Selectmen Candidates Differentiate Themselves at Debate Hosted by LWV

Thursday night’s Selectmen candidates debates in the GHS Performing Arts Center drew an impressive crowd estimated to be over 400.

The League of Women Voters were hosts and Kaye Maxwell was the moderator. There was a cumulative format was a cumulative time and at the end of each debate the candidates gave two minute closing statements.

Jill Oberlander and Fred Camillo candidates for First Selectmen at the Greenwich Performing Arts Center. Oct 10, 2019 Photo: Leslie Yager
Jill Oberlander and Fred Camillo candidates for First Selectmen at the Greenwich Performing Arts Center. Oct 10, 2019 Photo: Leslie Yager
Jill Oberlander and Fred Camillo candidates for First Selectmen at the Greenwich Performing Arts Center. Oct 10, 2019 Photo: Leslie Yager
Jill Oberlander and Fred Camillo candidates for First Selectmen at the Greenwich Performing Arts Center. Oct 10, 2019 Photo: Leslie Yager

First Selectman candidates Democrat Jill Oberlander (currently the chair of the BET) and Republican Fred Camillo (who is serving his sixth term as State Rep in district 151) debated first.

The questions were a combination of ones from the League and from the audience.

The candidates differentiated themselves from the get-go with a question about the redevelopment of the Greenwich Railroad station.

“The air rights are too valuable to give up,” Camillo said, adding he would like to see the Town give Ashforth Company either tax abatement or pay them. “Those buildings are tired. We can extend the lease. We’re in a position of strength right now.”

Oberlander said she worked for the MTA earlier in her career as an attorney and had negotiated contracts and handled procurement.

She said the deal, which is now on hold, had been negotiated without enough input.

“It was a closed door deal,” she said. “That would not happen in my administration.”

“We need expert advise on the valuation so we can be comfortable that the sale of the air rights is appropriate,” Oberlander added. “We deserve a magnificent gateway to Greenwich. I’d put together a committee with people from BET and P&Z to work with Dept of Public Works, Parking and Traffic to deal with all the issues.

Camillo said the deal was not done in secret. “While I disagree with the air rights component, the First Selectman was dealing in good faith.”

Oberlander said a large number of community members had heard nothing of the deal until it was announced in July.

“It depends on who is on the inside track,” she said.

Asked their plans for the troubled Parking Services Department which now reports to the police since a clerk was arrested in spring 2017  for Larceny, Forgery and Computer Crime, and the Director’s position was eliminated in fall  2017.

Camillo said parking services department is might be a good candidate to be outsourced, and that he would look at all the departments to see where they could be restructured.

Oberlander said the BET had to retain a forensic auditor to determine the magnitude of losses to parking services.

“That person determined there were 7 figures of funds that couldn’t be accounted for. However there were no records, so they couldn’t bring a criminal case,” she said, adding that a decision on how to handle parking services is on hold and the former director is suing the town.

“It’s under the police department to see if they can manage inventory, strategic planning, collections, management of permits and a number of issues not being performed well. We have to do something differently.”

Asked if they supported the senior housing building proposed at Armstrong Court Camillo said he works closely with the Housing Authority, and that he spent a lot of time at the public housing complex where his grandmother lived.

He said two weeks ago he met with domestic violence advocates and they asked if two units might be put aside in Armstrong Court aside for victims of domestic violence who need a place to stay. “They reached out to the Greenwich Police. It’s going to be really nice,” he said.

Oberlander said both senior housing and affordable housing are priorities. “We need more workforce housing so our teachers, fire fighters and police can come to Town.”

“When I was in Hartford I put a bill in to allow seniors to rent out accessory units and have it count toward the 10%,” Camillo said, referring to the 10% of housing the State says must be affordable. Until Greenwich reaches 10%, it will be targeted by developers applying under the 8-30g statute that exempts developers from local zoning.

Oberlander and Camillo disagreed on the place for public-private-partnerships, which Camillo referred to simply as P3.

Oberlander listed several public private partnerships she said were fantastic. But, she said, “I believe they are supplementary to government, which needs to be the primary seat at table. We can’t outsource the government.”

Also, she said, “Transparency, openness and accountability are all important. There must be an open process that everybody gets a chance to have their name on every opportunity, and it’s not done in a closed door deal.”

Camillo said he would only seek a P3 where appropriate.

“Other municipalities would love to be in Greenwich’s position to have groups like the Greenwich Athletic Foundation almost begging to get involved,” he said. “Of course if you have a P3 with the Town owning a property and leasing it out, there will be a risk. I’d put in place people who are really equipped, and make sure it’s transparent and open.”

In a discussion about infrastructure sparked by a questions about plans for the Hamill Rink, Camillo said, “We are behind. It’s embarrassing. We’re better than that.”

Oberlander said she wouldn’t want to rely on a P3 to make sure the ice rink is renovated or built anew, but that it’s important to prioritize.

