Reemsnyder, Griswold face off in Old Lyme debate

Old Lyme — Republican Timothy Griswold faced off against Democratic First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder and her running mate, selectwoman Mary Jo Nosal, in a tame and orderly debate Wednesday night as each party spelled out how they would further serve their "unique" town, while also protecting its "rural, small-town character."

Reemsnyder argued that the town's destiny hinges on proactive planning, both financially and economically, taking in the big picture when making decisions, and that her nuanced and careful approach to leadership has stabilized the town.

She said she and Nosal have focused on meeting the town's basic needs first, while also pursuing outside funding, through federal and state grants, to help pay for projects.

Griswold, who has lived in Old Lyme since 1972 and served in town government since 1982, including 14 years as first selectman, said he would ensure that the town makes responsible decisions, bringing control back to town leaders, and "promoting development that maintains the scale of the small town."

He said he's been "concerned by a number of current administration initiatives that I believe are leading the town in the wrong direction."

Nosal, who was elected in 2011 when Reemsnyder was elected first selectwoman, backed her running mate throughout the debate, detailing what she described as good fiscal planning and building the town's surplus. She often gave examples of the duo's thoughtful leadership style and said communication has increased since they came into office.

Republican Selectman Chris Kerr, who did not attend the debate, wrote in his opening remarks, which were read by Lyme-Old Lyme Chamber of Commerce President Richard Shriver, that the town has been stretched too thin over recent years, "with initiatives being driven by unselected, appointed ad-hoc committees and many decisions seem rushed on the voters."

Shriver declined to say why Kerr was absent.

The forum, hosted by the Lyme-Old Lyme Chamber of Commerce, sponsored by LymeLine.com, and held at Lyme-Old Lyme Middle School, featured questions posed and submitted by residents in advance. Connecticut Mirror Executive Editor Elizabeth Hamilton moderated, posing questions on issues most discussed in town, including Halls Road improvement plans, sewers, fiscal stability and affordable housing.

Before venturing into those questions, however, Hamilton started by pressing Reemsnyder about her recent controversy involving the Connecticut Port Authority. In July, Gov. Ned Lamont asked her to resign as board chairwoman following news reports that the authority had paid her daughter $3,000 for six photographs.

Hamilton asked why Reemsnyder did not recognize the impropriety, "or at least the appearance of impropriety," of having the authority purchase her daughter's artwork. She also asked whether Reemsnyder could have confidence from her constituents that the problems and misconduct of the port authority would not replay in Old Lyme, especially as Reemsnyder also served as the chair of the port authority's finance committee, which is now also facing auditing issues.

Reemsnyder acknowledged that even though she "did nothing wrong," she "did not appreciate the appearance" that the transaction could "raise questions from the public." She clarified that the transaction did not happen while she was chairing the port authority and that it was approved by then-chairman Scott Bates.

Reemsnyder said she has always been familiar with conflict of interest rules, "which do not require an organization to abandon a transaction because it may benefit the organization's best interest."

"As soon as I heard it was being considered, I informed the executive director and my daughter that I could play no role," Reemsnyder said. "... I am proud of my work with the port authority."

Reemsnyder also said that she would dispute some of the statements about port authority audits and that she had recently spoken with port authority members as recently as Friday morning and that the audits were "looking very good."

Griswold was pressed about his decision to run for first selectman, especially as he had failed to meet the Republicans' endorsement deadline, forcing him to later run as a petitioning candidate — a decision he made just days after Reemsnyder's controversy was publicized.

Griswold said that after the port authority information was revealed, he "was motivated to not let an incumbent have a free ticket to be elected."

"I have done this job, and I think I can do it well and I intend to do it well," Griswold said. "I could not in good faith let the position go unchallenged."

On the Halls Road improvements plans, which visualize a "more vibrant, local" area and which are being discussed among town officials and constituents, Reemsnyder's and Griswold's views differed greatly. Reemsnyder stressed the need to think about the economic importance of Halls Road now and in the future and said having a well-thought out plan for its future development is necessary and logical.

Griswold questioned the overall economic feasibility of the plans and whether they could work. He also questioned what town officials have been doing after five years of planning.

"What do we have at this point?" Griswold said, before questioning the town's decision to spend $40,000 to work with the Yale Urban Design workshop, which helped officials visualize plans for Halls Road last year and which he called "grandiose," "unachievable and unaffordable."

"We should start with what is achievable and what has generally been agreed upon," Griswold said, referencing that sidewalks could sooner be built from the Lyme Art Association to the Essex Savings Bank, redoing the bridge running over the Lieutenant River, as well as other streetscape improvements.

Reemsnyder, correcting Griswold, said the town had only spent $13,000 to work with Yale Urban Design, and said a master plan was necessary and had been proven to work after officials formed a different master plan for development on Route 156 near Sound View. Reemsnyder referenced that the owner of the gas station at the end of Hartford Avenue remodeled the building with the master plan in mind, installing sidewalks to fit with the plan.

Griswold said more thought was needed to be put into economic development efforts throughout the Route 156 and Sound View areas, saying he wanted to encourage year-round residence in the area to promote economic vitality.

Reemsnyder said the town has been pursuing major improvements throughout that area, re-doing paving, parking and sidewalks, while also securing hundreds of thousands in grants to help with those projects.

Regarding the sewer project being planned for the Sound View neighborhood, Griswold said he was dedicated to working out a better charging formula to future ratepayers, stating that the current formula was not "fair and reasonable." Griswold also said the town needed to be "diligent and careful" about "how we engage with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection in the future," saying today's sewer project will set a precedent for future sewer projects throughout town, potentially, he said, near Rogers Lake and Halls Road.

Reemsnyder said sewers in the Rogers Lake area have never been discussed.

"Anything with Rogers Lake is premature because we don't have a study done and we aren't seeing indications from the water quality testing that were done," Reemsnyder said. "I am concerned about the impact to the residents in the (Sound View) area and the WPCA is working very hard to bring it in way under cost."

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 5.

m.biekert@theday.com

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