By Eric Harvey
Innovation Lab students took a CT Transit bus on Tuesday to Greenwich town hall as one stop on what their teacher Michael Belanger describe as 5 Must See places for Greenwich High School students. The students were greeted by First Selectman Fred Camillo ready to give them a tour.
Camillo started by showing them the Office of the First Selectman “OFS,” pointing out that where the students stood was the principal’s office when the building was originally Greenwich High School.
A group of about 15 students crowded together in Fred Camillo’s office, framed photos of presidents and sports stars, and water bowls for his dogs. When the students were done examining Camillo’s office, he explained his duties and how town departments function.
“The First Selectman does not control everything,” Camillo said. “Not every department is under my authority. But the four major ones are Public Works, Parks & Rec, Police and Fire.”
He mentioned how over a year ago he was able to appoint a new fire chief, and in a few months he planned to select a new assistant fire chief.
“Do you know what the biggest board is that doesn’t report to me?” Camillo asked the group.
“Is it the Board of Ed?” One Innovation Lab student answered correctly.
Camillo explained how regardless of whether a department was independent or if the day-to-day operations were separate from him, there were still interactions and connections.
“We get calls all the time on Board of Education issues, so you have to be an advocate. You can’t just say it’s not my problem. You do have to explain where your authority goes and doesn’t go, but then you can be an advocate too.”
Camillo said he also interacted with state and federal government leaders, including Governor Lamont.
“It’s really important to have good relationships with people,” he said. “And it’s also good to have relationships with people who may be in another political party. The Governor is a Democrat and I’m a Republican… You want to make sure you’re respectful to people. You can disagree all day long, that’s healthy, but you do so respectfully.”
Camillo talked about the recent election and how a recount for the State Senate in the 36th district was underway.
“People say your vote doesn’t count? It actually does,” he said, noting that back in the 1977 race for First Selectman, Greenwich Democrat Ruth Sims defeated Republican Rupert Vernon by one vote after two recounts.
Part of being an Innovation Lab student is learning through hands-on experience, an the students were able to demonstrate this when Mr. Camillo opened the floor for questions.
“What would you say is your main role in government?” one student asked.
Camillo said he prepared budgets and made sure people do their jobs. He emphasized that what he says and does reflects on the town and it’s important to be respectful even if you are on the midst of a battle.
“What do you think the most pressing issue is in our town?” another asked.
“I worry a lot about when it’s getting cloudy and it starts to rain,” Camillo responded. “Because we have an outdated infrastructure. The piping under the ground, that was built almost a hundred years ago.”
Camillo explained how every time soil is replaced with impervious surface, water in a downpour needs a place to go.
“If we allow these buildings and concrete all over the place, it starts to affect everybody else because that water will find you too and flood you out.”
Another student asked about maintaining people’s trust in government.
“Simple things like when you’re running for an office, always under-promise and over-deliver rather than over promise and under deliver,” he replied.
Camillo again brought up last week’s election and how some Republicans were presumptuous when they predicted a red wave.
He drew the students’ attention to a framed photo of heavyweight champion, Rocky Marciano, who was undefeated in all 43 of his professional fights.
“They used to ask him, ‘Rocky, how you gonna do in the fight?’ And he’d say ‘I hope to win.’ Not what round I’m gonna knock him out: I hope to win. There’s something about being humble, I think, that will get you trust. And admitting sometimes you’re going to make mistakes.”
A student asked whether “the dump,” otherwise known as the Transfer Station, was under Camillo’s purview.
Camillo answered that it was, and recalled that when he used to be in the recycling business in 1989 he did a pilot program recycling office paper.
“We found out certain things were at the mercy of the market,” he said. “We find out all of the sudden something we’ve been recycling for a while is now no longer acceptable or accepted.”
Camillo said he would be delighted if recycling was more profitable, but China no longer pays for US recyclables. When asked if the political lawn signs were recyclable, he said unfortunately they were not.
“We had signs attacking other signs. I laughed about at first, but I realized it’s going to open up a Pandora’s Box because one sign is here, and the next one’s saying pointing to the first saying, ‘that person did this.'”
“That really can be chaotic because if you saw all of the signs there, and I guarantee that didn’t move anyone. It became pollution. There was too much.”
“That’s why I always say that a sign on someone’s lawn or in front of their apartment signifies support,” he added. “Anybody can stick a sign on public property. I asked the two town committees two years ago if they wanted to put a ban on that, which I know if we get challenged in court we’d lose that because it’s a First Amendment issue and they thought about it and decided not to do it.”
Camillo said there was a gentleman’s agreement between the two party leaders in Greenwich that their candidates wouldn’t put up campaign signs on public property until two weeks before an election and remove them within 48 hours after the election.
The First Selectman’s tour ended with a visit to the vault in the town hall basement, where the history of Greenwich is preserved.
Shelves were heavy with decades worth of birth, marriage, and death certificates.
According to Camillo the visit was the first time he walked inside the vault and the Innovation Lab students beat him to it.