The Republican candidate for New Canaan’s highest-elected office said Monday night that, despite his ties to President Trump, what’s happening in the state capital is far more important to local voters than Washington, D.C.
According to Town Councilman Kevin Moynihan, “the Democrats in Hartford are more much relevant to our situation that we have now in New Canaan.”
“I don’t really think, as most people say, that Democratic-Republican politics matter much on the local level,” Moynihan said during the debate with his opponent, Democratic candidate Kit Devereaux, held at Town Hall. “Cell service and commuter parking are not Republican or Democrat issues.”
According to a biography on his website, Moynihan served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention last year, as well as on the National Finance Committee for TrumpVictory and the Transition Finance Committee of President-elect Donald J. Trump.
Devereaux said that she was concerned about the association because “our nation’s capital is in pretty much disarray, and so is our state.”
“And I would hate to see divisiveness come to New Canaan, and I would hope that it would not,” she said.
Moynihan responded, “I think the only people bringing divisiveness to this campaign are the Democrats,” drawing some scoffs and hisses from the standing-room-only crowd.
About 150 people attended the League of Women Voters’ Candidates Forum, which also was broadcast live on Channel 79. The 2.5-hour event was co-sponsored by those organizations and the New Canaan Advertiser. (Debate coverage of contested races for seats on the Town Council and the town treasurer’s position will follow in future newsletters.)
Moderated by Marianne Pollak, the 30-minute first selectman session covered municipal finances, cell service, parking, local fallout from state budget woes, sober housing, ability to reach unaffiliated voters and the importance of each candidate’s affiliations on the state and national levels.
Devereaux said outright that she has no such affiliations.
“My experience has strictly been, politically, with New Canaan,” she said. “And here I have been involved deeply. I have served eight years on the Board of Finance, eight years on the Town Council. I served on the Charter Revision Commission. I serve on the Parks & Recreation Commission. I also have served on many of our nonprofit boards. And all of this has really gone to help me understand our town and I think to be able to make decisions that are appropriate for our town.”
She continued: “I believe that an elected official needs to be a trusted public servant, and that that person needs to be able to hear behind the loud voices, behind the powerful voices, to what the community as a whole would like to have happen.”
Moynihan, who earned the Republican nomination at July’s caucus by defeating incumbent First Selectman Rob Mallozzi by 10 votes, described himself as a cross-party collaborator whose skills could be attested to by his Democratic colleagues on the Town Council.
“I am very proud of what I accomplished on the Town Council in the last four years, and so I think we will get into that subject further as we go on,” he said.
Later in the debate, when asked what was the most important local issue where he served a leadership role while on the Town Council, Moynihan described himself as “an idea person and a doer.”
“I don’t like to brag but it was my idea to create the Waveny Park Conservancy,” he said. “It was my idea to create the Ethics Board. It was my idea to have the town help the library acquire a very critically important real estate parcel. It was my idea to open the door to Eversource to bring natural gas to town back in January. It was my idea to create a Land Acquisition Fund. And it was my idea to remove retirees from the town’s health insurance fund, thereby lowering their premiums by more than half while costing the town nothing. These were accomplishments that all were accomplished in a few months. I am very proud of what I accomplished on the Town Council and I think I can accomplish more as first selectman.”
Devereaux, who spent a career working in finance, pointed to her work in leading the town-appointed Lakeview Avenue Bridge Committee which “worked on assessing the overruns from the building of that bridge and legal overruns.”
“The committee went on for about six months, it was very effective,” Devereaux said. “We came up with solutions that were actually implemented into our town. We suggested the [creation of the] Audit Committee. We suggested an expanded role for the town treasurer, and we also looked at ways that expenses, our legal expenses, could be better tracked, so that was a big responsibility. Normally a Democrat would not have been given that responsibility, and it was effective.”
The debate featured some lighter moments, as when the moderator mistakenly referred to Moynihan as “Mr. Devereaux” or “Mr. Monahan,” drawing some laughter from the Town Meeting Room. (The first selectman candidates are not married to each other.)
On at least one topic during the debate, Devereaux appeared willing to weigh in where Moynihan was reluctant to do so. When asked whether they would be willing to support an increase in school spending if the Board of Education not only found that New Canaan should follow the example of other lower Fairfield County towns by starting school later, but also that it would cost money to implement the change, Moynihan said reaching the decision was the job of the school board and superintendent.
“I think as first selectman and selectman we will be concerned about the economic impact, as will the Board of Finance,” he said. “But I think it’s really incumbent on the Board of Education to deal with that issue, with the superintendent and the school district. I really don’t think it is appropriate for uneducated views from me to be entered into that record right now.”
To the same question, Devereaux said: “I think that adolescents need more sleep than they are getting and it is an un-quantified amount of money—[if] we are talking about if it is $10 million, obviously we can’t afford it—but what we need to do is to look at ways we can allow our children to sleep later as they get into adolescence. I was part of the League of Women Voters when we did a sleep study—I strongly supported that and I still do.”
She added: “I don’t know how educated I am, but I feel strongly that it is an important thing to have happen. I don’t how to quantify how much it’s worth, but I think to many parents it’s worth a lot.”
One area where the candidates appeared to differ was in solving the parking crunch downtown.
Devereaux noted that New Canaan has some 600 people on a waitlist for the Lumberyard Lot alongside the train station—commuters.
