On Tuesday night the Greenwich League of Women Voters hosted debates starting with the First Selectman candidates – the incumbent Republican Fred Camillo and his Democratic challenger Bill Kelly.
The two faced off in front of a limited audience at town hall for an hour. During the last 30 minutes incumbent Republican Selectwoman Lauren Rabin faced off against her Democratic challenger Janet Stone McGuigan.
As the debate wore on, differences between Camillo and Kelly became clearer.
Mr. Kelly described himself as an attorney who specialized in litigation and construction law, but also as a longtime volunteer in Greenwich, rather than a career politician.
Camillo said despite the 100 year pandemic and historic flooding, he and Selectwoman Rabin had accomplished a great deal, including expanded recycling at Holly Hill and reducing a budget hole there. He said a blight ordinance had been put in place, outdoor dining was created, and a more pedestrian friendly Greenwich Avenue was in the works.
He described his continued vision for the town with a Greenwich Avenue featuring pedestrian friendly intersections and outdoor dining, all eventually to be connected to a new waterfront district at Greenwich Harbor. He said toward that end, an RFP had gone out and the renderings would be revealed soon.
Mr. Kelly said his top priority was Greenwich Public Schools.
He said Central Middle School was so deteriorated that the movement out the building’s perimeter walls were being measured by monitors.
Time and again, Mr. Kelly brought up the issue of deteriorating school infrastructure, asserting that Camillo had not made that his top priority while the Republican controlled Board of Estimate and Taxation declined to fund the building ed specs recommended by the Board of Education.
Asked about capital improvement priorities for spending American Recovery Act funds and town funds, Camillo said there was over $30 million of funds, not including $9 million+ of funds for the BOE, and he wanted to abide by the spirit of the funding. He said he wanted to use the federal funds in a balance between affordable housing, infrastructure and non profits.
He said that with town funds, he’d like to finish projects in progress including the Eastern Greenwich Civic Center.
“We just received a $5 million, biggest ever donation for the Eastern Greenwich Civic Center. …We want to finish the GEMS station which was 6 years in the making. We want make sure that schools – the First Selectman gets the capital budget from the BOE briefly, and then hands it over to the BET, but last year we agreed with the Julian Curtiss and Old Greenwich School funding.”
Mr. Kelly said he wasn’t sure what the constraints were on federal American Recovery Act Funds, but that his capital spending focus would be on public schools.
“We have our schools that are in very dire need of correction, fixing, repairs and replacement,” he said. “I think it’s important everyone understand what happened at North Mianus School…This was a 2-inch plaster ceiling covering the entire classroom of a 4th grade class that fell straight down. Two inches of plaster weighs between 11 and 30 lbs per square foot. That that means about a ton and a half of a ceiling fell on a 4th grade ceiling.”
“That can never happen again. We have to be proactive with the schools now,” he continued. “We’ve had projects turned down,” he said.
Asked about political rancor and dealing with national politics impacting the town, Mr. Kelly said in all his years volunteering, including 6 years on RTM in district 6, including 4 years as district leader, eight years on the BOE, four years on BET, four years president of Rocky Point Club, service on the Town’s Claims Committee, and service on six building committees, “Never ever did we have the rancor that we have today.”
“The one thing I can bring to this table is collaboration,” he said, adding that national politics should not permeate town government.
Mr. Camillo pointed out that his first act as First Selectman was to nominate a Democrat to the Appeals Board when he could have nominated a Republican.
“You serve all the people,” he said. “I was Assistant Republican leader in Hartford for 11 years. But you don’t get a lot of bills passed in Hartford if you’re a loud mouth, if your word isn’t your bond and if you don’t get along with the other side.”
Camillo said he listened to residents and merchants regardless of party. He said he met with merchants on Greenwich Avenue who were unhappy that the bottom two blocks of the Avenue were closed to cars to make way for outdoor dining early in the pandemic.
