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Nickerson gets "out of the way" in East Lyme

East Lyme — Outgoing Republican First Selectman Mark Nickerson described himself on the eve of his departure as a non-political guy in a political role.

"This job, you get involved because you want to serve," he said. "But in the end, it is a political job. And you're met with criticism."

After the three-term Nickerson did not run for reelection. Republican Deputy First Selectman Kevin Seery, who defeated Democratic challenger Camille Alberti by more than 500 votes, will be sworn in on Monday. 

Nickerson, appointed in 2015 to finish out state Sen. Paul Formica's term, counted several public safety improvements at the top of his team's list of accomplishments. Among them was the controversial renovation of a 30-year-old building near the Interstate 95 Rocky Neck connector into the town's public safety hub.

Three years, two referendums and $7.4 million later, the building will be ready "hopefully by the end of the year," according to Nickerson. It'll house the dispatch center and fire marshal's office in addition to police.

The first selectman noted that escaping criticism, as the saying goes, requires one to "do nothing, say nothing and be nothing." It's a quote he printed up for his office wall along with the reminder to dream big and "dare to fail."

"You can stay under the radar and not get enough done and not stick your neck out and not do things that are controversial or that failed in the past," he said. "Or you can do the right thing and try."

There was no lack of judgment on the public safety project. Critics argued against the building's location, its age, the rushed purchase process and escalating costs. Supporters said a change was necessary because the town's officers were working under deplorable conditions and had been for decades.

Nickerson said building a new public safety building would have been easier, but getting community buy-in just 18 months after voters approved a $37.5 million elementary school renovation project would have been impossible. So a renovation seemed like the right thing to do, he said.

"Perfect solution? No. Building new would've been great," he said. "But it is what it is. It's a good building and it will serve our town very nicely for a couple generations to come."

The renovation followed two unsuccessful attempts to establish a public safety complex. In 2004, the Board of Finance shot down a $6.5 million proposal to build a facility at Camp Niantic, and in 2007 a $14 million complex was rejected by voters at referendum.

Nickerson said his success where two other selectmen had failed — "not failed, but their ideas didn't come to fruition," he hedged — underscored the importance of continuing to put forth the effort.

In what Nickerson called the proudest achievement of his tenure, the Board of Selectmen in 2016 authorized an independent police force after participating in the Connecticut State Police's resident trooper program for several decades. The department was established in 2017 under the leadership of Chief Mike Finkelstein.

Nickerson said East Lyme, which the 2020 Census put at 18,693 residents, had outgrown its reliance on the state police and needed the continuity of a leader whose loyalty is solely to the town.

Giving the town's 26 full-time officers, one part-timer and a chief "the proper facility to operate out of and the proper tools in their toolboxes" is critical now, according to Nickerson.

Finkelstein on Friday credited Nickerson with championing "what might not have been the most popular of causes" when it came to the public safety building.

"He's always been incredibly supportive of law enforcement in our town," Finkelstein said. "He was always someone that we could rely on to assist us when needed."

Seery, the first selectman-elect and a retired member of the Connecticut State Police, called the public safety building project "a very sensitive subject in the town for decades." He said stewarding it to completion, combined with forming the independent police force, amounts to Nickerson's greatest contribution to the town.

"Those are two big challenges that no one else tackled that have been resolved," Seery said.

More to do

Both the outgoing and incoming first selectmen agree there's still plenty of work to do. 

"Every time you complete one project, there's more waiting," Seery said.

In the area of fire services, Nickerson said improvements initiated under his administration will continue to evolve in the coming years. He pointed to the decision in 2019 to add two full-time, overnight firefighters. A five-year agreement between the independent East Lyme Ambulance Association and the town was signed in 2019 to hire and split the costs for the two professionals.

"Now we actually have people working 24/7/365, who can get in an ambulance and save a life," he said. "We didn't have that."

East Lyme's two independent fire companies operate separately from the town, and their volunteer chiefs do not report to the selectmen. Both departments include a combination of paid and volunteer firefighters.

Nickerson in June proposed hiring a fire administrator to help provide "oversight and accountability" for the town's two volunteer fire departments. A subcommittee of the selectmen continues to review the structure of the fire services in town.

A $15,000, 272-page fire department study from JLN Associates of Old Lyme released in 2017 recommended hiring a "full-time career fire chief" who would oversee both fire departments, emergency medical services, the fire marshal's office and emergency management.

He said numerous recommendations from the study have been implemented and have resulted in a more streamlined relationship between the two departments and the town. But big questions about leadership structure and the possibility of adding more paid firefighters remain.

"It all comes with a huge cost," he said. "And that transition will continue to evolve."

Getting 'out of the way'

Nickerson and wife, Marlene, who recently moved from the Flanders section of town to a condominium in the Spinnaker 55+ community in Niantic, have two grown sons. Nickerson said he is going back to focusing on his decades-long career as a Geico Insurance agent with offices in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

He said he envisions continuing his service as a board member for community or regional organizations. He did not rule out a run for higher office.

"I have no plans to run for state legislature right now," he said. "But you never know."

Nickerson reiterated he's "never been politically motivated," even while acknowledging with a laugh that he's the town's top elected official.

"I very much enjoyed this opportunity to serve," he said. "But it was about service. It wasn't about a political seat and a stepping stone to other political seats or power or position."

Asked about his legacy, he said it's that he "got out of the way" so that people on his staff, on local boards and commissions, and in the community could get things done together.

"I have my expertise. I can motivate people. I can coach and mentor. I can recognize greatness and then put people in positions to do good things," he said.

He said his departing gift to town finance director Anna Johnson was a Wonder Woman bobblehead, and a Superman figure for public works director Joe Bragaw.

On a whiteboard in his office under the heading "Nickerson Team Accomplishments" is a list that has evolved over the years to include projects large and small. They range from big ticket items like the elementary school renovation project to smaller initiatives like a new park at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue and a regionalized animal shelter in New London.

"All these little things add up to a great town. All these things add up to a quality of life, quality of services, and quality of recreation," he said. "A sense of place."

He said he planned to erase the board in time for Seery's swearing-in ceremony on Monday afternoon, leaving a blank slate.

"It was already a wonderful town, yet we left it better than we found it," he said. "And Kevin will do the same."

e.regan@theday.com

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