Laura Erickson, Democratic First Selectman Candidate: “Greenwich Can Do Better”

Greenwich’s municipal elections are set for Nov 7 and the Democratic candidate for First Selectman, Laura Erickson, recently shared how her ideas were informed by 30 years living in Riverside and 20 years of volunteer leadership positions.

Many longtime Greenwich residents may recall Erickson’s service as a member of both the New Lebanon School and GHS MISA building committees, as well as terms as as Riverside School PTA president later as Greenwich High School PTA president.

Laura Erickson, Democratic candidate for First Selectman. Aug 29, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager

“My first day of office was when they discovered the toxins at Greenwich High School,” she recalled of the memorable moment in 2011.

But before all that, Erickson did something unique by serving on the 230-member Representative Town Meeting as a mother of three young children.

“I started when my youngest was an infant,” said Erickson, who would go on to serve on RTM for 13 years. “I thought there wasn’t enough representation of parents with school age children.”

Erickson was first activated in town government when her son was in Kindergarten. At the time, some will remember Roger Lulow was serving as interim superintendent while the Board of Education searched for a permanent superintendent. At the time, classes were so overcrowded at Old Greenwich School that the the town implemented a redistricting plan. The result was the successful reopening of ISD (International School at Dundee). It was also the last time the town redistricted.

“It was a really polarizing time for a new parent to Greenwich Schools,” she recalled. “But the way it was handled was very good. They hired the Old Greenwich School principal (at ISD), and created a magnet and an IB program. It turned out positive. It showed me there are ways to solve a big problem when we come together. That school has flourished.”

Second from left, Laura Erickson, member of the New Lebanon School Building committee during a site visit in 2015. Photo: Leslie Yager
In June 2015, the New Lebanon School gymnasium was packed with supporters of “Option B,” which would have located the new school on the William Street ball field. Credit: Leslie Yager

“I feel one of my biggest contributions to the town was getting New Lebanon School built,” she said, noting that at the time the 1950’s era school was over crowded, lacked space for preschool, and used closets and other inappropriate spaces for educational instruction.

“I was chair of the Board of Education when we were trying  shepherd the school through the MI process and it got hung up at the Board of Selectmen because there were a lot of feelings about location of school,” she recalled.

At the time there were disagreements about whether to relocate students to off-site modulars, whether to locate the school in the ravine behind the existing school or in what was referred to as the “town green” which is the William Street field.

“We built consensus and were able to build the school,” she said. “It’s been a fabulous addition to the community.”

After a member of the Board of Education and serving as its chair, Erickson ran for the Board of Estimate and Taxation in 2019 and is now completing her second term.

Not unlike being GHS PTA co-president, the term opened with a crisis, in this case the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The first reaction was not to move forward with some projects,” she recalled. “But I thought the reaction of freezing spending at the prior year’s levels was unnecessary. I think the role of government is to be forward thinking and strategic, beyond just the issue now. We had a rainy day fund and the ability to not freeze spending. It set everybody into a panic. I think it was unfortunate.”

Her criticisms deepened from here.

“I’ve been a witness in the last four budget cycles to deferred spending, reduced spending, and denial of requests that to me don’t make a lot of sense and will ultimately cost the town more money later,” she said.

Specifically Erickson believes projects that were not funded increased the town’s risk, including the condemned Central Middle School, collapsed ceiling at North Mianus School, and both a civil rights case at Old Greenwich School because of ADA non compliance and below grade classrooms with sewage flooding in heavy rain events.

“That’s unacceptable. We need to fix it. The Republican majority on the BET has failed to act in a number of these cases,” she said.

She also recalled how the bleachers at Cardinal stadium were condemned in 2019. Ultimately they were rebuilt and funding included some private money.

Citing the new Cardinal stadium, MISA, and New Lebanon School, Erickson said, “Greenwich can have nice things.”

“The difference between our old facilities and what we have now is night and day,” she said. “We should celebrate what we have for arts instruction, strong academics, athletics, and the caliber of the faculty and staff.”

Erickson, who was a Political Science major at Middlebury College and had a banking career before becoming a parent and volunteer in town government, said that while she valued value low taxes and mill rate, it was important for the entire community to properly prioritize what residents care about and prepare a financial model to address those needs.