“Everyone wanted to continue having the bottom of the Ave closed off to cars, but we heard them. You have to listen,” he said, adding that the policy was ultimately adjusted.
“What we really need is leadership from the office of First Selectman to say this rancor has to end,” Mr. Kelly said. “There has to be trust between the BOE and the BET. There has to be trust among the BET. We have the BET sending documents back to the BOE saying, ‘You’re not going to build this over at Julian Curtiss,’ when the BOE is elected to come up with the ed specs…This is festering and if we don’t fix this now, this is going to get worse.”
“First, North Mianus School was funded,” Camillo said. “This has been going on for a long time. But, you lead by example, that’s all you can do.”
“I have the Democratic and Republican leadership in my office every month talking over things. I can’t control what’s going on on social media…but I will continue to lead, even in a 100 year pandemic, where we got R’s and Democrats alike to have almost a 90% vaccination rate. That is leadership.”
Mr. Kelly countered by saying the pandemic response was actually led by Governor Lamont. “The legislature was the one who allowed for outdoor dining. Greenwich Hospital stepped up terrifically. Brunswick School, who opened the vaccination center were a wonderful piece of solving the problem. That was the leadership that existed during the pandemic.”
“You have some sway with respect to the Republicans,” Kelly said. “You should be saying, ‘Stop this rancor to solve the problems today.’ Leadership not just a position.”
“Governor Lamont’s own words were, ‘We love the outdoor dining.’ You talk about vaccinations, who reached out to Greenwich Hospital?” Camillo asked.
Camillo said that during the pandemic he had partnered with Greenwich Hospital for daily, and later weekly meetings and press conferences.
“The Governor actually put it in the hands of municipal leaders and when I enforced a mandate to wear a mask when we went into the red zone, I got a lot of push back from my party,” Camillo added.
Asked about solar panels on town buildings, Camillo talked about his energy initiatives, including the first Electric charging stations and expanding recycling at Holly Hill to include food scraps and textiles.
“We’ve put together a waste management committee,” he added.
Mr. Kelly said the architectural design plans for the new Eastern Greenwich Civic Center did not contain any requirement for energy savings.
“I’ve looked at the business plan for EGCC,” he said, questioning how an $18 million building could lose $250,000 a year. “That’s the business plan for EGCC!”
Camillo said it was actually a $21 million building, but there was a $5million private donation.
“There is a component of that will be able to have solar panels on it,” Camillo said. “That’s going to be a great asset for the town. …We got it done, and with the biggest public donation to this town for a public building by double…It’s a success story. We’re still trying to make it as green as possible.”
Mr. Kelly quipped that the Bruce Museum had received a donation of $15 million.
“This is the biggest one I’ve seen so far,” Camillo said of the $5 million for the civic center, adding that he was exploring naming opportunities for the two gymnasiums, hallway/plaza, café and courtyard.
Camillo said he would continue pursuing public-private partnerships for funding capital projects in future.
“Essential services and facilities of this town should not depend on public-private partnership,” Mr. Kelly said. “Essential town facilities should be paid for by the town. I don’t think we should be dependent on someone coming forward with a donation to provide for public buildings in this town. We have a situation in Round Hill where there is a volunteer fire station. The town gave them $1 million to redesign the station, but when it came time to provide for career staff at that station, the BET turned down the $75,000 proposed for the design work of a facility that would have both career and volunteer (firefighters). If a fire station should be there at Round Hill, it should be paid for by the town.”
“With respect for the EGCC, I do not believe we should be issuing naming rights. That’s a clear difference we have,” Kelly said. “I think that leads to a lot of problems.”
Mr. Camillo said the private donations did not come with conditions, and he intended to continue to pursue them.
The candidates were asked where they would prioritize renovation of schools such as Julian Curtiss School, Old Greenwich School and Central Middle School, and whether the BOE or BET should determine the ed specifications of each building.
