Candidates seeking New Canaan Republicans’ endorsement at the July 18 caucus on Tuesday night debated a wide variety of issues facing the town—from how to improve cellular coverage to what to do with the former Outback Teen Center building and how to open the lines of communication within municipal government—during a lively Republican Town Committee-sponsored debate.
Incumbent First Selectman Rob Mallozzi, who has announced his intention to run for a fourth term, is being challenged by Cristina A. Ross, a 26-year resident and Town Council member who works as a professional architect, and who previously spent 10 years on the Parks and Recreation Commission, and Kevin Moynihan, a 36-year resident and retired former attorney for Merrill Lynch who also currently serves on the Town Council.
The candidates fielded a wide variety of questions from New Canaanite Editor Michael Dinan and New Canaan Advertiser Editor Greg Reilly, who served as co-moderators for the event. Billed as a “debate,” the 2.5-hour session—50 minutes of which was dedicated to the first selectman candidates—featured politically charged if limited direct interaction among those seeking the town’s highest elected office (the video will be available here very soon).
On the topic of how to improve cell service in town, Ross said the communication between the town and the residents with regard to infrastructure—including cell towers—must be improved.
“There needs to be more transparency in the process,” Ross told a crowd of nearly 200 people packed into the Town Meeting Room for the debate, televised live on Channel 79. “And all options need to be on the table—not just in terms of locations [for cell towers] but also in terms of the types of cell coverage. It does not have to cell towers only—and it may not need to be cell towers at all. There are other options out there.”
Moynihan said he generally supports improving cell service in town but expressed frustration that the town’s current planning is moving so slowly.
“I feel like I’ve been watching this movie for five years,” Moynihan said. “I think it’s time to realize that after all these years, and four different volunteer chairmen of the utilities commission, we are nowhere.”
Moynihan added that until recently, he didn’t realize “how horrible … the service is on the west side of town.”
“As our police, fire and EMS captains told the town council in March, this is a matter of life and death,” he said. “We really need to get serious about this. Two years ago, the Town Council asked for a comprehensive proposal that covers all areas of town. What we have today is a plan that covers the center and west side of town. We don’t have anything planned for the northeast and we don’t have anything planned for the northwest.”
Moynihan said New Canaan should be looking to acquire private parcels in the northwest and northeast sections of town so that it can have more control over the leasing and design of potential cell towers. “At some point, there’s going to have to be some pain,” he said, making the point that no single plan will ever have the support of everyone in town.
Mallozzi said the town has already been in talks with some private property owners in the northern sections of town and that, although he could not name any property owners yet, “we’ve been discussing the possibility of putting facilities on private property.”
“You might not have heard it in the conversations out there but the town has certainly moved forward with cell service since 2012,” Mallozzi said. “We’ve talked quite a bit about small cell sites. Well, I am happy to report that five have now been approved by the town—on town right-of-ways—two of which are now online.”
Mallozzi added: “So, we already have two legs of the stool in place, so to speak. We have some cell towers, and we have small cell sites that are up and running, and we will be looking at DAS [distributed antenna systems], where applicable. It will take all three, there’s no question about that. And we do need help on the west side of our town.”
When asked what he feels should be done with the former Outback Teen Center building behind Town Hall, unoccupied this past year, Moynihan said: “Personally, I never would have let the teen center fail.”
“There were discussions about giving them a lease for three years to let them come up with a new business model,” he said. “I think Rob [Mallozzi] unfortunately was not a backer of the teen center, at that point, as he had been earlier, and it is my understanding that he wanted that building [torn] down. [That marked] the beginning of a break with the Town Council, over not being able to trust the first selectman.”
When asked if he wants to see the building used again as a teen center or for something different, Moynihan said, “I think out of respect for the donors of that building, [which has a value of about] $2.5 million, and the additional money for the endowment … we should have tried harder.”
“When you have an organization that is raising $120,000 a year, in philanthropic dollars, you should try to support it, and give it a lease on life,” he added. “[Town Council member] Penny Young and I visited all the other teen centers in the area—Westport, Darien, Greenwich, Wilton—and they’re all very successful operations. I don’t think we tried hard enough.”
Ross said in her opinion “the building needs to be looked at in terms of the [entire downtown], to determine its best use.”
