Republican candidates for selectman Christa Kenin and Nick Williams said during a debate on Wednesday they would not force a primary in the fall municipal election should they fail to win the nomination during the Republican caucus on July 18.
This is in contrast to two of the three Republican candidates for first selectman, Cristina Ross and Kevin Moynihan, who earlier in the evening indicated that it is possible they will choose to primary, should they fail to get on the party ticket. Both said it would depend on the outcome of the vote in the caucus.
When asked if he would support his opponent in the fall election if he is not endorsed, Williams, a three-term incumbent, said during the Republican Town Committee debate, “Yes, I support Republicans.”
“And although it’s not my race, I’m a little shocked to hear that at least two of the candidates running for first selectman saying they won’t respect this process and that they’ll primary,” he said during the debate, held at Town Hall and moderated by Michael Dinan of NewCanaanite.com and Greg Reilly of the New Canaan Advertiser. “I’m of the opinion that if I were to lose to Ms. Kenin [in the caucus], I would probably not be inclined to primary.”
Kenin, a member of the Town Council who is challenging Williams for his seat, also said she would “not force a primary in the fall, should I fail to get the nomination.”
“And I will wholeheartedly support my opponent should he get the ticket on Tuesday,” she added.
The well-attended debate, which was the second sponsored by the RTC, covered a wide range of topics, from how to handle downtown development to how to hold down rising taxes to how to address a lack of commuter parking in town (for coverage of the first debate, click here, here and here).
In her opening remarks, Kenin said part of the reason she is running is because the current administration is too “cozy” and is failing to address issues that directly impact property values in town.
“Right now on the three-person Board of Selectmen we seem to have one person and—I hate to say it—a pair of twins,” Kenin said. “In the last six years I can’t remember a time when the first selectman and the second selectman voted differently from each other. We have not seen much debate or deliberation – what we’ve seen is a lot of head nodding, dramatic sweeping gestures, rash decisions, and even an occasional high-five once the tapes of stopped rolling.”
“It all feels a little too cozy—and cozy is a bad place to be,” Kenin said. “We want three people on the Board of Selectmen who are going to individually research the issues that come across their desks—and critically analyze those issues. We want leaders who are going to actively discuss and debate the issues in public, so our citizens know and see that their elected officials are working hard at work representing them.”
Kenin said if she is elected selectman, “I can promise you that the dynamic on the board will be a little different. There will be no cozy. Instead there will be independence and objectivity. There will be critical thinking and a faithful adherence to the single policy of what is best for our town.”
Instead of responding directly to Kenin’s prepared remarks, Williams instead chose to address “two issues which our opponents have been critical of us [i.e., the Republican members of the Board of Selectmen] for – transparency and inclusion.”
“Ironically, I view these issues as a strength of this current Board of Selectmen,” Williams said, adding that a few years ago he supported as somewhat controversial proposal to televise all town meetings.
“Today all of our meetings are televised—and I am proud of my role in introducing that historic level of transparency,” Williams said. “We’ve also been criticized for not being inclusive—during our six years we’ve added 92 new volunteers to our board and commissions. I believe the level of inclusiveness achieved by our administration is unsurpassed in the history of our town.”
When asked later in the debate whether he had ever opposed a decision by First Selectman Rob Mallozzi and tried to change Mallozzi’s viewpoint, during their six years on the board together, Williams said, “I stand up to Rob all the time. In the past we’ve had some boards of selectmen where the first selectman and the second selectman didn’t get along, and it played out publicly and it didn’t go very well. Rob would be the first one to tell you that I am not shy about giving him my opinion. I think I have a strong influence on him… “
When pressed to be more specific, Williams said he thought had a strong influence on Mallozzi when the board was faced with a decision whether to proceed with construction at Saxe Middle School.
In general, Kenin has been positioning herself as an agent of change for town government while Williams has touted the administration’s past achievements, including “Support for our top-ranked schools—including the renovation of Saxe Middle School; a beautiful new Town Hall; a fully funded pension plan for town employees; a striking new post office; new partnerships, as with the New Canaan Athletic Foundation, which recently commenced a historic upgrade of the town’s athletic facilities; and, more recently, the bringing off natural gas to our town.”
When asked if she could recall a time when she cast a dissenting vote on the Town Council, Kenin said, “A perfect example of that was during Charter review. One of the issues that came up was whether Board of Finance members should be required to own real property or rent. Out of the 12 Town Council members I was the only one to dissent and say, ‘Yes, I do want Board of Finance members to be required to own real property,’ because I believe that a lot of the [capital] projects are pushed to be bonded, and in 20 years when they come due, I know I’ll be there. And voters agreed with me overwhelmingly, when it came down to it.”
