Sherman's First Selectman candidates offer their views
Editor's Note: The following are the views of the three candidates for first selectman in Sherman: Democratic incumbent Andrea O'Connor, Republican candidate Clay Cope and write-in candidate James Munch.
Q: The ever-present need for road projects in town and the slow-to-completion work on the firehouse/emergency service building have both received plenty of attention. Please share your priorities for projects and how you would keep work on schedule and within budget.
One of the budget tricks used by many of my predecessors was to defer maintenance of the town's infrastructure.
In short, I inherited a mess.
After assessing the situation, I proposed an ambitious agenda of projects to address the town's failing infrastructure. In May, 2007, taxpayers authorized borrowing of $10.5 million for multiple projects and preserving open space, in particular, the acquisition of Happy Acres Farm.
Proposed infrastructure projects included reconstruction of six badly-deteriorated roads, as well as culvert and bridge replacements.
Based on schematic designs, voters approved expansion of the firehouse and library, recognizing these facilities needed updating for Sherman's larger population.
Additional projects, funded by a series of competitive STEAP grants, included renovating the Old Town Hall/Senior Center, replacing vinyl with cedar siding on the Sherman Playhouse, and construction of the pavilion at the town beach.
Were all these projects necessary?
I think so, as did the taxpayers who approved the bonding proposals and authorized the expenditure of grant funds.
Were all these projects completed on time and on budget? Of course not. As anyone in construction or public administration knows, surprises happen.
I am committed to following the town's land-use regulations, and some projects were delayed in the land-use approval process.
More than one project was delayed by questions concerning the location of the elusive 440-foot line, the `virtual' high-water mark of Candlewood Lake below which nothing can be built.
Others were delayed by state bureaucracy; replacement of the failing Old Greenwoods bridge lingered in bureaucratic limbo for at least six months, despite intervention by our state senator.
Still other projects stood still to deal with environmental concerns: buried oil tanks and soil contamination at the firehouse site, asbestos abatement at Old Town Hall.
The $1.5 million estimate for roadwork did not and could not have foreseen the cost of asphalt would skyrocket two years later or a collapsing culvert on Chapel Hill Road would have to be replaced before the road could be reconstructed.
The grant for the town beach pavilion was written with a different site in mind: flat land and use of an existing well and septic system. The site selected by Park and Recreation is beautiful, but required a costly engineered intervention for the septic system to work.
Many other projects came in on time and on or under budget, and we are now on track to move from new projects to long-term maintenance of the town's infrastructure rather than the flurry of activity that has marked the past years.
I could have initiated fewer projects, but that's not why I was elected first selectman. It's easy to point fingers and criticize, even when others have assumed responsibility for the larger projects, such as the firehouse.
Still, most projects are complete or nearly complete, while we wait for my opponent to present an affordable plan for the expanded library --four years after taxpayers approved sharing in the cost of the expansion.
It would be easy to criticize the first selectman for anything that may be going wrong with ongoing infrastructure projects.
Having managed major commercial and residential projects, I know all too well the many pitfalls. Things do happen, to even the best of plans, once the chosen plan is underway.
I have a much different philosophical approach to planning, project-management, and governance.
In this "Frequently Asked Questions" exchange from the 2007 Bonding Brochure, (www.townofshermanct.org/pdfs/bondingbrochure.pdf) Mrs. O'Connor's answers illustrate my point:
Q) Why not get bids for these projects before asking for authority to bond?
A) That's one approach. However, since the cost to develop a project's specifications completely enough to prepare a bid package can be significant ($250,000 for the firehouse/emergency services facility project, for example), estimates have been relied on to develop the proposed project costs.
Q) What happens if bids for a project exceed authorized funding?
A) The resolutions provide the Board of Selectmen may reduce or modify the scope of the projects. The appropriation still may be expended on the projects if they are so reduced or modified. The town's other options would be abandon the project or to appropriate additional funds.
$250,000 must have sounded like a lot of money to develop specifications, but avoiding it was amateurish.
