Salem office seekers stress independence

Salem - There's only one contested seat on the Board of Selectmen this year, providing one small spot of contention in a race filled with highly educated candidates who emphasize political independence and bipartisanship.

Three positions are up for election - First Selectman Kevin Lyden's seat and the two board seats currently filled by Robert Ross and Robyn McKenney.

Both Lyden, who is running unopposed for his third term as first selectman, and Ross, a former first selectman running for his second term on the board since leaving that office, are unaffiliated candidates endorsed by both the Republican and Democratic Town Committees. McKenney was endorsed by the Democrats for a third term on the board, while Republican Town Committee Chairman Ed Chmielewski, who previously served nine years on the Board of Education, is also running for the Board of Selectmen.

Candidates can vote for one candidate for first selectman - although they won't have many options, since Lyden is running unopposed - and any two of the three candidates for the Board of Selectmen.

Major issues in town

The candidates, all of whom hold graduate degrees, emphasized a bipartisan approach to the major issues in Salem, such as high taxes, a need for economic development and a declining enrollment in the town's only school, which educates children from kindergarten through eighth grade.

"As long as people are here to do their job, I'm happy to work with anyone," said Lyden, who was cross-endorsed by the major parties during the last two elections as well. He said he enjoys working with all Salem residents who want to improve the town, whether they are Democrats, Republicans or members of a third party.

"I'm passionately independent in the way I approach policy," said Ross, who emphasized that he believes good ideas can come from both major parties and he wanted to be in a place where he could respond to good ideas no matter who raised them. Since July 2009, Ross has been the executive director of the Connecticut Office of Military Affairs - a position he was appointed to by a Republican governor before Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy re-appointed him.

Although McKenney and Chmielewski are each affiliated with a major party, they kept their comments focused on what they could bring to the town rather than attacking one another or the other political party.

In a town with few businesses and high property taxes, all four candidates for the top positions said economic development was a critical issue.

"We need more businesses to call Salem their home," said Lyden, but he doesn't want to bring in just any kind of business. He said that surveys of residents have shown that there is a desire for new businesses that fit the character of town, and that's what he hopes to cultivate.

Certain specialty businesses seem to thrive in Salem, he said, including horse-related businesses like Treasure Hill Farm and niche businesses such as Burnett's Country Gardens.

It's important to make sure that town is spending responsibly, said Lyden, who has 27 years of experience as a businessman and advocates applying good business practices to local government. But it is also critical to remember that although the average family income is higher in Salem than in neighboring towns, there are still 200 people in town on heating assistance who may require more services than others.

Chmielewski said the economic situation is what led him to join the race. He said people are "working harder and earning less" and that he has seen several people in his neighborhood struggling financially.

"If the voters in Salem are not happy with their taxes, with the (town's) rate of growth, with the fact that the town's economic development commission is suspended, then they should vote for me because I will work tirelessly to change that," he said.

Chmielewski said that the EDC is critical to helping Salem grow but that it was recently suspended because the membership was not high enough. One of the first things he would do if elected, he said, would be to appoint people to fill that commission so that it can begin operating again.

He also emphasized what he said were the Republican principles of advocating smaller government and "spending every penny as if it were our own."

Ross said he's running for re-election because he wants to follow through with some projects he's started, including "cleaning up" some areas of town and economic development - he's the Board of Selectmen's liaison to the EDC, which expanded the farmers market this year and has been researching how the town might be able to draw some tourists up from Mystic.

One area where Ross would like to see more development is the Four Corners, which "is not living up to its economic potential."

Some of the "corners" surround the intersection of Routes 82 and 85 are drawing locals, but there is one corner that is relying heavily on out-of-towners passing through the area, and Ross said he'd like to see that change.

As selectmen, said McKenney, "our role would be to be careful in considering" initiatives proposed by the Economic Development Commission and Planning and Zoning Commission that would help the economy.

McKenney said that having a primarily residential tax base is hard on people, and that she would be a great candidate for evaluating these proposals because "I am a thoughtful person, good listener, and careful in my considerations."

Most candidates also agreed that the declining enrollment numbers at Salem School would be one of the major challenges for selectmen to address. The town is already unable to sustain a high school of its own, dedicating a significant amount of its budget to educating children through middle school before paying tuition for them to attend East Lyme High School.

This year, the board of education's expenses made up 70 percent of the town's total budget. The cost of maintaining a school in town was a sticking point at the public hearing regarding the budget in April, during which some residents complained that they did not have children at the school and felt it was driving their taxes up and taking money away from other services, such as the library.

Lyden said that a declining trend in enrollment was projected five years ago, when town was first considering either renovating the school or constructing a new building. This year's enrollment is slightly higher than last year's, but Lyden referred to this as a blip of higher numbers going through in the midst of a larger trend showing declining population at the school.

The numbers do, however, appear to be leveling off now, said Lyden. There are around 420 children at the school this year, and 399 are expected next year.

"It's not good for a community not to have children," said Lyden. He believes the declining enrollment is in part the result of housing boom in the 1980s and '90s. Many people moved to Salem at that time, and by now their kids have graduated and moved on but the parents remain, he said.

The school is one thing townspeople are proud of, said Lyden, and it will be fine as long as the Board of Education responds to needs as they arise. The Board of Education has already made some changes, but may need to make more, and "they are cognizant of that," he said.

Ross was a little more specific about what those changes could be: there are great people working in the school system, he said, but the board will need to look closely at how much administration it needs with the declining population.

McKenney, who works for East Lyme Public Schools and spent seven years on Salem's Board of Education, said that enrollment trend should be considered but are "just one piece of the puzzle."

She said the key is to "always be forward-thinking" when making plans. Town officials should be always be considering multiple possibilities, she said, such as whether they would regionalize with nearby school systems if they also saw their numbers dropping.

k.catalfamo@theday.com

In their own words

The Day asked candidates for top offices in the municipal elections to answer three questions:

What are the major issues for your town?

What makes you the best candidate for this office?

What was the last book you read, and what did you think of it?

To read their responses, go to www.theday.com/voterguide

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