priorities of this town need to be the infrastructure. They need to be schools, the issues of flooding.”
“There should not be on bumpouts or the development of (Greenwich Harbor). My priorities are school infrastructure, and flooding infrastructure. I’m a construction litigator and I represent some of the biggest projects in NYC…One of the new creations we have is permeable asphalt. The water goes straight down and doesn’t run off. It’s about 25% more expensive, but it’s something we should be looking at.”
Camillo defended the bump outs on Greenwich Avenue, saying they enhanced public safety, rather than just beautification. He said a pedestrian had been hit by a car on the Ave despite a police presence at the time.
“We’ve stopped and deterred more crime than ever before,” he added.
Later, he added that there had only been two manned intersections on the Avenue before they were removed and that the new undercover unit and bike unit had made many arrests. He also said that when there were police directing traffic, they were not allowed to leave their posts to respond to incidents, but rather had to call them in.
“Now we have modern policing at its best,” he said. “The police on bikes can go 40MPH. “They engage the people in this town. They don’t just sit there waving and whistling.”
Mr. Kelly said he’d like to see some form of presence at intersections, whether it be crossing guards or special police.
“Once they’re taken off, they’re never coming back, but we need a solution. We have increased traffic. We have to come up with solutions. It’s dangerous. Lunch hour is bad. Christmas is coming up and we’ll have heavy traffic on Greenwich Ave,” Mr. Kelly said.
“I’d have crossing guards or special police there during the Christmas season, certain lunch hours and the worst times for coverage so it would be safe,” Kelly said.
Camillo said he’d spoken with Chief Heavey. “I said why can’t we put crossing guards civilians there? The unions and so on.”
Northwest Fire Station
Asked about the Round Hill Volunteer station in back country, Mr. Kelly said the volunteer station was not round-the-clock coverage for that part of town.
“We have career personnel throughout the town – other than in the northwest, where we have just volunteers. Volunteers are wonderful, but they’re not available during the day.”
He said a $75,000 study for a combined career-volunteers station was turned down by the Republican led BET.
“The Republicans don’t want to do it,” he said. “I’ll do it.”
Mr. Camillo said that the Fire response time for northwest was over 9 minutes, but, he added. “It’s also over 9 minutes in the northeast.”
He said since some of the response times in the matrix were flawed, the Fire Dept anticipated the response times were actually less.
“My job as the Fire Commission is not just to improve the response time in the northwest corner, it’s to improve the response time all over the Town,” he said.
“Until there are career firefighters, you’re not going to have protection while people are working,” Kelly said.
“The other thing the matrix study asked for a year ago, was an organizational statement as to what’s the level of service you’re going to provide to the town. We’re still waiting. And you are the fire commissioner.”
Camillo said the Fire administration was currently working on it, and “the money is in the budget for an architect to see if they can house professional staff at Round Hill.”
“That was the same money that was turned down by the BET last year,” Kelly said.
“No it was not,” Camillo replied.
Long Term Bonding for Large Infrastructure Projects
Mr. Kelly, who served on the BET, said the town had done long term bonding for the Witherell and for sewers.
“This is not the 1980s where treasury bonds were 15%, now they are 2%. Yes we could have some long term bonding for a major project. But that’s treading on BET territory. We have a fabulous comptroller in Peter Mynarski and I’m sure he can come up with ways we can finance certain projects. We’re not going to raise taxes.”
“The guidelines for this year provide for $70 million,” Kelly said. “It’s not the financing that’s the problem. It’s the priorities. We cannot be cutting the ribbon on Greenwich Avenue for bumpouts while CMS has monitors on the side of their building…We have to establish priorities.”
Camillo said the BOE set priorities and had set the Central Middle School project 11 years out.
“Long term debt and bonding is not a good thing,” Camillo said. “I don’t support that.”
“We’re doing the capital budget right now. My priorities are public safety, schools, public health – it’s not one or the other, and you can only do one school at at time,” Camillo added. “I could say the feasibility study for Riverside was cut by the Democratic BET members. But that’s now what people are here for.”
“No you don’t get a vote on the BET, but you do use your bully pulpit. You do get to prioritize. You get to say what comes first and second,” Kelly replied.
“It’s not a dictatorship,” Camillo replied. “I asked them for $1.25 million for Roger Sherman Baldwin Park. They said no. It’s a great idea, come back next year.”
Federal Covid Relief Funding
As for Federal Covid relief funds of about $32 million, the candidates asked what projects would be funded.
Camillo said the town was looking at items including air quality, infrastructure, sewers, flood mitigation, non profits and mental health.
