Five of six Republican candidates seeking seats on the Town Council in the upcoming November municipal elections debated a range of topics—from cell towers to land acquisition to transparency in local government—during a lively and well-attended debate hosted by the Republican Town Committee at Town Hall last week.
Four Republican seats on the Town Council are up for grabs in the upcoming fall election. The six candidates seeking nomination from town Republicans in the upcoming caucus, to be held July 18, include incumbents John Engel and Penny Young, as well as Roy Abramowitz, Tom Butterworth, Mike Mauro and Richard Townsend.
Engel was unable to attend the debate.
Recently, the town Utilities Commission, which is searching for ways to improve cell service in town, issued a report proposing that cell towers be erected in Irwin Park and near West School. When asked whether he feels it is prudent to use town parcels for cell towers, Butterworth said, “The concept of using public land as the first priority is quite sound. It does provide the opportunity for [local] control [over the height and design of the cell towers].”
“But we need to act quick,” Butterworth said during the June 27 debate. “Because if somebody decides to beat us to the punch and [erect a tower] on private land, we may all regret it – it might be as ugly as sin.”
Butterworth said although he feels “the public land idea is solid,” the problem is, “we don’t have public land all over town.” He said it is likely that the town will ultimately need to acquire some private land in the north section of town in order to improve coverage.
“My reaction to the proposal to put a tower at West School was one of sheer human nature and politics, not science,” Butterworth said. “I doubt that there really is a health risk to justify the panic—but human nature says schools are just a bad idea; it’s not going to fly.”
Butterworth added that in his view its fine to keep Irwin Park on the table as an optional location for a cell tower.
“I think you keep it on the table,” he said. “There are no perfect solutions for these things, but that’s a pretty good one.”
Mauro agreed that if the town’s cell coverage problems could be addressed by only using public lands, “it would be optimal.”
“But I just don’t think that’s going to happen,” Mauro said. “With respect to private lands—maybe there’s a way to have it on private land but incentivize the property owner to allow the town to regulate the structure. I don’t know if that’s feasible—but there has to be a solution at some point.”
Young said in her opinion, if the town has an opportunity to use municipal property for wireless infrastructure, it would be the best solution “because you do have control [over the infrastructure that it used].”
“Not that the [state] Citing Council can’t override—but they are more inclined to side with a municipality that has thought-through how it would like to address this issue,” Young added. “Cell service is a fact of life today—it is not a matter of are we going to [improve service], it’s a matter of when and how.”
Townsend agreed that it would be best to use town land for cell towers wherever possible, as it would give the town more control over cell tower height and design.
Townsend said in his opinion, the poor cell service in some parts of town could be impacting property values.
“My … view is that it is has a significant impact on the values of homes,” Townsend said. “I don’t see how somebody who does billion dollar deals on Wall Street can live in a house without cell service.”
Abramowitz said regardless of “whether cell towers are healthy or unhealthy … I would like to keep it within the control of the municipality.”
Recent tensions between some members of the Town Council and the first selectman over transparency prompted a question as to whether the candidates feel they will be able to get the information they need.
“To be honest, I think the term ‘transparency’ is somewhat overblown,” Buttterworth said. “We have the Freedom of Information Act—and we have a lot of constraints and rules about required disclosure. But that’s the rule-based side of the discussion. The other side of the discussion is relationship-based—and I think a very valid point was made tonight that [First Selectman] Rob [Mallozzi’s] door is open. I might add that sometimes when you walk through the door and ask a question, you might not get the answer you want, and the homework might not have been done. I’m disappointed that the story I might hear on cell phones is not fully formed, from Rob, but that’s more a relationship issue, it’s not a structural issue.”
Young pointed out that all Town Council meetings “are open” to the public and “we have open time for commentary.”
“I’ve never felt that I don’t have access to information,” Young said. “I’m a pretty open, transparent and inclusive kind of person—these are broad shoulders and I don’t hesitate to go west. I have a wonderful relationship with our first selectman—as I have with all of the selectman.”
Townsend said in his view, the flow of information is critical to being able to make good decisions on the Town Council.
“It’s all about educating yourself to the extent that you can,” Townsend said. “And that [information] flows, I think, primarily from communication.
“It should never be an issue for a member of the council to present themselves to the first selectman, or any board, and say, ‘Hey, can you talk about x-y-z issue.’ It should never have to be a FOIA request – it should always be open,” Townsend added.
When asked how important it is for the town to start getting funds into the land acquisition fund recently established by the Town Council, Butterworth said “expanding open space is a fabulous idea—it is a good investment for the long term that does not erode property values.”
“But as always, is it money from this pocket or that pocket?” he said. “And the [economic] environment we’re coming into, with the state of Connecticut, may put us in some tough situations. If, for example, [the town] were told tomorrow that we would have to increase our pension fund contributions by $5 million, overnight, what would we do? I think this land acquisition fund would be something that we would look at and say, ‘Maybe next year.’ Over time, we’ve done a fabulous job [of adding open space] – look at Irwin Park – we’ve made fabulous investments. If the question is, ‘should we do this ever year?’ I’d say, it’s a great idea, let’s see if it works.”
Townsend said he’s fine with the fund as long as any lands acquired help improve property values. At the same time, however, he said, “This is one [budget item] where I think we could easily say, ‘We don’t have to fund that this year.’”
“This is a very wealthy community that, quite frankly, funds a lot of stuff without the state Connecticut getting involved,” Townsend said. “A lot of people give land to the Land Trust – and we have a lot of open space. But I think with issues like the cell tower issue—if there was a way to spend money there, and fix part of that, I would rather do that than spend money on land.”
Abramowitz said although he views funding open space as a priority, “we have competing necessities—and we have to balance them.”
“There’s education—and there’s a need to expand parking resources in town—and with what’s going on in Hartford, the town might soon have to fund other issues,” Abramowitz said. “You have to be able to look at what you’re wants and needs are and balance them; can we find open space? What if Hartford cuts funding for our education?”
Mauro said he sees the land acquisition fund as being an extension of the town budget, “And a budget is a function of priorities.”
“[Open space] is very important—but what are the other things that make this town attractive to people who may want to move here?” Mauro said. “And what makes it attractive to those who are living here now? Making sure our emergency responders have proper communications—and that all of our education facilities have the most up to date technology—those things outweigh the land issues at this particular time.”
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 7 p.m. on July 12, at Town Hall.