Chesebrough and Prue running for first selectman in Stonington

Stonington — With two-term incumbent Republican Rob Simmons deciding not to seek reelection, the race for first selectman features unaffiliated Board of Finance member Danielle Chesebrough challenging Republican Selectman John Prue.

Chesebrough, 36, currently works as senior analyst of investor relations for the United Nations’ Division of Corporate Sustainability and Responsible Investment. She plans to leave that position if she becomes the first woman to be elected first selectman here. She also serves on the town’s Economic Development Commission. While she is an unaffiliated voter, she was endorsed by the Democratic Town Committee.

As for why she is running, Chesebrough said her U.N. job has interested her in how global issues have local impact. In addition, she said she felt frustrated she could not do more to help the town while serving on boards and commissions.

“It felt like the right time to take on this challenge,” she said.

Chesebrough said that being on the Board of Finance and listening to the first selectman and department heads discuss their budget needs was the perfect training ground for becoming first selectman.

She said that having to bring together different people to work on issues with her U.N. job can apply to getting people “to work positively and proactively” for the town.

Prue, 57, has run his own company, Mystic Group LLC, which develops, fabricates and manages exhibit displays for trade shows for the past 20 years. If he is elected, Prue said he will close his business so he can devote his time to being first selectman. He has served on the Zoning Board of Appeals, the Planning and Zoning Commission, the committee that updated the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development and the Board of Selectmen for the past two years.

“I think I can take a great town and continue to make it better,” Prue said about his reasons for running. "I think I’m the right person at this time to pick up where Rob left off.”

Prue said that on any board or commission he’s served on, his goal was to help leave the town in better shape than the way he found it.

“I’ve become confident in my role as selectman. I’ve entered this race ready to lead the town over the next two years,” he said, adding he brings project management skills to the job, which he said is important because early decisions control the trajectory of a project. 

Chesebrough on the issues

Chesebrough said the biggest issue facing the town is becoming more financially independent from the state, which continues to cut aid to the town each year.

She said that in order to avoid large tax increases for residents, the town needs to continue to promote development.

“But that has to be done in a smart way,” she said, such as with multiple small developments and projects instead of large ones. In addition, she said so much more redevelopment can occur in downtown Pawcatuck and while work is taking place, the town has to do more to help property owners such as assistance with obtaining historic tax credits.

Chesebrough supports continuing the effort to complete the Mystic River Boathouse Park project, which has been delayed by historic preservation, architectural design and environmental contamination issues.

“We’ve already put $2 million into it. We have to figure it out. We can’t just let it sit there,” she said, adding that maybe the project does not have to be as extensive as first envisioned but the property should be accessible to residents.

Chesebrough said she does not know if it is realistic to turn the contaminated Connecticut Casting Mill property in Pawcatuck into a public park, because of the high price tag likely required to do that. Instead, she said the town could look at developing the former circus lot off Noyes Avenue into a park. She said the town should seek grants for those projects.

Another project the town should be looking at is trying to obtain a federal transportation grant to build a pedestrian walkway over the Pawcatuck River bridge to connect with downtown Westerly and its train station.

Asked about the possibility of an antidevelopment sentiment growing in town after the Smiler’s Wharf controversy, Chesebrough said the town needs to hold more of the community conversations the EDC and Planning Department have held over the past two years to bring people together.

As for traffic and parking shortages in Mystic, Chesebrough said a water taxi would help shuttle tourists around and the Fourth District Voting Hall could be used for parking while more needs to be done to promote walking.

On the issue of walking, Chesebrough said the town needs to complete sidewalks along busy Route 1 from the high school to downtown Pawcatuck. She said she does not see the town getting any state grants for the work, so it will have to pay for it through an allocation in the capital improvement budget or bonding.

She said another critical issue facing this shoreline town is coastal resiliency with sea level rise. She said bond rating agencies, which help determine the interest rates the town has to pay when it borrows money for projects, now look at how municipalities are addressing the issue.

"We should not risk the excellent (AAA) bond rating the Board of Finance has worked so hard to achieve,” she said.

She said the town should come up with projects that could be done over the next five to 10 years, see what other coastal towns are doing, start putting away money now to avoid a large bill in the future and coordinate coastal resiliency improvements with other projects.

“Most of our grand list is flood prone. It’s such a key issue and we haven’t done much with it,” she said. 

Prue on the issues

Prue said the biggest challenge facing the town is the uncertainty with the state budget. He said that although the town is almost self-sufficient because its state aid is minimal, he said state fiscal problems affect real estate values and people moving to the state.

“We need to preserve our grand list. Doing that will maintain a low mill (tax) rate," he said.

Prue said he is happy with the level of development in town. “I don’t want to see it turned off but I don’t want it to accelerate to where it is damaging our quality of life,” he said.

While it will cost more than expected to complete the Mystic River Boathouse Park project, Prue said the town has to see the project through to completion.

Of greater concern he said is what to do with the Connecticut Casting Mill, which has pollutants 10 to 12 feet underground and sits over an aquifer.

“That has to be on the front burner,” he said.

He said the town faces challenges in obtaining financing for the boathouse and casting mill projects. “But the one that threatens the water supply has to be the focus,” he said, adding the town has to clear up the ownership of the casting mill site before any more money is spent.

As for sidewalks along Route 1, Prue said he would push that they be funded though the capital improvement budget as part of a multiyear project. He said the town should continue to work with private developers to install sidewalks was part of their projects.

Prue said the town is on the right track with redeveloping downtown Pawcatuck but he said he is concerned about the town's gaining an antidevelopment reputation, something he called the "Smiler's Wharf hangover."

Prue said that while he supported the Smiler's Wharf project, he said the community made it clear the scope of the project was too large.

He said the town must continue to work to ensure better neighborhood participation and that development risks are understood by developers. 

Prue said he also is concerned about what he called the rising influence of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection when it comes to approving coastal area management applications for waterfront projects. DEEP opposed the Smiler's project and has raised concerns about other waterfront development in town.

Prue said he understands the concerns DEEP has about waterfront development but if there is no flexibility to allow such projects, the town will not have waterfront development.

Prue said the town faces challenges with sea level rise but said water levels and flooding in downtown Mystic far exceed sea level rise. “Something unique is going on there,” he said, adding the town needs to figure out what is causing the problem and correct it.

He said the town's coastal resiliency study identified critical infrastructure that needs to be protected from sea level rise and the town needs to plan upgrades and set aside money for those projects.

Prue praised the high quality of the staff currently employed by the town.

“Ninety percent of administration happens seamlessly. The first selectman’s job is to help them, elevate them, not micromanage them. They know what to do,” he said.

He said that if elected, he would continue the weekly Tuesday staff meetings with department heads implemented by Simmons, as it has improved communication between departments.

Prue pledged that every decision he would make would be based on whether "it is the right thing to do for the Town of Stonington and do we have the consent of the governed." 

j.wojtas@theday.com

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