“We have schools that are in disrepair and 30 years after ADA we have schools that are not accessible. We need a conversation about needs and priorities.”

Camillo disagreed.

“I do not want government funding everything. Our peer towns mill rates are West Hartford and Fairfield with mill rates of 38 and 25. We’re a little over 11. We’ll get to 30 pretty quickly if you look to government to pay for everything,” Camillo said. “I’m going to keep saying that you’re sick of it.”

Oberlander said it is important to fix  infrastructure so that new families won’t drive past Greenwich to Westport, Darien and Wilton.

“We need to do it for our property values,” she said.

“I went here (GHS) and I taught in public school. The main thing is you want great education. Buildings don’t teach you,” Camillo said.

The other topic where the candidate for First Selectman disagreed was in their view of long term financing.

Oberlander said there are times it is appropriate for future generations to share an expense, and used the example of the contaminated soil at Western Middle School where students haven’ had use of the fields for three years. “Financing has to be part of the discussion,” she said.

Besides, she said, “We already have long term debt. We used it for Nathaniel Witherell, for sewers, and to purchase property. It’s already in play.”

Camillo pushed back. “You never ever want to abandon what has worked so well since the 1930s. If you go to long term debt, it’ll go to more spending and more taxes. Hartford was the wealthiest city in Connecticut. Now look at it. I’d never advocate for a change to long term debt as a policy.”

Oberlander said the town has had to work backwards from emergencies including the high school stadium bleachers which were condemned last April. She brought up the ceiling tile that fell a great distance from the student center ceiling and hit a teen on the head, resulting in a law suit as examples.

“Ninety-two percent of our debt is paid off within 10 years,” Camillo said. “It makes it so much easier to say, ‘Let someone pay for it down the road,’ because money is cheap. How selfish is that?”

“You don’t push off the debt. You re-prioritize if there is a problem…You have my word that would not happen under my administration,” Camillo added.

In closing remarks Camillo said his vision includes reforming the way projects are financed, and to refurbish and repurpose long dormant and under-used assets.

Also he would like to make Greenwich a role model for other municipalities for its environmental initiatives.

Another idea of Camillo’s is to hold every other Board of Selectmen meeting in the evening so that people who work during the day can attend.

In her closing Oberlander said, “Under my (BET) leadership we kept your taxes low, lower than my Republican colleagues wanted, and prevented $1.7 million education cuts championed by the Republicans.”

“I know all the department heads. I know their operations, and I know what we have to do to move Greenwich forward,” she said. “We are at an inflection point. The Greenwich name alone is no longer enough to attract new businesses and new families.”

Oberlander added her administration would reflect her values. “I would speak out for women and their access to health care and reproductive freedom, for the civil rights of marginalized communities. And I will be a voice for the marginalized among us – the disabled and the elderly.”

Selectman Sandy Litvack who is running for a second term and BOE member Lauren Rabin who is running for Selectman. Oct 10, 2019 Photo: Leslie Yager
Democratic Selectman Sandy Litvack who is running for a second term and BOE member Republican Lauren Rabin who is running for Selectman. Oct 10, 2019 Photo: Leslie Yager

During the debate between Selectman candidates, Democrat Sandy Litvack said as the lone Democrat on the three person board of Selectmen he’d noticed the two Republicans were a team.

“What I’ve done candidly is sit there and you ask the tough questions. That’s what our job is. It’s called leadership. Making sure everything as been aired, and aired publicly with the facts.”

“I don’t think the community wants us to put politics first. I’d support the first selectman no matter who it is,” Rabin said.

Asked about projects they’d like to accomplish, Litvack said he’d like to see the creation of an office of economic development. “I know how to do that. We did that at Disney,” he said. “We have a slogan: Think Greenwich. That’s not a plan.”

“I agree we need an economic development plan. But, being the incumbent, you would have had the opportunity to do that over the last two years,” Rabin said.

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“Unfortunately not, because we’ve had a First Selectman who believes a slogan is sufficient,” Litvack said, referring to Peter Tesei, who announced last February he would not run for a 7th term. Tesei’s Economic Advisory Committee is behind the Think Greenwich public relations effort.

Rabin said she envisioned part of her role as Selectman to serve as ombudsman. “With respect to our schools, since I’m on the Board of Education, we’ve had a revolving door of superintendents. That’s impacted the system. I’d like to be that ombudsman and embrace the new superintendent and make sure she can steer the system into the future.”

As for the process of nominating volunteers for town boards and commissions and committees, Litvack said he wished the three-person Board of Selectmen could make appointments without them also having to go before the RTM.

“You need to excite people to do these things. I am satisfied that the Board of Selectmen does a good job of interviewing, vetting and trying to get the best candidates for each job,” he said. “What I’m not satisfied with is that the process doesn’t end there. …We have had people turned down because they get caught in a political maelstrom.”

