GOP Board of Selectman candidate Christa Kenin promised change while incumbent Selectman Nick Williams emphasized his experience during the first of two Republican Town Committee debates held at Town Hall on Tuesday.
A former corporate attorney who has been a member of the Town Council for two years, Kenin is seeking a Republican seat on the Board of Selectmen in the upcoming local election—but first seeks to win the party nod in upcoming caucus on July 18.
Williams, a 28-year resident, is a three-term incumbent on the board who has previously served as chairman of the Board of Education and has been a volunteer with various town groups. He seeks a fourth term.
During her opening remarks, Kenin expressed dissatisfaction with the pace of progress in town and blamed the current administration.
“It’s starting to feel like Groundhog Day around here: Parking shortages, pathetic cell service, sloppy financials,” Kenin said during the well-attended debate. “The years pass and the issues the remain.”
Kenin attempted to position herself as the more tech-savvy candidate, saying, “With a click of a button, I can instantly update more than 1,400 New Canaan citizens through my political Facebook page.”
She continued: “My followers tune in because I give them truthful unvarnished updates and well researched positions on local issues. I have engaged our citizens and fostered community discussion like never before.”
When asked by the local media how she would, if elected, work to understand the desires of New Canaanites age 65 and older, Kenin responded that although her base consists mainly of young mothers, she is able to connect with residents of all ages via the many town meetings and events she attends.
“My presence is not just on social media—you will see me at all sorts of meetings in town,” she said. “At coffees, at Utilities Uommission meetings, P&Z meetings, parking meetings—I have plenty of face-to-face conversations with people. I am accessible … my office is New Canaan.”
When asked what she has learned from these interactions, Kenin responded: “Well, one thing I’ve learned is that real estate is the great equalizer. Whether you are looking to upgrade or downsize, in town, or if you need to relocate, that is an outstanding issue. Probably one of the biggest challenges New Canaan faces is our property values and our ability to sell our homes. And the problem is that right now we have a current administration that is not addressing the lifestyle issues that matter to all of our citizens and potential new buyers.”
Williams positioned himself as the candidate with experience, “And it is through this experience that I’ve come to understand the fabric of our community and the way that that our government touches all of our citizens—from the stay-at-home mom, to the local shopkeeper, to the retired couple that cherishes New Canaan and just wishes to stay put.”
Williams also emphasized that he has good working relationships with the other current selectmen.
“Because our executive branch consists of three individuals it is imperative that we work together and get the job done,” he said. “We are New Canaan, not Washington [D.C.]. Together with Selectman Beth Jones and [First Selectman] Rob Mallozzi, I believe that we have achieved an atmosphere of collegiality and consensus is unsurpassed in town government today.”
[For coverage of the debate earlier in the evening between the GOP candidates for first selectman, click here.]
He continued: “And the results of a consensus? A renovated Town Hall that combines the best of old and new; strong financial support for our top-ranked schools; a sparkling new post office; a fully funded town pension fund; new sidewalks; a solid town pool facility; an enviable AAA credit rating; and full support for public private initiatives, such as the Land Trust, the New Canaan Athletic Foundation the Waveny [Park] Conservancy.”
When asked to describe the local downtown business climate, and whether she has contacted merchants or directors of the Chamber of Commerce to see what’s going on with local businesses, Kenin said she has had discussions with the chamber and also recently attended a P&Z subcommittee meeting on “how to keep downtown vibrant.” She said in her view of how well the downtown retail district functions “comes back to the P&Z regulations—there are a lot [of rules] that prohibit the types of businesses and services that are able to have storefronts in our town.”
Kenin added that although the current business climate is prospering, “If you drive down the street, you will see some empty storefronts, and that is a concern.”
Willaims, on the other hand, said he thinks the downtown business climate “is a lot better than some make it out to be.”
“I don’t think [the empty storefronts in downtown] are all that significant—if you look at the norm, it’s about 3 to 5 percent vacancy rates, and right now we’re at about 4 percent,” Williams said. “A lot of that is in the northeast portion of Main Street—and I think one thing that will help them out is redoing the Locust [Avenue] lot.”
When asked if she thinks commercial businesses in the downtown should be allowed to spread further east and west of the town center, Kenin said, “Yes, if businesses wish to prosper we should enable them to prosper, wherever they can.”
“But you raise an interesting question with regard to the vision for the town… I think right now, we are planning by exception,” she added. “We’ve seen it a number of times this year, where our [zoning] rules and regulations are rewritten to allow for pet projects. The Merritt Village, potentially Roger Sherman and Grace Farms… all very controversial applications. I think we need reasonable development, but not over-development.”
Williams said in his view it’s OK to let some business expand outward from thew town center, “so long as we can maintain New Canaan’s small town nature.”
“I don’t want this town to turn into Westport or Greenwich,” he said.
When asked how he would rate his own ability to negotiate with utility company Eversource to bring natural gas to town, Williams said he thinks the town is better off today than it was a couple of years ago, when town officials wasted a great deal of time and effort to get a memorandum of understanding in place with Yankee Gas (now Eversource).
“What happened with that was, we worked around the clock to get a Memorandum of Understanding signed in December 2013—and in 2014 they came back with a new management team and said, ‘We want to pull the deal,’ ” Williams recalled. “What they wanted was to charge us another $2 million and they wanted 25 years of exclusivity and we said ‘No.’ So, the negotiations cooled. They’ve been on and off ever since. But stay tuned … I think you’re going to see some major developments on that front.”
On the topic of cell service, or lack thereof, when asked whether she felt there anything “salvageable or useable” remaining in the Utility Commission’s most recent report on cell service options, Kenin said, “I think it makes perfect sense that we are, as a town, looking [at using] municipal property. That gives us exclusive control over the structures, the technology. But I also think it backs us into a corner—I think we also need to look a private properties. It’s just too limiting to only be looking at municipal parcels.”
Kenin cited an article in the New Canaan Advertiser from May 2011 titled, “Parents Dismayed Over West School Cell Antenna Discussion,” adding, “As I said, it’s Groundhog Day all over again. Let’s stop recycling bad ideas and bad proposals and get some real results.”
Tuesday’s debate was actually the first of two planned by the RTC ahead of its July 18 caucus; the second debate is scheduled for July 12, at Town Hall.