It's inconceivable a project of this size and importance did not have a professionally developed SOW (Scope-of-Work) and RFP (Request-for-Proposals).
The lack of professional planning, oversight and construction-performance-responsibility on this capital building project is stunning. Consequently, the approach taken was: let's spend $5,000,000. If that's not enough -- we'll just cut something out or ask for more money.
The firehouse had a cost-effective/subsidized geothermal heating system eliminated -- typical oil heat was installed instead.
The known communications issue was never properly addressed, so we had to endure the cell tower referendum.
Additionally, the project is running over budget and the long delay could cause higher costs for vehicle maintenance -- as they often park outside.
Mrs. O'Connor's "I know the best option, self-management approach" has most current projects over budget and according to our treasurer; the capital non-recurring fund is being spent dangerously low.
The recent senior housing proposal has this same ready-fire-aim approach and I've been accused of damaging years of work by asking the commission just one question.
Mrs. O'Connor writes: "The larger issue facing Sherman's voters this November is the risk of electing a very inexperienced person as first selectman, a person who has no real understanding of the nature of the job."
A smug contention; as I bring 25 years of real world, private sector, management and executive experience, along with five years' experience on the most challenging commission -- Planning/Zoning; 10 years with Sherman Library, serving as president of the Board of Trustees and Building Committee chairman.
I will use my real world and town government experience to bring comprehensive planning and solutions to Sherman.
And speaking of relevant experience: my running-mate, Art von Plachecki, is a former first selectman.
My strong points and objections are in public works -- prioritizing their responsibilities, updating equipment and encouraging a safe and productive work situation.
Also, I will eliminate project reruns, encourage local contractors and reserve the right to accept and or reject any or all bids sometimes it may be worse not to be so quick to accept the lowest bidder.
Q: There are significant reasons why a town should want to retain the leadership of someone who knows the ins and outs of guiding the town. There are also plenty of cases of a long-term incumbent losing his or her effectiveness as the years pass along. Please share your thoughts about the pros and cons of long-term incumbency... In other words, the advisability of term limits.
Sherman already has term limits. Every two years, voters can limit the term of an incumbent by voting against his or her continued leadership.
Imposing term limits removes that option from the people, who are the true determinants of a leader's continued effectiveness.
Further, term limits can provide an artificial advantage to the opposing party. A short, two-year election cycle is "self-cleansing" and does not require more regulation.
The real issue is whether the challenger of a "long-term incumbent" is offering a new vision for the town that voters wish to embrace, or a new approach to leadership that offers a qualitative difference.
I've been puzzled that over the past several years -- and during this election -- challengers for the first selectman office have consistently promised to deliver on the platform I originally proposed eight years ago and have continued to deliver ever since.
My leadership of the town has taken residents in directions they wanted to go. If that weren't the case, I would have been replaced.
Sherman was at a crossroads when I first took office back in 2004. As Connecticut's fastest growing town, Sherman had grown from 1,000 to more than 4,000 residents and was in real danger of losing its rural identity and the special characteristics that had drawn people to the town.
At the same time, the town hadn't kept pace with a deteriorating infrastructure.
The firehouse was out of compliance with many regulations; the library was cramped and worn. Other town buildings were shabby, including Old Town Hall, which served as the senior center as it does now, located among beautifully renovated historic homes in the town's center.
My agenda in the early years was set by residents and volunteers. I put several initiatives on the table, hoping one or two would win approval only to find these energetic individuals were eager to move ahead on all of them.
I did my best to keep pace and provide the necessary resources to accomplish their goals, clearing hurdles when they occurred.
A climate of possibility quickly replaced the former climate of "no," and more and more people became engaged in the process of rebuilding the town while retaining its essential character.
I provided structure; they brought the know-
I provided structure; they brought the know-how and will to move projects forward.
We've come a long way in the past eight years, and we've achieved the delicate balance of improving facilities and infrastructure while preserving our special small town appeal.
All of this work has been accomplished while maintaining one of the lowest property tax rates in Connecticut, made possible in part by the $1,496,653 in grants I've brought to the town.
