Three mayoral candidates square off at debate in New London

New London — From storefront vacancies and blight to offshore wind and garbage disposal, three candidates for mayor shared ideas and traded jabs on Thursday for a crowd that at times found it tough to contain applause for their favorites.

Incumbent Democratic Mayor Michael Passero, Republican Martin “Marty” Olsen and Green Party candidate Frida Berrigan squared off at a debate held at C.B. Jennings International Magnet School.

If it were being judged as a boxing match, Olsen would have led the panel with the number of jabs aimed at Passero and the prior administration on issues such as directors living outside the city, a failed attempt to institute a new trash system and taxes, a subject in which he said Passero has employed “smoke and mirrors” in his claim of lowering the tax rate.

“We had revaluation this past year. With revaluation, the grand list rose. When the grand list rose, the mill rate goes down. That’s just the way it is. He’s taking credit for it. It has nothing to do with anything he’s done,” Olsen said.

While the boost in the grand list was in part due to an increase in property values — particularly commercial and multifamily homes — Passero credited his administration with attracting investment and development.

“The narrative of continually high taxes is now a false narrative in this city,” Passero said.

And while Olsen frequently repeated the phrase “we can do better,” Passero spoke to structural changes in his approach to quality of life issues — the hiring of a human services director, a parking director, blight enforcement officer and restoration of morale at the police department.

Passero said the problem of empty storefronts is an inherited one and due to the need of redevelopment of the buildings that house them. Significant strides have been made during his time in office to attract investors with the resources to pull the rehabilitations off, he said. 

Similarly with blight, Passero said he had "inherited years and years of lax enforcement,” but said his administration has helped usher in changes to blight city ordinances and is now tackling the issue where it had not been before.

Olsen argued “we have been much too passive on blight."

“We have a problem and the way I think we need to address it is to be much more aggressive in terms of our citations," he said.

Berrigan said it was her sense that a dropping public works budget might be a contributor to the problem of blight. On the issue of empty storefronts, she said that from her view from Green Party headquarters at 165 State St., the busiest place along the stretch is the pawn shop, Yankee Peddler. She said that is not a good sign and that strong communities have stores that can meet the daily needs of residents within a 15-minute walk.

Berrigan earned applause when she said she couldn’t imagine taking all of the mayor’s $110,000 salary, considering the city’s high poverty rate. “That doesn’t seem right to me,” she said.

When asked whether she is a pacifist and whether she would like to see Electric Boat — the city’s largest taxpayer — cease submarine construction, Berrigan replied “yes,” she is a pacifist and that “war is a failure of the imagination.”

As mayor, she said she would recognize EB as the highest taxpayer but “engage in a much deeper conversation with that company about what they make.”

“There’s a pithy little saying I like. It goes: 'Raytheon makes missiles, Boeing makes airplanes and General Dynamics makes money.' And that money, while they’re the largest taxpayer, does not come to New London the way it ought to be,” Berrigan said.

The comment was met with a few claps and more than a few groans.

Passero said as mayor, he had to be a pragmatist on the issue of EB. “Electric Boat is driving the economy in this city. It is bringing in a wealth of human talent ... getting trained in sophisticated and technical jobs as well as manufacturing jobs. It’s providing opportunities for our people. It’s really the great engine behind what’s driving our local economy. I want to capture every benefit from that.”

Olsen credited EB with filling a facility left vacant by Pfizer and said said the city could do more to ensure "these folks stay in our community."  

The three also talked about the recent school scandal involving the arrest of several school employees, including one middle school employee accused of sexual assault.

Berrigan said as mayor and a mother of three school-aged children, she would “bring to City Hall a parent’s lens on all of this and a need for continued focus, continued healing, continued trust building, continued work in the schools around this issue.”

Passero and Human Resources Director Jeanne Milstein, the former state child advocate, had successfully lobbied the state Office of the Victim Advocate to perform an outside investigation into the school district that is now pending.

“It’s important to support the teachers in our system and make sure they have the support to understand that it shouldn’t reflect on all of them,” Passero said.

He said “the revolving door of superintendents is the greatest threat” to the district and called for support for Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie, who he said had taken an aggressive approach to the issue.

“This issue has the potential to be crippling and as a community we all have to rally around our educational system,” Olsen said. “An element of frustration we all have right now is we haven’t had any answers.”

About 150 people attended the debate, which was co-sponsored by The Day and the League of Women Voters of Southeastern Connecticut and hosted by Day Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere.

g.smith@theday.com

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