VIDEO: Waterford first selectman candidates square off
Waterford — Democratic candidate for first selectman Beth Sabilia took aim not only at her opponent, Republican Rob Brule, but also the last several years of GOP leadership at a debate Thursday night.
She argued the town's destiny hinges on change in the wake of what she described as crumbling infrastructure, inadequate fire services and few economic plans to overcome a slowdown in retail and Millstone Power Station's eventual shuttering.
Brule countered multiple challenges from Sabilia on the leadership of First Selectman Dan Steward and the Board of Selectmen, on which Brule has served for the last four years, arguing the board has helped the town grow and thrive while overcoming more than 160 years' worth of retirements in the last decade, "institutional knowledge that's just gone."
Brule also noted that over the last four years, he's seen better communication and bipartisanship among town boards, commissions and committees and he credited more than 200 volunteers who "give back to this great town. I've seen an increase in interest."
But Republicans have led Waterford the last 20 years "and taxes and budgets have continued to go up," Sabilia told an audience that packed the Waterford High School auditorium. "Part of that is natural inflation and part of that is looking to new ideas and not sitting back and waiting to see what we can do. I'm not a wait-and-seer."
Brule added that he's "very different" from Steward in that he bridges generations and is "a very conservative person financially, deep in my soul. But I think in terms of what we believe in, family and faith in this community, I think we're very much alike."
He also said he was "probably the most approachable person here" after Sabilia described the Democratic Party as more welcoming and diverse than the national Republican Party.
The eventual winner in November's election will replace Steward, who will retire at the end of his current term after 14 years.
Much of the debate — sponsored by The Day and timed by the Southeastern Connecticut League of Women Voters — centered on the best ways to fight for revenue and improved quality of life in a town facing an uncertain economic future. The Day's Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere asked questions, including several submitted by residents.
To Brule, a businessman who's long worked to help those with disabilities and a longtime high school girls soccer coach, working with state lawmakers to help coax Millstone owner Dominion Energy to stay operational beyond a recently approved 10-year deal is essential to maintain jobs and efficient, carbon-free energy.
"And in those 10 years, we're going to be working on saving money, not spending money, if that's what it takes," he said.
Sabilia, a longtime attorney and a Representative Town Meeting member who previously served New London as mayor and a city councilor, pointed out that Dominion has closed several nuclear plants due to fiscal stress. She called for a regional economic development study to determine the "highest and best uses" of the Millstone site and to prepare the town and region for "life after Millstone."
"We can't leave it to chance meetings. We can't leave it to phone calls with friends. We need to engage the community," she said. "We can't just sit back and say we've got a 10-year deal."
Brule reiterated that the town needs to make "good, sound financial decisions under my leadership to make sure that we put enough money aside to make sure, if that day comes, we're prepared for it."
He panned former Gov. Dannel Malloy's idea, three weeks before an election, to make Seaside Regional Center a state park "without a plan." He said talking with lawmakers and Gov. Ned Lamont, and working with neighbors, eventually could lead to "responsible economic development" of the dilapidated site. He hopes for eventual development causing "the least amount of traffic and impact on the area with the most ability to bring in some tax revenue."
Sabilia said she was not necessarily in favor of the site remaining a state park, but she called on the state to "stop demolishing" its beautiful buildings "by neglect." She also said the area "needs to remain open and accessible to the people of the town of Waterford and the state. The coastline belongs to all of us. We need to go back to the drawing board."
While the candidates both support an ordinance that streamlines guidelines for training, qualifications and procedures for all fire personnel, they squared off on the history of fire services and how best to take the reins on new policy.
Sabilia said the existing system is inadequate, leaving dozens of shifts unfilled and in the meantime "there's been an absolute vacuum in leadership on this issue."
The RTM, and its Public Protection and Safety Committee, have studied the matter over the last 18 months, she added, arguing there should have been a greater push for action and solutions from the executive branch in the last decade.
"No one wants to see Oswegatchie or Cohanzie (fire companies) go away and no one wants to change their culture," Sabilia said. "What we're asking to do is have uniform training, uniform standards and uniform equipment."
Brule said there's been "no lack of leadership or discussion" on fire services, noting the ordinance properly stemmed from the committee's review after a decline in volunteerism over the years. He said the town has excellent volunteer and paid firefighters, but that the ordinance was a move in the right direction and would help produce "responsible response times."
"We need to make sure we have trained, qualified professionals," he said. "Change is difficult for anybody, especially when you have an 80-year culture. It's not going to get fixed in a day or a week, as much as politically we may want this to be."
Sabilia noted almost a third of Waterford's students receive free or reduced-price lunch, describing the town as a changed community from when she grew up here. She said her top priorities if elected would be economic diversity, bringing in manufacturers who supply Electric Boat, improved infrastructure, a smart streets plan, improved public safety and strong education.
Brule said maintaining strong education, including social and emotional learning, for Waterford's students, would be a core priority if elected. Economic development, better infrastructure and customer service, and potential development of a "main street" to foster development near the Civic Triangle would be other priorities.
Brule currently is director of operations and quality assurance for ABI Resources, a human service company specializing in community-based acquired brain injury rehabilitation. He previously served as chief operating officer at Project Genesis, a nonprofit that serves people with disabilities.
Brule has served on a host of town boards and committees, including the Representative Town Meeting, Community Center Building Committee, School Building Committee and Municipal Complex Building Committee, and as chairman of the Recreation and Parks Commission.
Sabilia, who has her own practice, Sabilia Law Firm, previously sat on the Board of Finance and has been a member of the Retirement Commission, the Social Services Grant Commission, the Municipal Complex Building Improvement Committee and the Public Protection and Safety Committee. She chairs the Democratic Town Committee.
She also once served as president and vice president of the New London Board of Education and commissioner of the New London Housing Authority.
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 5.
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