This resulted in a passionate exchange between the two First Selectman candidates.
“This is where parties need to stay in their lane,” Kelly said. “The ed specs are the responsibility of the BOE and when they make that determination it is up to the BET to examine it and fund it.”
“My priority would be the schools. Make sure North Mianus School is completed on time.”
As for CMS he said the BET turned down a $100,000 study of the curtain wall.
“Now they have to put up these monitors because the walls are moving. JC came forward with a feasibility study and they asked it be funded last year at $1.7million, and the Republicans in charge of the BET declined to fund the project with the BOE’s recommended ed specs.”
“The BOE has come back again with the same ed specs because they think it is the right thing to do,” Kelly continued. “We have these artificial constraints that the BET has put on us.”
Camillo said capital funding was tough, but all the more reason to create public-private partnerships.
Camillo said the private donations had nothing to do with schools, fire houses or police stations. “But other facilities, why not?”
“You can push the schools to the top of the project list, right?” Kelly asked.
“Yes,” Camillo said.
“Have you done that?” Kelly asked.
“We’re in the middle doing that right now,” Camillo responded. “The school projects you were complaining about right now I supported last year.”
“Support is one thing,” Kelly said.
“They were in my capital (budget),” Camillo added.
“Were they in the top of your capital?” Kelly asked.
“Close to it,” Camillo said.
“They should be number one,” Kelly said.
“You have your priorities I have mine. I think I’m doing what I think is best for the town,” Camillo said, adding that he was a product of Greenwich Public Schools himself. “I value our public education and they won’t get shortchanged under my administration.”
“Well they have,” Kelly said.
“They have not,” Camillo said.
“Right now we have a monitor on the walls at CMS,” Kelly said.
“That’s not the First Selectman,” Camillo said.
Affordable Housing and 8-30g
Camillo praised Greenwich Communities (formerly the Greenwich Housing Authority) for their work on affordable housing, but said every time a new building is developed, impervious surface increases and exacerbates flooding.
He pointed to the state affordable housing statute 8-30g as a culprit and said he’d fought against the agenda of DeSegregate CT last year, defening local control. He explained that for Greenwich to achieve the 10% required to comply with 8-30g would mean an additional 1200 affordable units and 3800 market rate units to support them, for a total of 5000 additional units.
“Do you know what that would do to our infrastructure?” he asked. “I am focused on this and will work with my former colleagues in Hartford to try to get them to put a moratorium on 8-30g because it is causing a problem with flooding.”
Mr. Kelly said he was generally in agreement with Mr. Camillo and that 8-30g shifted the burden of proof to towns.
“We have the affordable housing in Greenwich already, we just don’t have the 40 year commitment that the statute requires,” Kelly said.
Greenwich Avenue, Pedestrian Safety, Bumpouts, Bicycle Friendliness
Mr. Kelly said Democrats had proposed a $75,000 bicycle study to the BET, but it was rejected.
“We need to do a study to investigate the feasibility of bike routes across town. We need to be leaders with respect to the use of bicycles in town. That means providing them a place to place their bicycles.”
Kelly said with the police no longer directing traffic at intersections on Greenwich Avenue it gets “chaotic.”
He said he had discussed with Police Chief Heavey the possibility of special police or school crossing guards to man the intersections during lunch hours, Christmas holidays and other busy times.
Camillo said redeploying police to the bike unit and undercover unit had been successful, with many arrests.
He said bike racks were in the works and a bicycle task force had been formed.
“We’re great when it comes to hiking trails…not so good with biking on our roads. Our biggest problem is our roads are not that wide.”
“Jim Michel and I have spoken about putting markings on the road that would be a drawing of a bicycle so motorists know they are sharing the road with a bicycle.”
“I think what’s important to note is the Republican (controlled) BET turned down $75,000 for a feasibility study of the bicycle routes,” Mr. Kelly said.