In fact, minutes from Town Council meetings through Charter revision discussions show that Kenin voted with the group—not against it—in putting five major questions drawn up by the Charter Revision Commission to voters last year, and no record exists of a vote where she dissented. (All five major Charter Revision Commission recommendations were approved 12-0 by the Town Council at its July 20, 2016 meeting, according to minutes of the meeting later accepted by the group.) A review of meeting minutes from Kenin’s approximately two years on the Town Council show that she voted with the majority 95 times versus once with the minority (on a wording change to a motion already voted up unanimously, at the Feb. 24, 2016 meeting, according to its minutes). The figures do not include unanimous votes by consent or on items such as accepting meeting minutes or the individual expenditures of budget call.
Kenin declined to issue a clarifying statement when given the opportunity by New Canaanite. “I stand behind all my comments made at the debate,” she said in an email.
One topic that has been debated frequently in New Canaan in recent months is a preliminary proposal to deck one or more of the commuter parking lots in town in order to address a serious shortage of commuter parking and the long wait list for parking permits. Some have said that the long wait list has served as deterrent to potential home buyers—some of whom have opted for Darien over New Canaan due to parking and the shorter commute.
Although recent data was presented during the debate comparing New Canaan favorably to Darien in terms of the number of commuter parking spaces and the number of people waiting for permits, Kenin, who is in favor of building more parking at the Lumberyard Lot, said the issue is “less about specific numbers and more about the actual experience.”
“If you came to New Canaan three years ago, you could immediately get a commuter parking spot in the Talmadge Hill lot,” she said. “Today, there is a two-year wait list. To me, it’s a binary situation [between New Canaan and Darien]—it doesn’t matter if you had 600 or 1,200 people waiting—I would say we’ve made commuter parking inaccessible.”
In light of the recent controversial applications before Planning & Zoning, the candidates were asked what one question they “would you want to ask a prospective member of the Planning & Zoning Commission—and what would you hope their answer to be?”
“I would ask what their vision of New Canaan is … and what is that proper balance between the traditional village of New Canaan versus having more commercial operations that might enhance the tax base,” Williams said. “We have a re-valuation coming up—and we might have some tough choices. Does that mean we want more commercial activities? It might…”
“Also, I’d like it to be someone who knows the town well,” Williams added. “Because we’re different from Darien, and we’re different from Greenwich, and having an understanding of the fabric of this community is important.”
Kenin said her “vision for P&Z would be to maintain our rural charm because that’s why people move here.”
“Let’s have reasonable development not over-development,” she said. “Let’s maintain our village charm—because that’s why people shop here—and let’s expand the types of businesses that are allowed in town. And let’s always make sure we have our affordable housing moratorium in place, because although its been touted as a great success, it was not in place this past fall when we needed it most.”
When asked why she feels Williams is responsible for New Canaan not meeting its full potential, Kenin said, “Well, he has been part of the current administration that’s been in place for six years that has not forward the issues of providing better cell service and improving commuter parking. Also, I believe that one of his campaign promises in 2011 was to personally take on the downtown and make sure it maintained its vibrancy, and we still have a lot of challenges there.”
Williams responded by saying he thinks “downtown is pretty vibrant” and that the current retail vacancies are not a major concern.
Considering that local taxes have been rising sharply in New Canaan during the past three years, the candidates were also asked how sustainable the current rate of increase will be, moving into the future.
“It’s not [sustainable],” Kenin said. “And [the upcoming] revaluations will come in lower than expected—and that’s the only reasonable way an elected official should approach planning.”
When asked what as he would do, if elected, should the revaluation come in lower than expected, Kenin said, “As always, we would need to control spending—and I would be much more aggressive about determining wants and needs. And we would need to make sure we increase revenues—and there are a number of ways to do that.”
In response to the same question, Williams said: “It’s pretty simple: Money in, money out. You either raise taxes, you cut spending, or you do both.’
“Tough choices may have to be made with the re-val,” he said. “We’ve already postponed [the development of the] Locust [Street lot], which was approved by the Town Council unanimously, I believe, in 2012. It was scheduled to be in the budget this year—but the Board of Finance said, ‘We can’t handle it—we just have too much going on.’ I would be more than happy to look at decking the Lumberyard [lot]. But that could be [up to] $18 million. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do it… but we need to be very careful moving forward. I am very concerned about this re-val.”
When asked to be more specific about what he would do to reduce the town budget, should a revaluation come in exceedingly low, Williams said, “It’s going to be tough. The Board of Education budget is essentially 60 percent to 63 percent of the town budget—and most of that is driven the the teachers contract. Likewise we have union contracts here at Town Hall. To be honest, it’s going to be capital expenditures, [where we look to cut].”
Earlier in the evening, a debate was held among Republican candidates for first selectman—Ross, Moynihan and Rob Mallozzi. For coverage of that debate, click here.
Later in the evening, a separate debate was held for candidates for the Town Council. Stay tuned to NewCanaanite for coverage of that debate.
—Michael Dinan contributed to this report