This year, seven candidates—four Republicans and three Democrats—are seeking election to six seats on the Town Council, New Canaan’s legislative body. Those six seats currently are held by four Republicans and two Democrats.
First, Republican incumbent Steve Karl has earned re-election to a fourth term. A fourth-generation New Canaanite and local business owner whose family is deeply involved in the community, Karl has been a thoughtful, collegial and effective councilman. As Karl noted during last week’s debate, former Councilman Dick White many years ago told him when he took the reins of the Bylaws and Ordinances Committee, “Kid, don’t screw this up.” He hasn’t. During Karl’s current term as co-chair, that core Committee has made studied recommendations on matters ranging from the creation of an Ethics Board to revising how blight is addressed and introducing an ordinance that limits single-use plastic bags. Karl puts to good use the knowledge he’s amassed in 12 years on the Council, re-weighing spending priorities with the town’s evolving demographics and needs. Asked during a recent interview about his take on taxpayer spending, Karl rightly acknowledged that while certain municipal departments find ways to operate with essentially flat year-over-year budgets, New Canaan also is “sailing into a storm” against the backdrops of the state capital and Washington, D.C., and must curb spending to navigate it. That is the central discussion that the Town Council must take up, and New Canaan needs Karl’s voice in it.
Robin Bates-Mason, a 19-year town resident who has spent much of that time working quietly behind the scenes here, also deserves election to the Town Council. Smart, diligent and detail-oriented, the Democrat has a professional background in finance and during last week’s Candidates Debate demonstrated her ability to assimilate complex information. Responding to a question about the budget, Bates-Mason noted that some of New Canaan’s recent cost-savings stemmed from under-staffing in the Police Department, and she was the only Town Council candidate there to call for a long-promised survey to establish taxpayer priorities. During our interview, the mother of two boys at New Canaan High School said the school district is the town’s biggest asset, and that in pursuing cost-savings New Canaan should look first at reducing headcount in areas of town government outside the schools. While Bates-Mason reiterated at the debate that she reluctantly would look at headcount in New Canaan, she also pointed to maintenance spending on underused town-owned buildings as a possible area of savings. She refers to New Canaan as a “village” that is unique in its spirit of volunteerism. We agree, and think that New Canaan will benefit from Bates-Mason’s service out front of the community as a councilman.
We also are endorsing Republican Mike Mauro, whom the Town Council two years ago elected to fill a mid-term vacancy. A labor and employment lawyer, Mauro is focused on cutting spending and as father to two young kids in the public schools who moved to New Canaan fairly recently for that system, he’s part of a demographic in town that deserves representation on its legislative body. While telling us in an interview that he’s learned much about baked-in costs during two budget seasons, Mauro still has pushed for reductions in taxpayer spending through contract negotiations with the municipality’s largely unionized workforce and divesting of town-owned buildings that serve no function. During last week’s debate, he said, “We cannot be in the landlord business, not now, there is just too much going on and there is a virtual recession out there.” We largely agree. He’s also looking at smaller items—for example, requiring town workers to push the lifespans of vehicles rather than routinely purchasing new ones. Mauro said he’s been pleasantly surprised at how well Democrats and Republicans collaborate, and we think he’s played a role in that. He’s unafraid to break ranks and speak his mind on issues that some have wielded politically—for example, Mauro called for the installation of security cameras at Waveny long before the Jennifer Dulos case, and has remained an outspoken supporter of formal efforts to get that done.