At the same time, I've upgraded and modernized systems, including working with Al Burgasser to develop the town's website, which I maintain, and brought the town into compliance with many laws and regulations it had previously ignored.
Voters re-elect leaders who perform and, in a democracy, they should have the right to choose among all qualified candidates in an election.
At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, our town's namesake, Roger Sherman opined: "Frequent elections are necessary to preserve the good behavior of rulers. They also tend to give permanency to the government, by preserving that good behavior, because it ensures their re-election."
Mr. Sherman was in favor of short terms of service, instead of imposed limits.
The possible advantage of keeping long--term elected officials (and the argument our incumbent is putting forth) might be the benefits of accumulated knowledge and experience gained while on the job.
But this must be weighed against the "The Incumbency Advantage," a phenomenon attributed to the privileges and benefits of tenure, which greatly favors an incumbent's re-election.
It has been shown that, as re-election becomes more likely, politicians often choose to ignore the wishes of the voters.
A sitting elected official, like the current four-term incumbent, has many advantages the office provides; for one, a weekly newspaper column from which to "campaign."
Controlling the issues is another privilege of the office i.e. the frantic, last-minute need for a massive cell tower -- a single option only solution which came after more than a year of silent negotiations, with no public input.
Another advantage this long-term incumbency has brought was ordering a public survey and interpreting the results in a way that suits an agenda and appointing a commission that ultimately proposes solutions to concerns that may or may not exist -- namely proposed HUD, low-income housing, again as a single option only solution, but this time a solution to an inconclusive constituent wish.
Sometimes it takes a few terms to understand exactly the kind of experience we've elected. A fiscal and project management approach put forth over several terms is now beginning to show its true cost, as most building projects in Sherman are both over budget and late.
According to our treasurer, the capital non-recurring fund has been spent down dangerously low, and Mrs. O'Connor made a significant transfer from the general fund surplus and may need to dip into it again.
In the words of Herman Cain: "How's that experience working out for you?"
At the national level, people are crying out for term limits for Congress. They want fiscal responsibility, new ideas -- preferably from the business sector.
Career politicians have become too comfortable in their role, forgetting the very reason they were elected: to serve their constituency regardless of party status.
As experienced by many during my 10 years of public service and, perhaps because of my willingness to listen, and my common-sense approach to the business of civil service, I have endorsements and support from both sides of the aisle.
I can only agree with Mr. Sherman: I feel the voters should set term limits with their vote -- preferably, this Nov. 8.
Hands-on experience and time in leadership positions is always valuable to communities, as in the military.
In today's society, a leader needs to adapt simply and be realistic.
A leader may lose his or her effectiveness if one stops listening to citizens' concerns and, of course, the input from the other selectmen.
As far as term limits, six years sounds reasonable but, then again, a selectman's term is determined by voters, as it should be.
Q: The Sherman Housing Commission has made strides toward developing housing for the town's seniors. What thoughts do you have on the progress made to this date and what would you do in the next two years to be sure the Housing Commission pushes forward in a timely fashion?
Sherman's Housing Commission was created by town meeting action in January, 2010 following the work of three ad hoc study committees, multiple surveys demonstrating the need for senior housing and successive recommendations in master plans dating back to 1978 that the town provide some sort of housing for seniors.
Senior housing can take many forms, including accessory apartments attached to private dwellings, small homes, condominiums and apartments in a range of prices, styles, and ownership arrangements.
Sherman's Housing Commission decided to focus first on affordable senior rental housing. My opponent has criticized this approach as not providing something for everybody, a clearly unreasonable expectation.
The Housing Commission has acted quickly to seek a solution to the housing needs of the town's most vulnerable seniors, those who require an affordable housing option.
After a robust search of potential sites, the commission identified town-owned land as a potential location for a small senior housing complex, a site that meets the criteria for an ideal senior housing site.
Recognizing the town should not own or manage such housing, the commission is exploring the acceptability of the town granting a long-term lease on a portion of this property as a potential site for one- and two-bedroom rental apartments suitable for seniors and managed by a newly created nonprofit organization.