Rabin disagreed. “We’re just three people in a community of 60,000,” she said.

“If you think you’re going to look at ten people to pick from, you’re not,” Litvack said.

Rabin said she was on the Social Services Board and there are always issues with getting talent and filling openings, and having a balance of Republicans and Democrats adds a challenge. “I’ve seen people change their party affiliation to get on a board of commission,” she said, but went on to say the RTM was an important extra layer.

Asked which projects they supported funding among fields remediation, replace or upgrade Hamill Rink and a new Eastern Greenwich Civic Center, Litvack said all worthy causes.

“It’s quite obvious you can’t do everything at once,” he added.”The key is to prioritize. That’s a community decision. …We have schools 60 and 70 years old. You may not want to pass on the debt to your children. Instead, you’re passing on 70 year old schools to your children. We’ve had 18 years of one party rule. If these things aren’t done, who’s responsible?”

Rabin said she was more in agreement with Camillo and his idea to pursue P3’s wherever appropriate. “We need to prioritize,” she said, noting that schools can’t be shut down for work to take place. Projects need to be done over the summer.

“The key is we have got to get these schools up to par. It may well be teachers are the most important element,” Litvack said, referring to Camillo’s comment during the first debate. “But 70-year-old schools not compliant with ADA, and without modern technology. People aren’t going to move to Greenwich when they can be in Darien or Westport and have those facilities.”

Rabin said the Board of Education had put together a master facilities plan. “We prioritized ADA compliance and security,” she said.

Like the First Selectman candidates, Litvack and Rabin had a chance to weigh in on the train station redevelopment.

“When I was told about it, and I suggested we hire competent people to advise us, that was totally ignored and instead we entered into a deal,” he said. “I am a lawyer. I know nothing about this area of law. You go and get the right people.”

“We were amateurs in this situation,” Litvack added. “Next time around we won’t be.”

“When I am on the Board of Selectmen, I will be part of a three person board,” Rabin said. “There won’t be something I’m not part of. I listened to the he- said, she-said. Behind closed doors? That’s not how I behave.”

Litvack said the closed fields needing remediation are exceedingly important, and that with Western Middle School closed three years and so far, there isn’t a plan in place to fix it.

Asked if there was an issue that hadn’t been brought up, Litvack drew applause when he spoke about national politics.

“I have been critical of our town leaders, of people in our legislature and others who have failed to lead, whether speaking out about climate change, affirmative action, or speaking about children being put in cages,” Litvack said.

“Leadership in my judgement requires those of us who to purport to be leaders to stand up and speak out,” he added. “It’s political.”

“Are we going to stand up as a town and say what comes comes out of Washington is inconsistent with our values in Greenwich, Connecticut, and we don’t support it and we don’t like it?” he asked.

Rabin said, “Leadership is critical. It’s also about uniting, not dividing them. People need to want to follow you. Proclaiming yourself a leader without followers doesn’t mean you’re a leader.”

During her closing remarks, Rabin announced that she left her full time job to focus on the role of Selectman.

“I want to apply my experience, energy and enthusiasm for the job of Selectman,” Rabin said. “And I’m going to make sure that our community gets the benefit of a three-member board that is committed, available, present and not just being there some time, but being there all the time. You deserve this.”

Litvack said his opponents’ slogan, “From Greenwich. For Greenwich,” was offensive. “It suggests that if you weren’t born in Greenwich you won’t have the same intensity for Greenwich. That’s not true.”

“It detracts from the real issue. Electing a selectman isn’t about attendance. You don’t get an A because you’ve shown up for 40 years,” he said. “You get an A because you have leadership…Jill and I teamed up because we thought the two of us together brought  unique and complimentary skills. We’re both lawyers, with different kinds of practices…Together I think we offer something this Town has not had.”

Upcoming debates include:

Tax Collector Debate, Wednesday, Oct 30, from 7:00pm to 8:00pm  will also be sponsored by the League of Women Voters Greenwich. Incumbent Democrat Howard Richman vs Republican Heather Smeriglio. The moderator will be Marianne Pollak from Stamford, former Stamford League President.

Board of Education Forum Tuesday, October 15 from 7:00 – 9:00 pm at Central Middle School, 9 Indian Rock Lane, Greenwich. The LWVG and the Greenwich PTA Council will co-sponsor the forum, moderated by Jara Burnett of the Greenwich League. A non-partisan PTA Council panel will choose questions from written submissions by the PTAs and Council Committees.

The Round Hill Association will also hold a debate between the candidates for First Selectman and Selectman on Tuesday, Oct 22 at the Round Hill Community House at 397 Round Hill Rd. Refreshments are at 6:30. The debate is 7-8:30 pm. Candidates include Fred Camillo, Jill Oberlander, Lauren Rabin, Sandy Litvack. Jara Burnett from LWV will moderate.