Lyden, Spang square off in Salem first selectman debate
Salem — The Salem School multi-purpose room was nearly at standing room only Thursday night, with Town Hall staff, members of various boards and residents in attendance to listen to the two first selectman candidates talk about their plans for the town.
The debate was hosted by The Day and the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut. Day editorial board member Lisa McGinley moderated the debate, and members of the League of Women Voters served as timekeepers.
Incumbent Kevin Lyden, unaffiliated, and Democratic challenger Sue Spang took turns answering questions about how they would run the town in the face of state budgetary uncertainty, what kinds of businesses they would like to see in town and, most importantly, the last movie they saw.
For Spang, it was "Hidden Figures." Lyden had to consult his wife, Kathleen, who was sitting in the second row, before admitting he couldn't remember the last movie he saw.
Lyden, 60, is running for his fifth term as first selectman. As an unaffiliated candidate, he was cross endorsed and ran uncontested in his first three elections. In 2015, he was endorsed by the Democratic Town Committee and ran against current Selectman Ed Chmielewski, who is seeking another term on the Board of Selectmen.
This year, he is running as a petitioning candidate, as the Republican Town Committee didn't nominate anyone for the top seat and the DTC unanimously endorsed Spang.
Spang, 59, has served as chair of the Recreation Commission for 15 years and has led the Multi-Purpose Path Committee to improve the trails that run behind Salem School and Town Hall. She ran for the Board of Selectmen in 2015.
Most of the evening's questions focused on how Salem will be impacted by the current lack of a state budget and the cuts slated to come once an agreement is made. Both candidates identified the state budget as the most challenging issue the incoming first selectman will have to face.
Lyden referenced his 27-year business experience in emphasizing the need to find ways to cut spending through outsourcing, consolidating services with other towns, and other efficiency measures.
"I run the town like I run a business," he said. "Our town auditor... says we're one of the most fiscally responsible towns in the state of Connecticut."
Spang noted the need to be creative with all departments, especially the school with the possible cuts to Educational Cost Sharing funding. She commended the Board of Finance for maintaining a healthy unassigned fund balance and a fair budget.
Both candidates identified economic development as one way to help offset the cuts long-term, whether from attracting new businesses or adding affordable housing. The Economic Development Commission and Planning and Zoning Commission have been working on reviewing related regulations.
Spang and Lyden sparred on what age groups to target for affordable housing, as Salem was one of many towns in Connecticut slated for an increase in the senior population. Lyden said age-restricted housing should be the focus in order to keep seniors in town and open up their houses to incoming families. Spang agreed but added that all age groups could benefit from having affordable housing options, especially middle-age adults coming to town for the school.
"I would really like to encourage a sense of community and keep those people here," she said.
One submitted question asked the candidates to prioritize education, public safety, the elderly and town employees. Both candidates avoided ranking them, pointing out that sacrificing one would be unfair to all.
"It takes all those things to make the town go round," Spang said.
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