Published October 18. 2013 4:00AM Updated October 18. 2013 12:59PM
North Stonington - Two first selectman candidates and three selectman candidates covered a wide range of town issues in an hourlong debate Thursday night, bringing a crowd dozens strong to Wheeler Library.
Though the candidates agreed on several topics - that town meetings should be made available through local cable or webcast, that the community should become more involved in local government - other questions invited disagreement.
Given a minute each to answer and rebut questions submitted by the audience, the candidates returned time and again to what could be the defining issue of the town: its dearth of economic development and how to attract businesses to North Stonington.
The candidates were asked what kinds of businesses they'd like to see the town bring in. Brett Mastroianni, a Republican who sits on the town's Economic Development Commission and is running on a ticket with First Selectman Nicholas H. Mullane II, said retail alone is not the answer to the town's economic development woes; rather, the town needs a diverse mix of businesses.
"You need some light manufacturing, you need some light industrial down near the highway area," he said. "I think you need to spread it out."
Mullane said the way to attract business will come through the ongoing revisions of the zoning regulations that will make it easier for businesses to move to town without the burden of applying for special permits.
While Democrat Mark Donahue, an incumbent on the Board of Selectmen, said that the Plan of Conservation and Development will help town government make "good decisions," he pointed out that commercial development will not grow the tax base by much.
Petitioning candidate Bob Testa, who is challenging Mullane, veered back to the concept of easing the tax burden as a "top priority," and said the town could start by filling the vacant buildings that already sit there.
"But you have to create a climate where people feel welcome, and it's no secret, we're not a business-friendly town," Testa said. "We need to market ourselves. As first selectman, that would be my job, is to promote this town in a positive way."
Petitioning candidate Tim Pelland, Testa's running mate, added that residents should be able to vote on what businesses can move into town and that he'd like to see some family entertainment businesses.
Following Testa's comments, Mastroianni rebutted that it is unfair to call North Stonington unfriendly to businesses, saying that local commissions are working hard to change that.
"To say that is a slap in the face to Planning and Zoning," Mastroianni told Testa.
"I understand fully that we all have to work together, but we've regressed as a community," Testa said. "You can't tell me in the last 10 years that we're better now than we were 10 years ago. Taxes are going up, businesses are leaving and nothing is coming in."
Term limits also provided a source of disagreement. Many of the comments seemed pointed at Mullane, who has served in his position nearly continuously for 26 years, though he promised in 2007 that, if re-elected, he would not seek the office again.
Mullane said he would be happy to allow residents to vote on whether term limits should be implemented, but insisted that no one more qualified has expressed interest in the job.
"I believe that I am the best candidate, and that's why I'm allowing my name to be submitted again," he said.
Donahue said that he does not favor term limits on the local level.
"I think the legislative process ... will allow qualified candidates to compete and win seats," he said.
The opposing ticket had a different opinion.
"We need to have some turnover. We need to have fresh ideas. We all have a shelf life," Testa said.
Pelland added that "people get too comfortable when they're in a position for too long," and reiterated Testa's "shelf life" comment.
"You can only be on something for so long and then it starts to kind of get old," he said.
Mastroianni said he disagreed with term limits and said elections and people's votes speak for themselves. He added that "shelf life is for food, produce."