She was disappointed that the Republican controlled BET had used their tie-breaking vote so many times recently to avoid paying for items like vehicles for the police and fire departments, elevators at the library that date back to the 1940s despite incidents of them lurching and people being trapped, not funding replacement trees at Cardinal stadium which meant a Certificate of Occupancy was not issued, and even denial of funds to replace a golf cart at GHS that is used security.

She said under the Republican majority on the BET, the board had simply not been good financial stewards.

“All were Republican tie breaker votes,” she said. “The decisions were not common sense. They are head scratching decisions.”

Erickson said the town needed a “reset.”

“My BET experience the past four years shows me the town is not being run responsibly. It used to be that Democrats and Republicans on the BET would work together to properly plan for our needs, but the mindset seems to have devolved into, just, ‘We just can’t spend the money on what this community wants, values and needs.’”

Erickson said given the cost to buy or rent a home in Greenwich was so high, residents should expect certain amenities and standards for facilities.

Day 1: Refocus on Capital Planning Process

Erickson said said if elected she would work to reinvigorate the capital planning process.

Specifically she said it was important to seek public input earlier, including hearings in the fall to learn what’s on residents’ minds rather than wait until January and March when the BET has its two hearings, which is after the capital budget is set by the First Selectman.

She said it didn’t make sense to have residents go to such great lengths for funding for projects that are not in the budget.

An example she gave was the sidewalks along Shore Road which are finally underway after residents created a website, lawn signs, and testified in large numbers at a BET pubic hearing.

“It shouldn’t be that hard,” she said.

She said that early in the process the First Selectman should visit neighborhood associations and RTM districts for input.

“They know best,” she said.

“As for pickleball – people may not view it as a priority, but it’s an activity that residents are really enamored of and participation spans multiple ages. Why wouldn’t we provide them the facilities? We have basketball courts, tennis courts, and beaches. Instead of having people argue over limited space, let’s just build them.”

Existing signage about leash and clean up law beside mutt mitts dispenser at the area proposed for a community dog park in Glenville. May 24, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager

Second she said it was important to have more transparency in how ideas for projects are floated, and that everyone should understand the processes – both new residents and longtime residents.

“Government should work for everybody and shouldn’t be a system of favoritism,” Erickson said.

She said, for example, at a June Board of Selectmen meeting she attended, there was a surprise agenda item for a new dog park.

“It seemed members of the Board of Selectmen were ready to vote, but neighbors were not informed. To me it was clear that a dog park was not high on the wish list for the neighbors. I would do things differently.”

Greenwich Avenue: Intersections, Pedestrian Safety, Outdoor Dining

Similarly, Erickson said that during a recent visit to Greenwich Avenue she stood at the intersection of Havemeyer and Arch Street to watch how the intersection functioned.

“One of the First Selectman’s biggest mistakes was taking Greenwich Police off the Avenue (directing traffic) without a plan for pedestrian safety and driver controls,” she said. “That crosswalk is hazardous and confusing to drivers without a police officer there.”

Erickson brought up a recent proposal of First Selectman Fred Camillo, which is to create an illuminated water feature in the plaza in front of the former post office.

Defunct water fountain at the corner of Arch Street and Greenwich Ave, in front of the War memorial. July 28, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager

Intersection of Havemeyer and Arch Street. Photo: Leslie Yager

“While I was there I looked at the water fountain. It’s an antiquated cement structure that doesn’t work. There is trash in it. Why talk about restoring water fountains and doing a light show on that plaza when we haven’t addressed pedestrian safety? That should be the priority.”

While Erickson said “that ship has sailed” when asked about returning police to direct traffic, and the bicycle police and undercover officers were effective against crimes such as shoplifting and bank fraud, the time had come for a conversation about an alternative plan at that intersection.

“A right turn only lane probably makes sense,” she said. “And a conversation about mechanized traffic controls. Maybe flashing beacons. Because then people would know what to do. Today cars end up stopping in the middle of the intersection.”

Similarly, she said the bumpouts at the Elm Street intersection should be evaluated for their effectiveness.

