Stonington selectmen candidates participate in one and only debate

Stonington — The four candidates for first selectman and selectman participated in their one and only debate Tuesday night, discussing issues such as whether the town should hire a town manager and expand the Board of Selectmen, how to deal with an increasingly costly lawsuit filed by a fired town employee and whether Stonington should create an off-leash dog park.

The also told voters how they would deal with state aid cuts, the redevelopment of Pawcatuck and debated a challenge by Democrats to limit campaign fundraising to $6,000.

Incumbent First Selectman Rob Simmons, his Democratic challenger, George Crouse, incumbent Selectwoman Kate Rotella and her challenger Republican John Prue all agreed, though, that unlike federal and state politicians, elected officials here work in a bipartisan fashion for the good of the town.

“Maybe we can set an example of how people should conduct themselves in the other offices,” said Rotella, receiving applause from the crowd gathered in the Stonington Community Center. The debate was sponsored by The Day and the Eastern Connecticut Chamber of Commerce.

While the four agreed about expanding the size of the Board of Selectmen from three to five members, they disagreed with their respective running mates about the hiring of a town manager. Simmons has said that if he is re-elected, he would push to form a charter revision commission to look at the two issues after the last charter revision commission declined to consider them.

Simmons and Rotella supported the hiring of a town manager, with Simmons saying that with a first selectman elected every two years, the town risks electing someone who does not know how to do the job. Rotella pointed out that companies with budgets of millions of dollars do not operate without an experienced manager.

Crouse opposed the town manager, saying the town already has an administrative services director who handles many of those duties and he was not sure how the town would pay for the manager position. Prue said the current system works and he does not support adding a paid professional at this time.

Simmons made the informal off-leash dog park an on-leash enclosure following a lawsuit by neighbors and a request from the borough that the town withdraw a zoning request for the park because it feared costly legal fees from an appeal. Asked about the future of a dog park in town, Crouse said he would support creating one. Simmons said a study committee identified four other possible locations but he would not want to expend funds on a dog park with the uncertainty about state aid cuts. Rotella said that with the cuts, funding schools should take precedence over a dog park. Prue was concerned about the town incurring legal liability with a dog park.

The four also were asked about the $250,000 the town has spent so far on defending itself against three grievances and a federal lawsuit filed by fired highway supervisor Lou DiCesare and how to avoid future costs.

For the first time Tuesday night, a town official publicly mentioned how much it would cost the town to settle with DiCesare: Simmons mentioned it would cost millions of dollars to resolve the suit.

“I have tried to resolve this case for two years but I will not take millions out of the taxpayer revenue to pay for something that can be resolved without paying millions of dollars,” he said.

Simmons pointed out the actions that spurred the grievances and lawsuit took place under Crouse and former First Selectman Ed Haberek.

Crouse said he was on the job just two weeks when DiCesare was fired.

“I thought we had compromise (with DiCesare),” he said, before adding that legally the town cannot comment because the issue is in litigation.


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