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Daniel Steward's farewell tour

Waterford — Weeks before his retirement, First Selectman Daniel Steward climbed into his town vehicle and invited a reporter from The Day in the car for something of a farewell tour.

"Sorry I'm such a slow driver," Steward said. "I do enjoy driving around town." He crisscrossed as much of Waterford's 44.6 square miles as two hours would allow, speaking candidly about his 14 years in office and describing with near encyclopedic expertise some of his favorite spots.

Steward, 69, had his last day as first selectman on Tuesday. He worked for Southern New England Telephone for 28 years and Millstone Power Station for three. He has lived in Waterford his whole life. During the drive, he pointed out people he went to high school with — "good folks," he called them.

He ran through a list of Waterford first selectmen before acknowledging that he is the longest-serving first selectman in town history by a half a year.

"It wasn't by any plan of mine, it just worked," he said. "I'm tired. I'm leaving on what I think is a good note."

Steward drove to the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center and Harkness Memorial State Park, which are both "a pretty big deal for the town of Waterford," he said. "They're places everyone recognizes."

In the midst of extolling the theater's different programs and bigwig donors, such as actor Michael Douglas, he pointed to a nearby stump and described how the town recently had to cut down a dead 170-year-old beech tree that once stood there.

For someone who eschews micromanagement and claims to be a macromanager of people, Steward is knowledgeable about the minutiae of the town he leads. Driving by one house, he discusses a "nice kid" who built a barn out back for weddings, "except he didn't get the right permits to do it, so he's having a bit of a problem." He later references a resident who complains about standing water in her yard that won't drain.

Bill Stanley, the vice president of development and community relations at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, has been friends with Steward for about 10 years. He recalled an early interaction with him.

"Shortly after we moved into our home, our mailbox was damaged during a garbage collection. I called Dan, who I did not know as well then as I do now," Stanley said. "I got right through to him. There was no doubt or anything like that. He apologized, he said 'I'll get on it,' and the very next day, the mailbox and the post, which had been broken, had been replaced and looked even better than before the accident."

Stanley assisted Steward with a re-election campaign and came up with a slogan: "Waterford: the town that works."

Issues and policy

Waterford may work, but it is imperfect. Steward listed some of what the next first selectman — Republican Rob Brule, who is something of a Steward protégé — will have to take care of while driving through the Pleasure Beach neighborhood.

Seaside State Park, which Steward said has been "terribly managed by the state," is a source of frustration for him. He wants something done to the property to avoid wasting a scenic area where the building for a former tuberculosis sanitarium stands.

The former Cohanzie School, another vacant building of historical significance, remains unused. Steward critiqued those who fought hard against a multifamily housing development on the site. Loud, rowdy crowds of residents showed up to what became contentious public hearings about the proposed development.

"The public did turn down Cohanzie, however, what they did in that process was inappropriate," Steward said. "They were actually a mob, and that's not how you would normally run it."

Resolving fire services is another issue Steward thinks Brule will have to focus on. He said there has been no real consolidation of departments. But consolidation is just one step. Steward said stations need to stipulate and hold to one set of operations and hiring standards. He questioned how the fire departments publicly handled the possibility of consolidation.

"You keep arguing with us, you don't realize what's good and bad, and you're all about yourselves," Steward said of the fire departments. "Well, worry more about putting the fires out, getting the ambulances out and taking care of the public, which is your responsibility."

Steward said Crystal Mall is becoming problematic, as online shopping continues to hurt brick-and-mortar stores. He thinks town leaders will have to come up with creative solutions, including shying away from chain brands and considering more specialized businesses.

Beth Sabilia, whom Brule defeated in the race for first selectman, will be on the Board of Selectmen. She is a neighbor of Steward's, and she had many kind words for him, but, just as she did during the campaign, she criticized town leadership for being stagnant.

"We've got fire services that needs righting well over a decade after a charter revision was voted on by residents that we have one fire department," Sabilia said. "No steps were taken to standardize training or equipment, which has led to some coverage issues that we need to address going forward."

Sabilia also faulted Steward for how he has handled the plan for the Millstone.

"I asked the first selectman what happens if Dominion breaches their agreement," she said. "He had no answer."

Still, Steward, who considers himself a pragmatist, is proud of measures the town took during his tenure.

"We have five brand new schools," Steward said. "Probably 50 or 60 percent of our roads we have redone. We are in the process of building a municipal complex, which took us probably 15 years to get done. And the businesses that have come — we have F.W. Webb. We have Coca Cola. We have Harvey industries. We have a great relationship with Millstone."

Born and bred

Steward was raised in Waterford and says love for his town is what drove him to serve as first selectman. He believes historical ties to the community aren't required for the job, but they're an asset. He says this while driving by the Waterford Country School, a private, not-for-profit agency that, as Steward puts it, is a school helping "troubled kids."

"We spend more time here with the police that we don't really tell everybody about because it's not fair to the kids," Steward said. "They need a place to go."

Recognition of the Waterford Country School is part of Steward's holistic view of Waterford, a town defined by its self-contained neighborhoods. He decries a nickname for Waterford's Quaker Hill neighborhood — Montville south — and says it is all "one Waterford."

Despite this rosy view, Steward said one of the most difficult parts of being first selectman is angry pushback from residents, such as one man who shouted him down because the new girls' softball field likely won't be built in time for his daughter to play on it.

"It hurts. I don't have very thick skin," Steward said. "I'm trying to do what's right for the community. Sometimes I don't please everyone, but don't tell me my parents would be rolling over in their grave for what I did."

Sabilia described Steward as "even-keeled." Stanley said the same.

"I've never seen him come close to losing his temper," Stanley said. "People sometimes get emotional about things that are important to them, and Dan, in my experience, has always treated everyone he's encountered with respect and transparency."

If Sabilia had a political difference with Steward, "it was always cordial," she said. "And if we disagreed, it was never disagreeable."

Steward said Waterford "is a great community to raise a family." He would know — he has four daughters and nine grandchildren. Stanley said Steward is a family man, and Steward said he will spend a lot of time with his wife, Kathy, upon retirement. But he already has a plan for the professional future in place.

"I have an application in to work for the census bureau, to basically walk around and knock on doors and get paid for it," he said. "I want to be able to enjoy what we've built, but there's always a point where you want to stay busy. You don't want to just give up everything."

Wednesday marked Steward's first day out of office since 2005. No matter: He will continue to drive, slowly, throughout Waterford's streets.

s.spinella@theday.com

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