For Ledyard residents, Tuesday’s political debate was an opportunity to witness all four of the town’s mayoral candidates in action as they tackled such issues as economic development, taxes, unemployment and “getting along.”
All candidates made an impression, mostly positive, as they recited their respective business and government experience, their accomplishments managing people and budgets, and even proposed some new ideas.
Democratic candidate Anthony Saccone, for example, proposed a jobs summit in response to an unemployment rate of 7.7 percent in Ledyard in August. Similar to a jobs fair, the summit would attempt to bring together local workers and large employers in the region.
Petitioning candidate Rob Lawrence suggested that a water turbine in the river at Gales Ferry might help reduce the cost of electricity, which in turn could make the town more attractive to business.
That was the first mention of electricity, but not the last. When the lights in the auditorium suddenly went out with about 15 minutes to go in the debate, a member of the audience yelled “solar panels” – a reference to one of Mayor Fred B. Allyn Jr.’s signature accomplishments in his first term.
The 90-minute debate was sponsored by The Bulletin and monitored by the paper’s editorial page editor, Ray Hackett. About 100 people attended the debate, which was held in the Ledyard High School auditorium.
The tone of the evening was civil and respectful, despite Hackett’s initial question, which made a reference to “people not getting along very well.” He asked whether the candidates felt that a charter revision might help clarify the respective roles of the mayor and town council.
Republican endorsed candidate John Rodolico, a veteran of five terms on the town council, used the question as a chance to speak to the importance of communication and open government. It was a theme he would repeat throughout the debate, along with his call for greater efficiency and professionalism in town government.
“This never was a problem before when I served on the town council,” Rodolico said.
Saccone agreed that communication between the branches of town government is imperative. “In your home, in my home, it’s all about communication,” he said. He added that one of his goals would be to have the mayor’s office and town council work together more closely.
Lawrence agreed. “We’re all in this together,” he said. “We’re all about doing what’s best for Ledyard.”
Allyn, however, said communication “requires listening as well as talking,” and accepting ideas “even when they’re not your own ideas.”
None of the candidates favored a charter revision.
One of the toughest questions of the night came from Ledyard High School student Meghan Tripp, who asked the candidates to address the issue of high unemployment and little opportunity in town, especially for the town’s young people.
None of the candidates had a solution, although several spoke of the difficulty their own children have had finding jobs in the area. Allyn said he would focus on affordable housing, so that young people at least could live in town, even if they worked elsewhere. Saccone said he would work closely with the state to see about bringing back some of the major employers that have left Connecticut in recent years.
Perhaps the only mildly contentious moment in the debate came in response to a question about how to attract economic development.
Rodolico, who would reorganize the town’s land-use agencies, said he would “never treat the mayor’s office as a private agency,” a reference to Allyn’s reputedly close ties to developers.
“Developers want a land use organization that is integrated and coordinated” in such a way that they would want to do business in Ledyard, Rodolico said.
“The mayor’s office is not a place for private developers to make their deals,” Allyn countered when it was his turn for rebuttal. But Allyn, who worked more than 30 years in commercial real estate, said relationships can be critical to attracting developers.
Saccone noted the many vacant commercial properties in town, calling Ledyard a “well-kept secret.”
Lawrence said the absence sewers in town will always be a disincentive to developers. He proposed a “clamshell” bandstand at the fairgrounds, which could be used for concerts or skits. “I’m a chef,” he said. “I’d cook chicken dinners.”
The candidates were asked about two separate proposals for water-themed amusement parks in town. All favored the water parks, noting the welcome addition to the town’s tax base and the creation of much-needed jobs.
The candidates also were asked about the town establishing an independent police department. All said they favored the idea.
Rodolico, however, said a five-year plan should precede any official endorsement. “We don’t want to buy something only to see the cost going up and up every year.”
They were asked about whether they would raise taxes. While they acknowledged tax increases might be inevitable, they all spoke of efforts to economize and manage existing resources. Allyn, for example, mentioned the high school’s $170,000 annual electric bill, and said he hopes to have solar panels installed on the building.
It was about that time the lights went out.
In his closing remarks, Rodolico spoke of his experience managing people during his career at Electric Boat and reiterated the importance of efficient, professional and open government.
Allyn ticked off a list of accomplishments during his tenure, saying he has the tenacity to lead and keep the town moving forward.
Saccone quoted JFK on change. “Those who look only to the past or the present will miss the future,” he said.
Lawrence told the audience he has nothing to gain by running for mayor except a lot of unwelcomed scrutiny. “I just want to help the town,” he said.
Saccone’s campaign manager, Ralph Hightower, later said thought the debate allowed the audience to get a sense of where each candidate stood. “There were no obvious attacks, although there was an undercurrent,” he said.
“It was a great forum and a wonderful opportunity to see all of the candidates at once,” said town council member Jim Diaz, a Republican. “The town is fortunate to have so much choice, although I think John stood out from the crowd.”
“I did the best I could,” said Lawrence after the debate. “I just tried to be as honest as possible.”
Allyn was still mulling Meghan Tripp’s question about jobs creation. “That was the toughest question we had all night,” he said.