Because of her professional expertise in buildings and independent thinking, Councilman Cristina A. Ross also deserves election to a second term. The Republican has studied New Canaan’s building portfolio and has been unafraid to speak out when she disagrees with the direction of the Town Council or other government bodies on which she serves, such as the Waveny House Renovation Advisory Committee. An architect who has lived in New Canaan for 28 years and had three daughters go through the public schools here, she was the most vocal among those who first pushed back on the idea that the former Outback building behind Town Hall must be demolished, and she has cautioned New Canaan against selling off Vine Cottage without a master plan. Ross was the first elected official to note that a future project at Vine Cottage could undermine New Canaan’s recent and expensive renovation and expansion of Town Hall, with a new north-facing main entrance. At last week’s debate, she asked whether what New Canaan really wants from the new Town Hall entrance is to “stare at somebody’s backyard.” She also has urged New Canaan, before pursuing an ADA compliance overhaul of Waveny House, to figure out just what the building will be used for long-term and whether and how a proposed birdcage elevator or other changes there would affect its use for private events that could generate revenue for the town. She rightly has called for a comprehensive long-term plan for all of New Canaan’s taxpayer-owned buildings. With Joe Paladino stepping down from the Town Council, Ross’s expertise and perspective will only become more valuable. She should be re-elected.
We also endorse Maria Naughton’s candidacy. A former middle school teacher who has trained area educators, the Republican showed herself in four years on the Board of Education to be impervious to groupthink, and we believe her insights as a recent member of the school board would serve the Town Council well, especially as it considers the district’s proposed spending plans. Asked about taxpayer spending during last week’s debate, Naughton said she is concerned about New Canaan’s high ratio of bonded debt per capita, and that it makes sense to see where cost-savings could be found by eliminating duplication of efforts. She added, “I would like to see more work done upfront throughout the year in the form of task forces or budget committee type groups that focus on different areas and look for ways to cut spending, just like we do at home.” That’s commonsensical. During an interview with the New Canaanite, Naughton said it would be helpful for someone on the Town Council, when faced at a budget hearing by “the troops” who emerge to fight for Board of Ed spending, to bring a deeper understanding of educational issues. We agree.
The final seat on the Town Council would go to one of two Democrats. Colm Dobbyn and Mark Grzymski are very different candidates. Each has qualities that recommend him. It’s a toss-up.
Dobbyn is career corporate attorney who’s lived here 26 years and whose kids went through the system. He’s a self-described fiscal conservative who advocates for zero-based budgeting and has served for more than a decade on the Inland Wetlands Commission. During an interview, Dobbyn told us that his priorities include the preserving the unique small-town feel and character of New Canaan as well as protecting its open space. Reflecting on his experience on the Commission, Dobbyn noted that there is “always a threat from over-development” and that “people want to push boundaries.”
Grzymski, a finance professional who has lived here for 12 years and whose kids are in the public schools, would be entering public life for the first time. He told us during an interview that New Canaan must prioritize its schools’ high ranking in order to remain competitive and draw similar young families here, and that means investing in them as well as wide-serving community resources such as the library. Doing so will “sustain property values,” Grzymski told us which is “key to the town,” and New Canaan should “look at investments in the long term.”
Last week’s debate drew out some differences between the Democrats. Responding to a question about municipal spending, Dobbyn said that “nothing is sacrosanct” when it comes to reviewing costs, and that New Canaan should start by reviewing whether it needs everything already in the budget instead of working from the same update-able template each year. Grzymski stressed the need to stay competitive compared to other towns that young families are considering, adding that—with respect to New Canaan’s bonded debt—interest rates are low and that he has “zero confidence they are going anywhere just going lower.” “If the town is healthy, as I heard everyone speak of it, I don’t know if we should be overly concerned with some amount of leverage, especially if it’s for causes like building the library and an amazing cultural center like that,” Grzymski said.
With respect to New Canaan’s ownership or use of public buildings, Grzymski pointed to the reuse of the Outback as a good outcome and said that the town should move away from ownership of structures that are costly. “We must look the economic value and if it costs more to maintain than the revenue we are getting, the property is best in private hands,” he said. Dobbyn said he believed the Town Council itself should play a more integral role that it currently does in deciding the fate of publicly owned buildings, and should challenge the Board of Selectmen “and make them justify decisions that are being made.”