“We’d love to put a lot more of it into capital, but you’d be surprised how quickly it goes,” he said.
“The schools. The schools. The schools,” Mr. Kelly said.
“They’re going to be long lasting capital projects. We’ll take that $32 million and fund projects that will last 75-100 years.”
“We can only do one school at a time and schools aren’t the only thing,” Camillo said.
“This mentality of ‘We can only do one at a time,’ is beyond me. We can do them sequentially, get them started and rolling. We can get the design funds,” Kelly said. “You’re even saying now we’ve got to fix CMS. We haven’t even done the study on the curtain wall.”
Mr. Kelly said during the two years the Democrats were in power on the BET, the mill rate rose a mere 1.4%.
“That’s half what the Republican BET raised in taxes. Half what the Republican BET raised taxes. This ‘raise taxes’ thing is just nonsense,” Kelly said.
“The last two years, it was about 0%,” Camillo said.
“Sure, you took $21 million out of the rainy day fund,” Kelly said.
“If you want to be political,” Camillo said.
“I’m not the career politician,” Kelly said.
“There’s another cheap shot,” Camillo said. “I was in the private sector most of my life.”
“What did you do?” Kelly asked.
Later, Mr. Kelly said there were cracks everywhere in CMS, and that school would be his priority. “If we don’t fix it, it will cost of $21 million a year just to maintain it. That is idiotic.”
He described a floor in a classroom at North Street school that is at almost a 45° angle. “It’s sinking,” he said. “We’ve got to stop cutting the BOE budget on maintenance. We have to give them the tools they need and then hold them accountable.”
“If you keep cutting, and cutting, and cutting, you end up with monitors on CMS’s wall,” he added.
Helping Small Businesses in Greenwich Rebound from Covid
Mr. Kelly said he would prioritize improving the parking in downtown Greenwich.
“The outdoor dining is here to stay,” Kely said. “But Mr. Camillo made a mistake at the beginning of the pandemic in closing the bottom part of Greenwich Avenue, which was very destructive to the businesses down there. Cars could not gain access. I will make sure that stays open.”
“Creating availability of parking is not creating little flyers. It’s coming up with a system where people know where parking is available,” he added.
Camillo said because of the decades-old problem of meter-feeding by Greenwich Ave employees, the town had opened up a couple hundred spaces in municipal lots at a discount, and at least 126 had taken advantage of it.
“You don’t want to see stand-alone ugly parking structures going up,” he added. “You want one built into the grade like our plans to build into the grade under on on ramps to I95, and put greenspace on top.”
“When my opponent said Mr. Camillo made a mistake – I make lots of mistakes…We were facing a pandemic.”
Camillo said Governor Lamont had praised the outdoor dining on Greenwich Ave. “We’re trying to keep them out there all winter.”
He added that the town was considering outdoor dining domes for this upcoming winter.
“But parking has been a problem since before I was a little boy,” he added. “There is more work to do.”
“If you had consulted with the merchants on lower Greenwich Ave before you blocked it off there would be no need for an apology, because they would have told you you can’t block it off because they would have told you it would kill our businesses,” Kelly said.
“There was no apologies at all,” Camillo said. “I said I make mistakes all the time.”
“We have to figure out the blend here. We want outdoor dining to stay but we don’t want to hurt the merchants with loss of parking spaces and access,” Mr. Kelly said.
At the end of the forum, when each candidate was able to ask the other one question of their choice, Mr. Camillo mentioned attempts by Democrats in other parts of the state to chip away at local zoning control and asked Mr. Kelly if he’d testified during hearings. “They’re going after 4-acre zones now,” Camillo said.
“No, I did not testify. I was not in politics at the time. The answer is no.”
Public Private Partnerships
Mr. Kelly asked Mr. Camillo about RFPs for Nathaniel Witherell Witherell and for developing the Island Beach parking lot.
“I know that the $5 million gift was announced at the board of Parks & Rec on June 30 and it was hushed up and not discussed for 3 months, until just before election day,” Kelly said. “My question is, are you holding these documents for political gain, or making these announcements for political gain.”
Mr. Camillo said the Island Beach parking RFP was not a public document yet.
Further he said the deal with the Alexandra and Steven Cohen Foundation for naming rights to the Eastern Greenwich Civic Center was not a done deal back in June.
“The people I put on these RFPs are Republic and and Democrats,” Camillo said. “To say I’m hiding things is ridiculous.”
The third debate between the candidates will be held at Greenwich High School on friday, but is not open to the public. However, it will be open to media and GFP will report afterward.