New Canaan’s legislative body on Monday night voted to fill a vacancy in the 12-member group with a father of twin kindergartners who has resided in New Canaan for two years and works as an attorney.
Mike Mauro will fill a Town Council seat previously held by fellow Republican Ken Campbell, following an 8-3 vote during a special meeting at Town Hall.
He was one of two candidates for the open seat, along with Democrat Colm Dobbyn, a 25-year resident of New Canaan and attorney who is the longest-serving member of the Inland Wetlands Commission.
Describing himself and his wife, Melissa, as family-oriented young parents and hard-working professionals—she works for a commodities firm based in Switzerland—Mauro said he specializes in labor employment and views his candidacy for the Council as an opportunity to give back to a town he and Melissa quickly embraced after falling in love with its schools.
“You know, it’s getting tougher and tougher to get into this town—it’s getting tougher and tougher to stay in this town,” he said during the meeting, attended by about 50 people including First Selectman Kevin Moynihan, Selectman Kit Devereaux and several members of the Democratic and Republican Town Committees.
Saying “Hartford is absolutely crumbling,” Mauro said he feared that “a lot of money and obligations will be forced upon this town because of the very, very large, underfunded pension plan at the state.” He noted, too that “we have some underfunded problems on our post-employee benefits of our own town employees, which concerns me.”
“So those are areas that I am looking at and I have some novel solutions or at least some input that I think my colleagues, if they become my colleagues, would be interested in hearing. So I think my skill set coupled with some of the problems that we are seeing makes me prime to contribute at this point.”
The Town Council voted largely along party lines, with Republicans Penny Young, John Engel, Rich Townsend, Steve Karl, Christa Kenin, Cristina A. Ross and Tom Butterworth voting for Mauro, as well as Democrat Jim Kucharczyk, and Democrats Liz Donovan, Joe Paladino and Sven Englund voting for Dobbyn.
Kucharczyk said after the vote that he was swayed by Mauro’s observation that as a father with kids in the New Canaan Public Schools system, he would bring a different perspective to the Town Council. Paladino said the reason for largely party-line votes is that the Councilmen raised their hands for the candidates they knew best, and warmly welcomed Mauro to the legislative body.
As per Section 4-4 of the Town Charter, the seat Mauro now occupies will come up for general election this fall. (It will then come up again in 2019, when the seat’s four-year term is to expire.)
Mauro had sought party backing for his candidacy for the Town Council in July but finished fifth in the voting with four Republican-held seats up for election in November. Hoping to pick up a seat, the Democrats gamely nominated three candidates though the party had held just two seats up for election last year. In the end Dobbyn finished seventh out of seven candidates seeking to fill six total seats.
Dobbyn, an Irish immigrant brought to the United States as a child who has been practicing law for 34 years—he’s in-house head of intellectual property for MasterCard—said he “embodies the American dream in many ways,” is “really grateful for everything this country has offered me” and for those reasons has always sought to give back to his community.
A father of two kids who went through the public schools and widower, Dobbyn said he has brought both legal and analytical skills to bear on the Inland Wetlands Commission.
Describing himself as a hard worker who works well with others, Dobbyn said he tries to “get all the facts” and “really understand the issues” prior to reaching a conclusion.
“I am not a partisan person,” he said. “I don’t think in the 12 years or so that I have been on the Commission that we have ever had a partisan vote. In fact, I didn’t even know who the Democrats were or Republicans were for the first five or six years. So, I am offering myself to bring the same skills and the same hard work ethic that I did for Inland Wetlands to the Town Council and I ask you to be open to a Democrat. I understand that that is hard but I really am a non-partisan person and the things that I ran on, with Sven and Liz, are the same things that everybody in this town wants: public school excellence, preserving the character of the town, fiscal prudence, which is obviously very important, legislating of the people and addressing seniors’ needs. I don’t think these are partisan issues. I think we are all committed to preserving the quality of life in this town and serving the town as well as we can.”
Mauro joins a Town Council amid a particularly budget season. The Board of Education has proposed a 3.5 percent spending increase for next fiscal year against a Board of Finance guideline of 2 percent, and local taxes are projected to bring in about $500,000 less in revenue for the town than in recent years.
The Councilmen through questions returned to that theme—remaining tight-fisted during budget hearings when financial support for things like public schools programs are said to be at stake— in vetting the candidates. They also asked about top priorities facing the town and how they would address them, cell towers and responsibilities of the Council.
Paladino asked the candidates whether they could identify potential cost-savings in the district’s proposed budgets that would not amount to cuts in programming. Mauro responded that its’ a “basic principle of any budget,” public or private, that “a dollar you spend is not always a wise dollar.”
“There is always a dollar to be found that can be cut,” Mauro said. “It’s always a function of weighing the loss or the benefit. First, was there a benefit? What was the value? Can you assign a value to that dollar that we spent? If you can’t, obviously it goes. I can’t imagine in a budget of that size, aside from what are mandated for contractual issues, I can’t imagine there’s not an ability to find some dollars to cut in that budget. You can’t just rubber-stamp anything that comes through. We are not in a position—we were never in a position but we are certainly not in one now—where we can just endorse whatever the budget is simply because we say, ‘We love a great educational system.’ And as I said—my children are here tonight—we moved here because of the school system.”
Dobbyn said he agreed and thought that New Canaan must take a hard “critical approach” and “look at where the money is going and if things have changed.”
“For instance, if there is a f drop in enrolment then maybe the number of teachers needs to go down to reflect that, or if a program has changed and is less popular then maybe staffing needs to be looked at. I think it’s a matter of details. We need to look at everything critically and say, ‘Do we need to do this?’ Obviously, we do not want to cut anything that will affect the core programs. We do not want to lose music or art, and I guess everybody has got their own favorites, too, so that is what makes so hard. But I do think it should be looked at from a zero-based approach. It really should be, ‘Look at what we are doing’ and ‘why are we doing it?’ ‘Do we need to do this?’ and ‘can we do it more efficiently?’ ”
Engel, the Council’s chairman, said of the candidates “We have two great choices here.”
At the start of the meeting, Engel called for a moment of silence for Lori Paladino, who passed away Jan. 24 at age 54 following a courageous 21-month battle with cancer. She was the wife of Councilman Joe Paladino and mother of Kaylee, Christopher and Jason Paladino.