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VIDEO: New police building, ethics drive East Lyme first selectman debate

East Lyme — Republican First Selectman Mark Nickerson faced off against his Democratic rival, Camille Alberti, in an informative and thought-provoking debate Tuesday night, with both arguing how their varying leadership styles and subtly differing big-picture priorities will best move the town forward.

The election comes as East Lyme looks to balance economic development with its small-town character as state budgetary issues loom, as well as to further protect and preserve its environment.

Nickerson, who has been first selectman since 2015 and is running on 20 years of town government experience, countered many challenges from Alberti questioning his management style and decisions. He stated that his proven leadership throughout his tenure, and his ability to inspire his staff and commission members, has pushed the town forward in a measurably positive way.

Nickerson said that should the town want to continue “moving in the right direction” and “stay the course,” then voters should cast their ballot for him, after also stating that “changing our course would not be wise.”

Alberti, a member of the Board of Finance, said fiscal responsibility and accountability, as well as transparency, would be her biggest priorities as town executive. She took aim at Nickerson throughout the debate, questioning his decision-making as first selectman, while also alleging mismanaged project planning over his tenure.

Nickerson maintained that the town is “in a very enviable position,” stating “We are the gem of southeastern Connecticut” because of his leadership and collaboration with town officials. He also highlighted the public school system, taxes, “which remain low and steady,” and a “thriving” business community.

Among other accomplishments, Nickerson spoke about the recent $37.5 million elementary school project, which he said was proposed to cost $86 million when he first came into office, but which he helped whittle down with a three-school renovation plan, thereby also saving the Niantic Center School.

Alberti, who cited her broad experiences working in finance management consulting, previously for Deloitte Consulting, described a need to “take pause” with ongoing development in town, saying she would focus on “responsible and tasteful economic development.”

The debate, sponsored by The Day and timed by the Southeastern Connecticut League of Women Voters, was held at East Lyme High School and featured questions submitted by residents. The Day's Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere asked questions, including about commercial development in town, the planned housing development in the Oswegatchie Hills, proposed senior tax abatements and strategies to conserve open space.

Before venturing into those questions, both candidates were pressed about their roles in ongoing plans for a future policing facility in the former Honeywell building on the western edge of town, which over recent weeks has become a political talking point for the candidates. Alberti has claimed that the project has been mismanaged and that she and Board of Finance members were misled by Nickerson about the actual costs of the project at a special meeting during which the board approved the project on Jan. 23.

She described that on that night, she and her board were assured by Nickerson that the project would not cost more than $6 million. The Board of Finance ultimately voted on Alberti’s motion to decrease the amount the town is allowed to bond out for the project, unanimously approving $5 million — $2.77 million to purchase the building and $2.23 million for renovations.

Cutting $1 million from the original request, the board had acknowledged, would mean potentially putting off installing proposed holding cells, estimated to cost $1 million.

But Alberti was questioned Tuesday over how she could hold Nickerson to staying within the passed budget after she herself voted to decrease it by $1 million.

“We received assurances that evening that appraisals were made on the property. That a building inspection was done. We asked beforehand for those materials to be presented to us that evening. They never were,” Alberti said. “But we went forward based on the assumption that $6 million would be the maximum amount they would need if they would include the holding cells and sally port. There was no reason for us to believe that we should have awarded him more money. We believed we should have awarded less.”

Nickerson, while maintaining that town officials “are going to do this project right,” said the process to pass the proposal to purchase and renovate the building was done without hiring an architect — “we didn’t have that luxury” — and under time constraints, describing a pressing need to promptly rehouse the town’s police force as well as a soon-expiring offer to purchase the Honeywell building.

“It will be done on budget. I’m very confident in that,” Nickerson said.

Money wasn't the only contentious issue to come up. Alberti said that, if elected, she would revise and rewrite several town policies, saying that auditors have raised issues with town officials “year after year.” She also alluded to alleged unethical behavior among town employees.

“According to the auditor, there’s over 70 policies that need to be rewritten,” Alberti said. She also complained about how long that process can sometimes take, explaining that it took the Board of Selectmen two years to rewrite one purchasing policy. “If I multiply that (70 policies) by two years, that would take 140 years to complete, and I just don’t have that time.”

Nickerson said Alberti's statement was unfair, and that town employees serve the town with pride, adhering to policies and “are ethical beyond reproach,” Nickerson said.

“There are some policies we are putting into place and committing to writing. It’s not that we don’t have them,” he said. “... This town is efficient. Our department heads are beyond ethical and I’m very proud of the work our town department heads do and the amount of work we put out with the limited personnel we have.”

Alberti responded, “I would disagree that the entire work force is behaving ethically. I do think we need to shore up our policies and procedures to make sure people are behaving ethically. Not only have there been past occurrences of misconduct, but we are currently undergoing investigation for misconduct.” She did not elaborate further.

Nickerson called out Alberti for not providing specific examples of mismanaged projects, provoking her to cite a concern with the town’s drinking water as an example, though she mainly relied on the ongoing public safety building planning to illustrate her point.

She alleged the town changed its rules and regulations allowing “big developers” to build the Costco gas station above the town’s aquifer, putting drinking water at risk from runoff from the station.

“We cannot shrink the size of our aquifers on a map to accommodate their desire to put in gas stations,” Alberti said.

Correcting her, Nickerson said Alberti “did half her homework,” stating the gas station “is not on the aquifer.”

“The state doesn’t allow gas stations to be built on aquifers. That’s a state rule, we couldn’t do it if we wanted to do it,” Nickerson said, explaining that the town’s Aquifer Protection Agency approved the project “after looking at maps and putting holes in the ground to see where water was flowing under the ground. We did this scientifically.”

“The gas station being built has high technology for spills and it’s not on the aquifer,” Nickerson said.

m.biekert@theday.com

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