Norwich mayoral candidates debate mayor's role, sex offender placement

Norwich - The three mayoral candidates debated the merits of having a full-time mayor or a strong mayor Wednesday, along with the mayor's role in economic development and running the city in general.

Incumbent Republican Peter Nystrom, Democratic challenger and Alderwoman Deberey Hinchey and Libertarian candidate William Russell disagreed on several key points on those main issues, with Russell expressing the more radical positions.

The debate closed with discussion of a controversial issue of the January Center, a sex offender treatment center in Montville, placing released sex offenders into apartments in Norwich rented by the company that operates the January Center.

Nystrom strongly objected to released convicts who are not from Norwich being placed in state-funded apartments near city playgrounds. He said the center placed a new released convict into the same apartment where one was previously moved because of negative publicity.

Hinchey said state Sen. Cathy Osten is working on a strategy for state action that could call for the January Center to return convicts to their place of origin.

The city charter gives the mayor the authority to hire an economic development assistant, but the three mayors who have held office to date have chosen not to do so. Nystrom works closely with the Norwich Community Development Corp., designated by the City Council as the city's economic development arm.

Russell would eliminate funding for NCDC, saying hiring an economic development assistant would be cheaper for the city. He also advocated for a charter change that would create a strong mayor position, eliminating the city manager position.

Nystrom countered that the city cannot eliminate NCDC or bring the staff there into the mayor's office - as debate moderator and Norwich Bulletin editorial editor Ray Hackett asked. NCDC is a private corporation and would remain even if the city canceled its $150,000 in annual funding.

Nystrom credited NCDC's work over the past nearly 50 years for developing the Stanley Israelite Norwich Business Park and many other development projects in the city.

Hinchey agreed that NCDC is essential and said she would work closely with the agency and its professional economic development staff to improve the city. She preferred working with the professional private agency to the concept of hiring an economic development assistant to work in the mayor's office.

Hinchey said the city is better off relying on professional economic development staff who are not tied to a political candidate with a four-year term in office.

While the charter doesn't specify minimum or maximum hours for the mayor, Hinchey and Russell promised to spend full-time hours in the mayor's office, while Nystrom defended the time he has spent as mayor despite working a full-time job.

Hinchey said she does not support a strong mayor position, however, saying a city the size of Norwich needs a professional staff to run the daily operations and city finances.

The candidates offered few specifics on how to cut taxes. Russell complained that his property taxes have risen 100 percent over the past seven years, and he would control spending. He said taxes would be cut within 12 months to two years of his administration.

Hinchey said cuts can come from within, using input from city departments on what cuts could be made. She suggested possible space consolidation among departments.

When discussing the city's request for proposals recently advertised for the Reid & Hughes Building on Main Street, all three candidates agreed that if a development proposal calls for an $800,000 city bond, they would support putting the issue out to a referendum.

c.bessette@theday.com

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