Diverse field of candidates on the Norwich City Council ballot

Norwich — Change is certain on the Norwich City Council this fall, with three incumbents departing, while familiar issues likely will dominate the next term: budget, school funding and economic development.

The ballot includes six Democrats, five Republicans, a Libertarian and a petitioning candidate. There are three incumbents, Democrat Joseph DeLucia and Republicans Stacy Gould and Bill Nash; two former aldermen, Republican Gerald Martin and Democrat Mark Bettencourt; three former mayoral candidates, Libertarian William Russell and Democrats Derell Wilson and Bettencourt; one past council candidate, Democrat Zato Kadambaya, and five newcomers, Democrats Shane Roberts and Ella Myles, Republicans John Blackburn and Robert Bell, and petitioning candidate Rebecca Melucci.

Republican Mayor Peter Nystrom, not up for reelection, is a voting council member, so at most four other Republicans can be elected under minority party representation. No more than five Democrats can be elected.

Republican Blackburn, 71, a retired civilian employee in the Naval Submarine Base health clinic and a Vietnam veteran, attends most council meetings and often speaks on major issues acknowledging their difficult choices, and chats with aldermen afterward.

“I want to work to keep the taxes lower,” Blackburn said. “There’s a lot on the plate up there. The main thing is trying to get those taxes lower. That’s going to be a difficult task.”

Incumbent freshman Democrat DeLucia has been sparring with council Republicans in recent months, voicing what Democrats are using as a campaign theme: “honest budget.” DeLucia said the 2018-19 budget ended up needing transfers and city surplus funds to cover deficits of $1.4 million in the school budget, $560,000 for police and $410,000 in the city fire budget. The 2019-20 school budget is projected to be $2.6 million in the hole.

“It’s always the biggest issue, adopting a budget that makes sense, in terms of the services we are providing and in terms of taxes,” DeLucia said. “I was disappointed that the current council didn’t work together more, and we all own a piece of that. And we need to try new things.”

DeLucia, 55, an architecture teacher at Windham Technical High School, said the council two years ago created a budget subcommittee, but it never met.

Republicans Gould and Joanne Philbrick and Democrat Stephanie Burnham were named to the budget committee after the 2017 election. Gould, the only one seeking reelection, said she tried to set up meeting dates for the committee but schedules conflicted and “it just never happened.” She is not opposed to trying again, but said she often sought answers to budget questions from city an school staff on her own.

Gould, 56, finishing her second council term, is vice president at her family’s business, Treat’s Pools & Spas in Uncasville. She is council liaison to the school board and attended most school budget meetings.

Gould, a member of the Redevelopment Agency and the Norwich Community Development Corp. board, said her top priority would be economic development, and she is encouraged by the recent boost in downtown businesses and in the business park.

Russell, 66, two-time Libertarian mayoral candidate and self-employed independent light bulb distributor, said residents wouldn’t recognize the city budget if he had a hand in it.

“I want to be in government so I can shrink government,” Russell said. “I want to shrink government so much, you don’t know it’s there.”

Russell said Republicans and Democrats are like one party, and he offers voters the only difference.

“We basically want to make Norwich into a more friendly community,” Russell said. “Currently with the Democrats and Republicans, it’s not, and that’s why people are leaving. Taxes are high and the government is not friendly to the people of Norwich. ... Government does nothing efficient and beneficial to humanity, while industry does.”

Democrat Bettencourt, 59, served eight years on the council in two stints sandwiched by an unsuccessful run for mayor in 2009. A security manager for Securitas Security Services, Bettencourt chaired the School Facilities Review Committee that wrote a proposed major school renovation and consolidation plan. Moving that plan forward should be a top priority for the next council, he said.

“I didn’t like the direction the city has been heading and thought I could contribute in a positive way again,” Bettencourt said. “I want to be more transparent. The (Democratic) platform talks about honest budgeting, and that’s not the case now. When you continue to take millions out of the undesignated fund balance to balance the budget, you’re not being transparent.”

Democrat Wilson, the third past mayoral candidate, lost to Nystrom in 2013. Wilson, 27, is a paraprofessional at the Integrated Day Charter School and is the Democratic Town Committee chairman.