In closing statements Mr. Camillo said despite the pandemic and historic flooding, much had been accomplished in his two year term including a blight ordinance, outdoor dining, a more pedestrian friendly Greenwich Avenue, a brand new waterfront district.
Mr. Kelly said, “I have experience. I’ve worked as a construction lawyer. I’ve served on the BET and BOE. No First Selectman candidate has had that town service.”
He said he decided to run because he was concerned about the rancor in town government.
“It should not have any place here. I was hopeful I could provide a bridge to help people collaborate, to come up with ideas and solve problems together.”
“I will take care of the schools, please look at the priorities on the League of Women voters website and you will see.”
The selectmen candidates were also asked about partisan rancor.
Ms Stone McGuigan said she’d been knocking on doors and hearing that people were tired of partisanship.
“I also think we have to be honest and say there is also division within the Republican party. For instance the BOE is a balanced board, but its budgets are not being supported by the Republican led BET. At the same time the capital priorities coming from the First Selectman’s office are not in line with the capital projects of the BOE.”
Ms Rabin agreed the partisanship was disappointing, but she attributed it to a small group of people.
“It’s just really loud people. If we can speak to one another, not in loud voices, not write letters to the editor that are one sided, not blame one side for one thing and come together and share our common beliefs and do so in a way that’s respectful,” she said. “As a leader we need to just simmer down the dialogue.”
Asked for their number one priority, Ms Rabin said in working as a liaison with the nominations committee she’d learned about all the boards and commissions and felt more of them should work together. “That’s probably the biggest priority.”
Rabin she said a goal would be to improve driving habits. She noted the Board of Selectmen serve as the town’s traffic authority and she’d been working with the police chief on an email for people to report issues in addition to the Access Greenwich app.
Ms Stone McGuigan said her top priority would be to create a spirit of collaboration, not only on the Board of Selectmen, but between the BET and BOE.
“We need to come together and focus on public processes,” she said. “Our processes need to include a full range of community in put when we’re making decisions.”
Stone McGuigan said she would like to see pressure taken off the BOE, “by letting them focus on academics and not the budget.”
As for affordable housing, she said denser housing resulted in strains on schools, water runoff and parking.
Ms Rabin brought up the housing trust fund, which aims to encourage development in places where it will be the least impactful to the environment and infrastructure. She said she also hoped that by working with state legislators more accessory units could be counted toward the state tally of housing. Currently the naturally occurring affordable housing is not counted because the units are not deed restricted and are not available to the general public.
“I don’t believe in development that sacrifices our natural resources,” Rabin said. “We already have so many issues with climate change, and coastal flooding and mother nature catastrophes. We have to do it in a way that protects our natural resources and doesn’t congregate it in one section of town either. …We are putting a strain on the schools (on the western side of town). They are racially imbalanced and we have to think of the big picture when we address any of our issues in town.”
Ms Stone McGuigan said she agreed. As a member of the board of CCI she said she was familiar with concerns about affordable housing.
“I have been knocking on doors in this campaign. I have toured every corner of Greenwich and I am struck by how diverse our housing stock is,” she said.
In closing, Ms Rabin said her reasons to run for re election were the same as two years earlier.
“I want to make ensure that our amazingly diverse community continue to thrive – a place to live, work play and stay. I put emphasis on stay,” she said. “I want our seniors to be able to age in town. I want housing that is affordable for our children and grandchildren. I want our residents to stay here and not leave for states with more tax friendly environments.”
Ms. Stone McGuigan said in her door knocking she had heard concerns that aligned with her priorities.
But, she said, “Just as many voters are telling me they don’t feel connected to Greenwich.”
“I am honored to be part of an impressive slate of candidates. We have our priorities straight,” she said. “We are ready to work together collaboratively and inclusively with each other and across the political aisle. We want you to know that we have heard you and want to help you feel connected to Greenwich. ….Our strength lies in the teamwork we can deliver if we are elected together.”