“I also believe strongly that the teen center should come back,” Ross said. “I think we need a place for the kids to be, after school, and to have activities. And I think the way the teen center was handled—and the lack if support [it received] relative to other non-profits in the area—was shameful. And the process by which the building was declared [unsafe for occupancy] was troubling. The infrastructure subcommittee of the Town Council called in the builder, and some of the consultants, to speak about it—and, ultimately, it was found that the building was sound, and that we had been misled. So, not only was the criticism of the board founded, there was also no basis for the direction the first selectman was leading us.”
Mallozzi said the decision that was made about the teen center “was not an easy one to make,” but it was made for fiscal reasons.
“Both myself and Steve Karl served as advisors and as board members of the teen center,” Mallozzi said. “It was mission critical when it was built —but then the market changed. We have churches and other organizations that are providing services to our youth—and the need to go to a town-run teen center seemed to be diminished.”
He added: “Remember, too, that our chief of police, who was on the board of directors, resigned from the board because he didn’t like what was going on there. There was a rave party and some kids were brought away in ambulances, and it became very hard in a tight budget year to say we would support something that would cost us $25,000 to $30,000–and at some point, $50,000 to $100,000—when our own chief of police and some other members on the board are saying, ‘We need another approach. We do have safety net services provided by our schools and by our churches and by the YMCA.’ ”
Even so, it “was not an easy decision to make,” Mallozzi said.
“What politician would want to say ‘No’ to a teen center?” he said. “But, seeing the circumstances, and who was coming off that board, and the trouble they were having raising money—I was just trying to do the right thing financially, but it was tough, emotionally.”
When asked why she feels the building could once again be used as a teen center, Ross said, “because it was designed for that function.”
“The money it would take to upgrade it is not substantial enough to justify tearing it down,” she said. “And the alternate use that the board of selectmen was proposing was 10 parking spaces in that area. I feel there is a deficit of areas where kids can hang out – other than the retail spaces in town. There needs to be a hub where the kids can spend time.”
The candidates also discussed and debated plans to increase parking in New Canaan, communication and openness between municipal bodies, the first selectman’s attendance at Town Council meetings, backgrounds as Republicans and the work of the Audit Committee.
In his opening remarks, Mallozzi emphasized that he is “the only candidate with the requisite skill set running first selectman.”
“I bring a wealth of knowledge and experience from owning a local business, managing large commercial properties, and my 10 years of service on the board of selectmen,” Mallozzi said. “My family business and civic efforts run deep in this town—in fact, my entire life is invested locally. It’s clear that residents trust a leader whose sole efforts are centered here in New Canaan.
“As an owner of real estate holdings that contributed over $168,000 in taxes to our town in 2016, I will always be acutely sensitive to tax and spending initiatives,” he said. “As a husband and father to two teachers, the importance of investing in our school system will always remain paramount.
“But I worry about change for change’s sake,” Mallozzi added. “For 10 years I’ve sought ideas from all of our residents. They know they don’t need a change in leadership in order to have their voices heard. Residents want parking solutions? Well, I’ve been providing solutions for years. And you voted in favor of all that has been proposed. They want better cell service? I’ve been working on that from all angles.”
Looking to his two challengers, Mallozzi said, “Like so many voters, I struggle to understand what kind of change you folks are looking for. What’s the difference between what you’re looking for and what the records show you’ve already voted for, to date? And the changes you are in favor of – such as the removal of Town Council Chairman Bill Walbert and forcing agenda items against the wishes of town leadership—seem too be more about disruption of our time.”
Ross said if elected her main focus would be on “strengthening the New Canaan community by establishing a framework for the delivery of services—with full accountability and transparency as a method of doing business.”
“It is imperative that New Canaan find a way to establish fiscal responsibility and include all the voices of the community,” Ross said. “My vision for New Canaan is one that charts a course to its options that will ultimately benefit our town’s growth—a plan that sets the stage for longer term planning that will help guide New Canaan to where it should be one, five, 15 years from now.
Top priorities that Ross said she was eager to get working on include, “Making New Canaan more competitive with surrounding towns while facilitating prudent managed growth; continuing to build the quality of our public schools; addressing obstacles to real estate sales; improving commuter parking by decking the parking lots at the Lumberyard and Talmadge Hill; bringing in the gas line; addressing cell coverage through an open and inclusive process” and fixing the recently reported accounting problems in the town finance department.