“It’s all about building a Norwich that reflects and represents the entire city of Norwich,” Wilson said. “I see and understand the urgency, being a young person, about bringing tax relief to families who are here.”

Wilson said he wants “an honest budget that reflects the values of our city,” provides services and education funding necessary, while paying attention to the needs of senior citizens.

Republican Nash, 57, a retired city police officer and current security officer for a private company at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, is finishing his fifth council term. He coaches a semi-pro football team in Killingly and coaches football at New London High School.

Nash gets frustrated with political rhetoric. He said he adamantly wants to better fund the school system but the city can’t provide “blank checks.” He hopes the proposed school renovation project can find long-term savings.

“As always for me, keeping the mill rate and taxes stable, that’s my goal,” Nash said. “I made a commitment to lower taxes. It hasn’t gone down much, but there are people investing in Norwich. Obviously, the issue is education, and to get them what they need, try to figure out how to pay for our schools. That’s going to be my priority this term."

Petitioning candidate Melucci, 70, is coordinator of the volunteer City Hall docent program. A retired Yale University pathology lab worker, she is a part-time retail worker at Galina’s boutique at Mohegan Sun Casino.

Melucci said she is disappointed that more people don’t become involved in their city. As an unaffiliated candidate, Melucci doesn’t have party money for her campaign. She has printed fliers and is talking to voters.

“I’d like to get elected on holding the line on the taxes, and getting departments to stay within their budgets,” she said. “I just want to represent the people of Norwich and represent what the citizens want.”

Republican newcomer Bell, 45, has been investing in real estate in Norwich for the past 10 years and manages rental and vacation properties. Bell moved to the region from Texas in 2001 when he was in the Navy, and moved to Norwich in 2006.

“This is the first town that I’ve lived in out of many that actually feels like home,” Bell said. “Now I feel I have more time I can dedicate to the town, so I’m running for council.”

He said the city needs more youth activities, such as a movie theater or YMCA. Downtown is improving but needs more attractions and businesses.

“I’m looking forward to working on both sides of the aisle and looking for opportunities,” Bell said.

Democrat Kadambaya, 52, math supervisor in New London public schools, fell 105 votes short of being elected to the council in 2017. Kadambaya said the city is “on the wrong path," having unstable budgets and lack of direction that discourages people from moving here.

“There is less honesty and they’re playing games,” Kadambaya said. “The City Council’s role is the budget, and when the process misled the people, that’s very irresponsible. I truly believe it’s not only irresponsible, it’s sabotage. They do that intentionally, knowing they’re going to put money back.”

Republican Martin, 60, a 21-year employee at Pratt & Whitney in East Hartford, served one term on the City Council, 2015-17. Since then, he became a volunteer emergency medical responder and is vice chairman of the Harbor Management Commission.

"Hold the line on spending and keep taxes reasonable," Martin said. "Both parties want to make Norwich better, but (Republicans) seem to be a little better with people’s money."

Martin would like to improve the relationship between the city’s paid and volunteer fire departments, an issue that goes back decades. He would survey the departments on issues and meet with fire department leaders.

Democrat Myles, 49, a site manager in health care and a Narragansett tribal member, believes she would be the first Native American elected in Norwich. Besides addressing the budget and taxes, she said her experience in historic house restoration and archaeological site monitoring can help the city take advantage of its historical buildings.

“Being in historic preservation and driving around Norwich and seeing all these historic buildings in disrepair makes me kind of sad,” Myles said. “We should find ways to take advantage of our historic buildings.”

Democrat Roberts, 32, is a manager at the 99 Restaurant in Norwich. He grew up in Norwich and returned three years ago and bought a house last month. As the father of a 12-year-old son at Teachers’ Memorial Middle School, Roberts said education funding and reform “is very important to me.”

He said renovating and consolidating schools should be a top council priority. A member of the Redevelopment Agency, Roberts said the city needs a better vision for development.

“I think there’s certainly room for improvements,” Roberts said. “There’s a lot of good mechanisms, but we don’t put them in one place to drive them with a vision. We have a lot of development that we just take it as it comes. Put downtown to where it can be. Grow the industrial park.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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