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Brule, Sabilia battle for Waterford first selectman

Waterford — How best to improve quality of life and create development opportunities in a town with an uncertain economic future are central questions in the race to replace retiring First Selectman Dan Steward, which pits Republican Rob Brule against Democrat Beth Sabilia.

Both candidates grew up in Waterford and served as longtime volunteers and municipal leaders. And both are pushing for boosts in economic development, public safety and infrastructure.

But Brule, a businessman and longtime soccer coach who has sat on the Board of Selectmen the last four years, says increasing savings, coordinating with town officials and the business community for revenue opportunities, and improving customer service at Town Hall are the path to a better future.

“I’m a people person,” Brule said, when asked why he was the best candidate. “I’m a deep thinker at times and I look at all sides. I’m not quick to judge or make decisions on things that need more thought. Getting as much input and information before making a decision is the responsible thing to do.”

Sabilia, a longtime attorney and Representative Town Meeting member who chairs the town Democrats, calls for aggressive planning to replace revenue from the aging Millstone Power Station and Crystal Mall, and an overhaul in leadership and management styles to respond to ongoing challenges, including the town’s complex fire services.

“I’m not afraid to lead,” Sabilia said. “I notice a real reluctance to express an opinion, develop a plan, share it with people and follow through. It’s been endemic in Waterford for at least the last decade, if not longer.”

A businessman who's long worked to help those with disabilities, Brule, 51, believes his business acumen and experience as chief operating officer of nonprofit Project Genesis readies him for the executive seat.

“The company I oversaw had multiple programs, 200 employees, so a similar employee base as the town of Waterford, a similar number of program managers and directors, and multi-million dollar operating budgets,” he said, adding he also conducted a retooled marketing campaign for the company.

Brule noted he was drawn to politics at an early age, serving as class president and on the student council at Waterford High, because his parents instilled a sense of volunteerism and he “always got a lot out of helping other people.”

Brule responded to Sabilia’s criticism “for not being forceful or quick to act” by saying he was a “process-oriented person, especially when it comes to economic development,” and that he would work with a range of stakeholders to build consensus and lead the town forward.

He noted that the town during his years on the Board of Selectmen ramped up its general fund from $11 million to $16 million, putting the town in a better position for the future. He called the effort “a townwide initiative that everybody worked hard for. That’s not easy to do.”

If elected, Brule hopes to develop better technology and communication to improve customer service for taxpayers. He also wants to increase senior programming and accessibility to Waterford Beach, continue to support tax relief for Gold Star families and veterans, and study “the feasibility of a main street in town.”

“It’s something I’m very passionate about and interested in,” he said of a potential main street, saying “a place where people can gather and go” could draw residents, visitors and drive business. A former chairman of the Community Campus Building Committee that helped bring forward a $7 million project including the community center, Brule noted the main street idea had long been discussed but other major projects, including school improvements, had taken precedence.

Brule argues that with help from lawmakers, Millstone, which is Waterford’s biggest taxpayer and whose owner Dominion Energy recently sealed a 10-year contract with utilities, can stay operational beyond the decadelong deal.

“Increasing, and improving, communication with existing businesses and encouraging future cooperation will improve a business climate that is already very strong here,” said Brule, who supported regional studies on economic development but not hiring an economic development director, which he said would prove too costly.

“We need to do more with less, not create new positions,” Brule said.

While women have served on the Board of Selectmen, voters here never have elected a first selectwoman.

Sabilia, 50, said it was an “incredible” honor to have a shot to serve her hometown as the first woman in the position, and noted some of her earliest work as an attorney was with female lawyers and judges who were first hired as secretaries, and who “wore gloves and hats in court when they were finally allowed to be in court.”

A self-described “schoolteacher’s kid,” Sabilia said she first got into politics after serving on the New London Housing Authority, which hearkened back to previous volunteer work in Boston but left her frustrated with a lack of progress and wanting to contribute further.

She then served on New London’s Board of Education, City Council and as mayor, before moving back to Waterford.

Sabilia argues that “playing nice” with Dominion won’t keep the plant open longer than it’s profitable for the company. She favors working with the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments to conduct a study, similar to one undertaken in Vermont due to the closure of Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant, on how to retool the regional economy without Millstone, because “no amount of cutting and saving is going to get you that third of your tax base.”

She added that such a study could lead to beneficial reuse of the Millstone site, and said the “possibility of luring energy technology or supplier technology for Electric Boat is not far-fetched. The cost of doing business in Fairfield County versus Waterford or southeastern Connecticut is vastly different.”

She also said the hiring of an economic development director was overdue. She noted economic development was one of too many hats sometimes worn by Planning Director Abby Piersall, whom she said was an exceptional department head in a Town Hall where turnover is all too common.

As the town and the owners of Crystal Mall continue to disagree on the property’s tax assessment, Sabilia said the site includes “a whole host of different zones ... that can be used to think outside the box in terms of how you deal with these brick and mortar behemoths.”

In some areas, she said, shuttered mall and big box stores are converted to housing, and nearby shops sometimes include grocers or pharmacies because “people are built in and shopping supports the business.”

“Not everybody is buying a bra at Victoria’s Secret every week, but they certainly need milk, then you put a movie theater in ... it needs to be more than straight retail,” she said. “One of those things we need in Waterford desperately is housing that young people can actually afford to rent and old people can afford to stay in.”

Sabilia said she’s proud of the work she’s done on the RTM’s Public Protection and Safety Committee to create a fire service ordinance — which the full RTM passed Monday — that helps implement a unified command structure, with clearer standards for qualifications and training for all fire personnel.

“Setting the tone at the top, having clear expectations and when people don’t meet them, you have recourse, or guidance, or advice” was the only way to avoid “people waiting and waiting for emergency responses,” she said.

She also touted efforts as a Board of Finance and Retirement Commission member to inject funding into the town’s $20 million-plus unfunded pension liability. She voted against the 2019-20 budget, she said, because a $2 million allocation toward the pension liability was reduced by $1.3 million.

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 5.


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