Republicans reflect on wins in Old Lyme, plot course

Old Lyme — Residents were still processing election outcomes Wednesday after Republicans swept the ballot in all contested races Tuesday night and longtime First Selectman Timothy Griswold ousted Democratic incumbent Bonnie Reemsnyder, who had unseated him in 2011.

Local GOP members, who on Wednesday said even they were shocked by Tuesday’s results, said that what they think began as an undercurrent of dissatisfaction over various town issues eventually boiled over in recent months when Reemsnyder became ensnared in controversy surrounding the Connecticut Port Authority.

But that controversy couldn’t have been the only reason for their success, they argued, especially considering that Republicans not only secured the top seats in every race, but won by a sizeable margin in a higher-than-typical electorate turnout for Old Lyme municipal elections: 56 percent of the town's 5,728 registered voters cast ballots Tuesday.

Unofficial numbers were 1,774 for Griswold and 1,403 for Reemsnyder.

Griswold, while sitting Wednesday at Teddy’s Old Lyme Pizza Palace and being continually congratulated by restaurant patrons, said the result may allude to one of two things: Either, he said, “People were unhappy with (the port authority controversy) and said to themselves, ‘Let’s try a whole new slate and see,’” or there must have been other town issues in combination with the port authority controversy to inspire them to vote for the entire Republican slate.

Griswold pointed to ongoing plans to re-envision Halls Road and ideas for regionalizing the town’s police department as chief among voters’ concerns. He also said proposed plans to build affordable housing at a seemingly unsafe location on Route 156 next to the Interstate 95 North off-ramp in 2017 deeply divided residents.

The Zoning Commission "got a black eye with their affordable-housing decision,” Griswold said, explaining that the commission passed the project because of its affordable-housing status, despite adamant protests over its location. “The process was very contentious, and I think some of the procedural aspects of it made people very uncomfortable.”

Additionally, Sound View area residents have been brooding over the recent sewer referendum and financing formula, Griswold said, and that was a significant talking point for him while going door-to-door on the campaign trail. He said Wednesday he would still be dedicated to helping find an equitable solution for future ratepayers.

Besides having name recognition after having been the town’s previous first selectman for 14 years, from 1997 to 2011, and having been involved in town government for nearly 40 years, Griswold, 76, said he also believed his party’s platform of preserving Old Lyme's "rural and small scale aspect," also significantly resonated with voters.

“We were pleasantly surprised. I don’t think anyone on the election team would have ever said, ‘We have a shot at everything and can do the clean sweep,’” Griswold said. “It’s certainly unexpected and a pleasant surprise. It validates what we’ve been saying and doing.”

This election season, Reemsnyder, 65, was set to enter her fifth two-year term uncontested. Griswold had missed the Republican endorsement in July but decided to run as a petitioning candidate after hearing that Gov. Ned Lamont asked Reemsnyder to resign from her briefly held position as chair of the Connecticut Port Authority board. The governor's request came after The Day reported the port authority had paid Reemsnyder's daughter $3,000 for photographs for its offices in Old Saybrook.

Reemsnyder had recused herself from that purchase decision and her daughter has since reimbursed the authority.

An audit of the port authority released last week also revealed that spending at the quasi-public agency skyrocketed during Reemsnyder's tenure as chairwoman of its Finance Committee.

Reemsnyder, on Tuesday night, congratulated Griswold on his win and left the Cross Lane fire station quickly after the results were announced.

"The people spoke," she had said. "That's all I can say. I hope they (the newly elected officials) keep up with the initiatives. We had a lot of good things going."

On Wednesday, Reemsnyder did not return calls from The Day. She also was not in Town Hall on Wednesday afternoon. Her office manager, Michele Hayes, said that Reemsnyder had left for a vacation planned months in advance. She is set to return to work Nov. 18, which is also her last day as first selectwoman.

Griswold will be sworn in to his new position Nov. 19.

He had stressed in debates and interviews that he would work to maintain the small-town character of Old Lyme and slow down or rethink some of the projects initiated by Reemsnyder. He said the town would be talking more about "needs" than "wants," assessing the needs for the school district and moving ahead with some necessary improvements, including sidewalks and crosswalks on Halls Road.

On Wednesday, Griswold continued to voice those sentiments, while also stating that he intended to take a more thorough look at the school board’s budget, which typically takes up a large portion — this year it was 70 percent — of the town's overall budget. Specifically, Griswold said, he wanted to pull apart the board's long-range capital improvement plan, looking at each of the district’s facilities to assess what repairs are needed.

Speaking in Reemsnyder’s absence Wednesday, Democratic Selectwoman Mary Jo Nosal, who was re-elected Tuesday, said, “I really think that the voters came out for a change, and I hope that the newly elected officials will continue the initiatives that were started because I believe they are good for the town.”

“I hope they continue to look at the possibilities for Halls Road, and I hope that they continue the committees that have been started to look at affordable housing,” Nosal continued. “I just hope everyone can work together.”

For Republican Town Committee Chairman and Board of Finance member David Kelsey, who also was re-elected Tuesday, the outcome came down to a few factors, including but not limited to Reemsnyder’s port authority controversy.

Describing the controversy as the nail in the coffin that tipped the scales for Old Lyme voters, he said he believed that the affordable-housing project and plans for Halls Road also helped swing the vote.

“I think the port authority issue put people over the top,” Kelsey said. “So it was a combination of those three, and it wasn’t specific to the port authority.”

He said moving forward, the town needs to now “take a deep breath” and see “what’s worth pursuing and not pursuing,” as well as “reducing the scale of what’s going on in order to get things accomplished.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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