“And that is too many,” she said. “But what we need to do—before we do what my opponent would suggest, and go all in—is to make sure that it is the right thing to do. This is a $12 million project and we can’t just jump right into it. That isn’t fiscally prudent. We have to deal with the logistics of the 351 people that park there on a daily basis. We need to deal with the logistics of the ingress and egress if we are dealing with 700 people coming and going. And there are other solutions that we need to look at, or that at least could bolster this decision. So, for instance, the town is still talking to Metro-North and the [Connecticut Department of Transportation] about paving the space that was used for staging the Merritt [Parkway] work. That could be used as alternative parking during the project. Or at the very least, it would be a very inexpensive solution to providing more parking.”
Moynihan said he has been researching the parking problem for a long time and that at the time the town acquired the Lumberyard Lot for $5 million, “it was contemplated that we would deck the lot.”
“Since then we have paid for parking studies and planning studies—I think five studies—every one has identified decking the Lumberyard in preference to any other lot,” he said. “So it is not my opinion—it is the opinion of people like Keith Richey who has been for 16 years the chairman of the Parking Commission, Karen Miller who retired last year as the head of the Parking Department, Tucker Murphy, who is the head of the Chamber for nine years and has been studying the parking problem for many years. And so I think it is not my opinion, I do think it has to be studied, but the reason it hasn’t been done in the past is because all we have done is study things and not do things.”
Asked how high priority the parking problem is, Moynihan said he identified a lack of commuter parking for those who work in financial services as one reason that New Canaan’s real estate market has lagged at the high end.
If New Canaan fails to solve the problem, “young families who are high-income families coming to New Canaan for education choose Greenwich or other towns where they may deal with those problems better.”
Devereaux conceded that parking is a very important problem and maybe as important as a lack of cell service, and noted that New Canaan has “other, priorities too.”
“I think our education is very important,” she said. “I think our town center is very important, and keeping it vibrant. And all these things go together to make people choose New Canaan to live in. You’d be surprised, I mean people choose it for the education, in spite of the fact that we have some issues with cell service.”
The moderator devoted a question to cell service, asking how long it will take for New Canaan to improve it and how that will happen.
Devereaux said that while a comprehensive solution to improving cell service in New Canaan is likely at least two years away, “there are things we can do in interim to help.”
“For instance DAS [Distributed Antenna Systes] isn’t going to take two years and small cell sites are not going to take two years,” she said. “I think what is true is that there is never going to be a site that is perfect, there is never going to be a site that someone is not unhappy with. And outside of the lower schools—which I think are off the table—we need to push forward and actually place the cell towers. If a property value is damaged and can quantifiably show us that it is damaged, maybe we should look at some sort of tax concession to help with the situation. But this is a safety issue and we need to get a handle on it.”
Moynihan said he has been following the cell service problems in New Canaan closely, even before he was elected to the Town Council four years ago, and “there is no quick solution, unfortunately.”
“We just have to work on this issue,” he said. “The carriers are not going to invest their capital unless we facilitate the locations for them. That is what the Utilities Commission has been trying to do. It’s a very frustrating, unsatisfying position we are in right now.”
On rebuttal, Devereaux said that Moynihan has suggested using New Canaan Land Trust property for cellular infrastructure. Many of those properties are deed-restricted and the Land Trust should “be very careful about putting cell towers on donated land.”
Moynihan described himself as a good friend of Land Trust board President Art Berry and past president Chris Schipper, and said Schipper told him if a property under the organization’s ownership worked and the town asked them about it, “they would have to consider” the proposal, likely in exchange for some $100,000 revenue per year to support the nonprofit’s stewardship of its land. He added that there is at least one property where a person who deeded property to the Land Trust was alive and could modify the deed itself if needed.
The candidates also had different responses to a question about how to shield New Canaan from the impact of the state budget problems.
Devereaux said that in her years on the Town Council and Board of Finance, new Canaan “been very conservatively managed, and that is going to help in the short-term.”
“But the appetite of Connecticut is growing. I understand—and I’m not sure it is completely accurate—that we get one to three cents on every dollar we send to Connecticut, which is outrageous. We need to use every tool possible to carefully shepherd our resources and monitor our expenses. We need to use zero-based budgeting, among other tools, streamline the mid-budget request cycle so that we will have less need for safety margins, we need to look for efficiencies in our operating budget between departments and between the schools and the town. We are already saving on health expenses. Let’s look at some other ways we can coordinate. Because the only thing we can do, really, outside of lobbying, is to marshal our own resources.”
Moynihan said the main thing New Canaan and the rest of the state can do is “elect a Republican governor and a Republican legislature.”
“I think the state has $60 billion or $70 billion unfunded liabilities for pensions and health benefits for teachers and state employees,” he said. “That is $30,000 per man, woman and child in the state of Connecticut.”
As a result, Moynihan said, a change is needed in Hartford in order to enact different statewide policies.
In rebuttal, Devereaux said no one is more upset than she is about what’s going on in Connecticut, though given that “it is unlikely that we can change” policies in Hartford, “I think what we need to do is handle our own finances, and my background in town government and finance is appropriate to fighting this financial pressure as we go forward.”
Moynihan countered: “I think we have to work hard to elect a Republican legislature and a Republican governor.”