Tribal issues arise in Preston first selectman debate

Preston - The two candidates for first selectman sparred over potential development along Route 2, plans for the former Norwich Hospital property, town management and whether veteran experience or fresh ideas were best to lead the town over the next two years.

Eighteen-year incumbent Republican Robert Congdon said he continues to have the best tools to lead Preston, while challenging petitioning candidate Vincent Eleazer said his years of experience working with the Mashantucket Pequot tribal government give him "equal" qualifications to serve as first selectman.

Congdon and Eleazer fielded questions from some of the about 30 people in attendance for an hour during a debate Tuesday sponsored by The Day. A video of the debate is posted on www.theday.com.

Eleazer, a member of the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, said he has worked with the tribal council and has experience in human resources and communications. But in a rebuttal, Congdon said Eleazer has rarely even voted in Preston during his 19 years of residency and never volunteered to serve on any boards and commissions.

Congdon said in addition to his 18 years of experience in office, he previously ran a trucking company and has a bachelor's degree in business administration.

"I'm clearly the most qualified candidate for the job of first selectman," Congdon said.

The potential for development along Route 2 and Eleazer's tribal affiliation became central points in the debate. Congdon said Route 2 and the former Norwich Hospital property provided the best opportunities for future development in Preston, but he said the Mashantucket Pequot tribe owns much of Route 2 east of Route 164 to the Ledyard border.

While Eleazer said the town has rejected some of the tribe's plans for the area, Congdon said the town three times approved development projects that the tribe failed to build.

Eleazer said the tribe attempted to bring a sewer line to the new hotel that opened at the corner of Route 2 and Watson Road, but the town thwarted the effort. He said if the tribe is allowed to develop the land, the projects would be taxable and would benefit Preston. He said when tribal officials met with Congdon on prospects for developing the land, they were told to "come back in 10 years," Eleazer said.

But Congdon countered that the tribe wanted the sewer line to serve only tribal property and the hotel - skipping privately owned parcels in between.

Questioned on where his allegiances would lie if conflicts arose between the town and tribal interests, Eleazer said his "oath" would be with Preston. Eleazer said his tribal membership could be a benefit to the town, fostering relationships with both the Mashantuckets and the Mohegan tribe. His son has two children who are Mohegan tribal members, he said.

Again, Congdon shot back that he did not see any advantage to Eleazer's relationships with tribal government, with the Mashantucket tribe being in default on a $2 billion debt and two former tribal council officers found guilty of theft of tribal funds. Eleazer said such incidents can happen in any major corporation.

Congdon said he saw Eleazer's tribal affiliation as a "real concern," especially after seeing that Eleazer's only campaign contributions came from Mashantucket tribal members.

Local towns face a potential issue with a proposal by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs potentially relaxing tribal land annexation rules. Congdon said he already has submitted comments objecting to the proposals.

"I believe the town needs to be in that debate," he said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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