Moynihan said he is most qualified for the position of first selectman because “As general counsel and managing counsel in both small and very large organizations, I became an expert in many fields that are relevant to running a town government like New Canaan’s. Most importantly, I learned to be a problem solver – someone who can find creative solutions to complex issues and achieve results. That experience is key to my qualifications as first selectman.”
“After retiring from Wall Street, I became a volunteer in several organizations in town, including my service on the town council for the past four years. In these roles, I learned a great deal about how our town government works,” Moynihan said. “I am running for first selectmen because I am concerned about the direction the current administration is taking us, particularly in several areas that are critical to our real estate values and to the quality of our lives. It is evident to everyone that we are having a real estate problem—there is a threat to the value of our homes because we are becoming a less desirable town to move to. The lack of sufficient commuter parking and the absence of 21st Century cell phone service is causing young families to choose to move to other towns. We can fix these problems if we choose to.”
When asked about recent criticism that the flow of information between the office of the first selectman and the town council was inadequate, Mallozzi said, “We’re not hearing that same of criticism from anyone who has been on the Town Council for many, many years and is in leadership positions. I sit down with Penny Young, [vice chairman] Steve Karl and [chairman] Bill Walbert on a monthly basis. We go through a myriad of issues and I help them prep their agendas.”
He added: “The fact is, they’re the legislative branch of government. I was a student of politics—I believe in separation of powers. I do not want to come into a meeting and dominate with my prognostications and my opinions.
“We’ve put 92 new board members and commission members into seats since Nick and I have been in office in six years,” Mallozzi added. “And not one of them will say that they’ve had a problem with getting information from the Board of Selectmen.”
When asked to what extent it is the Town Council’s responsibility that it pursue the information it needs, Ross said, “The Town Council cannot be responsible for information that has not trickled down from the Board of Selectmen. If we find out about it in a meeting and we have an issue with it, then we ask for an explanation. Sometimes the presentations are inadequate or unsubstantiated, and the communication is very poor, if not non-existent.
When asked if she tried to get the information needed directly from the first selectman Ross said, “No, I don’t feel that everyone is welcome in the first selectman’s office. Unlike what he says, his door is closed to many of the people who come in to talk to him.”
Moynihan said Mallozzi lost the trust and confidence of “a majority of the town council” last summer following some perceived missteps with regard to how the Outback teen center was handled.
“It started with the Outback… but it is also sort of a mode of operating,” he said. “Historically, the first selectman attended Town Council meetings. He is ex-officio of the body.”
“Same thing with the Republican Town Committee,” Moynihan added. “Rob never attends his RTC meetings.”
When asked if they would attend all Town Council meetings, if elected first selectman, both Ross and Moynihan both responded in the affirmative.
Mallozzi admitted that he had missed some Town Council meetings due to the fact that he’s “stretched thin” as first selectman and had to attend other important events. He said he would attend any Town Council meeting if asked to be there.
When asked what he feels has been the most important work of the town’s recently formed Audit Committee to date, Mallozzi said the committee has “elevated” the town’s auditing processes and is helping to address the recently discovered material weaknesses in the town finance department’s procedures and processes.
“Best-in-class processes and best-in-class internal controls; it’s been nothing but a help to this community,” Mallozzi said of the committee’s work. “Yes, there were some growing pains when they first came on, because you have another group overlooking things. But they have done a wonderful job and I think the reincarnation of the Finance Department in the last month or two is directly related to the confidence they have in me to make the changes that needed to be made.”
Moynihan said he was surprised how effective the Audit Committee turned out to be.
“I thought they would meet three times a year and say everything is fine,” Moynihan said. “Everything wasn’t fine, which came as a great surprise to me. Now, Rob [Mallozzi] didn’t understand what an audit committee is supposed to do. Bill [Walbert] would come to Rob and say, ‘Rob were trying to help you.’ But if you have time, look at the video, a day after the election two years ago, where the where the audit committee was trashed by the board of selectmen, absolutely trashed.”
Ross said she thinks the Audit Committee “has proven invaluable to the town,” but she added that it has been “very frustrating to see over and over again that the Board of Selectmen not getting what it needs to do, within a reasonable period of time.”
“For five years, our finances have been submitted late, and the substantial deficiencies continue,” she said.
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.