“How are we doing?” she asked. “We should be sure we’re using the best techniques for traffic safety.”

Erickson said, “While I think outdoor dining was a good idea, especially since Covid, it needs to be rethought. It’s taken away parking. Some retail establishments think they’re not being treated fairly. Everyone’s voices should be heard.”

Further, she said, on a visit to the Avenue on a nice day, violations were hard to miss, including double parking and delivery trucks parked alongside outdoor dining nodes.

“P&Z needs resources to enforce zoning rules and regulations,” she said. “If they’re not getting those resources, that needs to be addressed.”

Public Schools

“I look ahead to my term of office, one of the first things I’d do is address the situation with school security.”

She said after Mr. Camillo had proposed reducing police officers at schools from five to three, the BET acted in a bi-partisan fashion and restored funding for all the officers.

Further she said she planned to focus on the state of Greenwich Schools facilities.

“The Central Middle School price tag came in very high and Republicans are trying to stall and delay the project because of the price tag. But their alternative is to build a lesser school, and our community – not just the feeder schools of Julian Curtiss, North Street, Cos Cob and part of Parkway – but all property owners and throughout town – we shouldn’t settle for a lesser school.”

“This is Greenwich and we deserve the best,” she said. “If you’re a parent in Old Greenwich, you’ve been waiting far too long for a renovation. The building committee is ready to go. It’s time to fund it and get going. We could have filed with the state by their June 30 deadline, but the BET Republicans voted no in a special meeting and it didn’t get to the RTM.”

On the topic of “parental rights,” Erickson said there were groups in town speaking vocally in BOE meetings, and sending out newsletters and emails where they make accusations about what is being taught in public schools.

“We all need to acknowledge that the parent rights they’re talking about are really an intrusion into the classroom and how teachers teach. I acknowledge here have been some missteps, including a video shown (to remote second graders during the Pandemic), but this is not a common occurrence, and it was addressed immediately. That shouldn’t cast aspersions on classroom teachers or educators. They’re using that incident to amplify a national agenda that believes schools are teaching Critical Race Theory, which they are not. We need to do better by our kids.”

Further, she said, “We attract highly qualified teachers and we need to respect them. When there are issues, which there are, you go through proper channels to address them.”

Ms Erickson said Greenwich Public Schools were a draw for many families who move to town and it was the job of the First Selectman to meet regularly with the superintendent and understand how the schools function.

She said she was disappointed that Mr. Camillo had attended the press conference featuring then Project Veritas leader James O’Keefe last August.

“In the First Selectman’s role, it is really important you use good judgement and always err on the side of caution,” she said. “And by attending a press rally on the grounds of Cos Cob School the day of Kindergarten orientation in connection with the Project Veritas video was an error of judgement that potentially put school children at risk, and our town at risk by jumping to conclusions.”

Affordable Housing

Erickson said that in addition to traffic congestion, parking, and the state of town and school infrastructure, residents were very concerned about over-development.

She noted the Town Assessor reports the number and value of permits each month, and this was a robust sector of the local economy that generates building permit and conveyance tax revenue to the town.

“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t believe in local control of Planning & Zoning in keeping with the character of our town and neighborhoods, myself included.”

But she added, that there is a real shortage of moderate and affordable housing in town.

“Our first responders and teachers can’t afford to live here and rents are skyrocketing because demand outstrips supply,” she said.

Erickson noted the Town has made some headway by setting up the Affordable Housing Trust and changing the rules for Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), but it was important to get stakeholders to the table to figure out how to tackle the issue so the town is not subjected to the onslaught of 8-30g applications.

“The way to keep Hartford out of our business is to show progress. We’re at 5.7% vs the 10% threshold and we can do better. We should be exploring tax incentives and the availability of town and state owned land to help address the challenge.”

On a final note, Erickson said it was important to vote in local elections.

“Not only does your vote show your values and how you view your government, but voters really deserve a choice. I look forward to a respectful and spirited campaign.”

“It’s hard to run for office,” she added. “I hope people are willing to open up to us on what is and isn’t working, and share their ideas for change. At the end of the day we’re public servants. It’s important voters get informed and engaged. I respectfully ask for voters to vote Row A on Nov 7.”