Before residents are asked to vote at a referen
Before residents are asked to vote at a referendum on leasing this property for affordable senior housing, many questions must be answered, among them whether the selected site can support this type of development.
To answer this question, I submitted a STEAP grant proposal on behalf of the town that would fund a property survey, wetlands delineation and well and septic installation testing.
Other types of state grants also are available for this type of exploratory work. This approach will provide the answers residents will be seeking as this proposal moves toward a referendum vote.
To put the issue to referendum now, as recommended by my opponent's running mate, is premature, given the many unanswered questions the Housing Commission is working toward answering.
Ultimately it is not my decision, the Board of Selectmen's, nor the Housing Commission's whether town property will be leased for senior housing.
As with any issue involving change in use of town property, the public will decide by referendum vote of all eligible property owners. If approved, the proposal also would require approval of the town's land-use commissions, offering additional opportunities for public input.
As an elder law attorney, I recognize the desire of many seniors to downsize from the homes where they raised their families but have become too cumbersome or costly to maintain, while retaining the rich ties to the community that forms their social and support systems.
As Sherman's First Selectman, upon my re-election in November, I will continue to leverage every possible resource to assist the Housing Commission to fulfill its mandate "to promote and encourage the development and continued availability of senior housing and/or affordable housing" in ways acceptable to Sherman residents.
I break it down as follows:
1) Complete old business, determine priorities.
2) Create a plan... carry it out.
3) Support the hearing committee's intent. From what I've read and listened to, they seem to have a sound plan.
My concerns would be HUD's requirements and funding, and the choice of location.
Input from the Social Services director would be very important.
America is agig, and the desire for solutions to senior housing has become a growing concern for the maturing residents of Sherman who wish to stay in their community.
Mrs. O'Connor's Housing Commission recently surveyed 246 seniors, 62 percent of whom responded they want senior housing. In response, the Senior Housing Commission proposed HUD-subsidized, low-income, 500-square-foot rental apartments -- as the only option.
Considering HUD regulations require a lottery system for determining who would get leases and a radius of eligibility that would extend way beyond Sherman's borders -- a better question may have been "Do you want to potentially raise taxes in support of a centralized, low-income, federally subsidized housing entitlement?"
Very often, long-time public servant/politicians come to believe they just "know what's good for us" and often assert their special interests or ideology upon us.
Nationally, we're living through that "syndrome" as an economic disaster, and, as Sherman residents, we lived through it just last December, having to thwart an effort to force a monster cell tower onto our ridge-line one week before Christmas.
The current Senior Housing plan has been tabled by the Board of Selectmen to keep it from becoming an election issue. Like the cell tower fiasco, the choice of one option would not serve the greater need.
In fact, most of the seniors I have spoken to want something very different. Sherman residents lived through it just last December, having to thwart an effort to force a monster cell tower onto our ridge-line one week before Christmas.
This senior housing plan has been tabled by the Board of Selectmen to keep it from becoming an election issue. But, like the cell tower fiasco, the choice of one option will not serve the greater need.
Instead, I favor a plan where seniors can continue their active lifestyle, less encumbered and without burdening the taxpayer --and in something larger than a New York City studio apartment.
With sufficient demand, we would have many options to encourage a beautiful development, with low-income units included as necessary, a carefully thought out proposal that would properly address our actual senior housing needs.
Several years ago, while overseeing my company's 70,000-square-foot facility renovation, with more than 300 employees in seven different departments, each having specific needs, we worked to understand those needs and built the best possible environment for our team.
The result was a facility that functioned efficiently, creating a daily positive experience and a much-improved company.
I believe the entire community and Sherman seniors deserve the same, due diligence. Careful evaluation and thorough research will ultimately yield the most comprehensive solutions.
My goal will be to do this without negative impact on the taxpayer while protecting property values.
During 10 years of public service, my dealings with local, state and federal legislators has proven to me that business experience in the private sector is the only experience that can understand and implement the true consensus of a community.