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    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    Shoemaker, Mesham vying for a rarity in Old Lyme: an open first selectman’s seat

    Martha Shoemaker
    John Mesham

    Old Lyme ― Democratic Selectwoman Martha Shoemaker and John Mesham, a retired state trooper carrying the Republican banner in his first run for elective office, are vying for something voters here haven’t had to contemplate in 26 years: an open first selectman’s seat.

    Shoemaker, who won her seat on the Board of Selectmen two years ago while losing the first selectman’s race to Republican Timothy Griswold by 104 votes, is seeking the top office a second time, saying the experience she’s gained in her two years on the board sets her apart from Mesham, whose law enforcement career spanned 29 years.

    The election is Nov. 7.

    The last incumbent-free race for Old Lyme first selectman was in 1997, when Griswold defeated Democrat Ray Turrell Jr.

    Griswold proceeded to win reelection six times before Democrat Bonnie Reemsnyder upended him in the 2011 election. Reemsnyder then won reelection three times before losing to Griswold, who reclaimed the office in 2019. Griswold won another term ― his ninth overall ― in 2021, and decided against seeking a 10th term this year.

    It’s anyone’s guess what effect the lack of an incumbent might have on Old Lyme’s electorate, about 40% of which is affiliated with neither major party. As of Monday, about 32% of the town’s registered voters were Democrats and about 27% were Republicans.

    Shoemaker’s running mate, Jim Lampos, unsuccessfully sought a selectman’s seat two years ago, garnering 21 fewer votes than Shoemaker and 125 fewer votes than Matthew Ward, an unaffiliated candidate endorsed by Republicans.

    In addition to the first selectman, two other seats on the Board of Selectmen are filled by the highest vote-getters among the losing candidate for first selectman and the two candidates for selectman.

    Lampos, a restaurateur and historian, has served on the Planning Commission and the Sound View Committee and has written several books about Old Lyme.

    Joining Mesham atop the GOP ticket is Judith “Jude” Read, a small business owner who served for two decades on the Board of Finance and completed a term on the Lyme-Old Lyme school board.

    Shoemaker, 64, retired from teaching elementary school in 2017, ending a 35-year career in which she served for 13 years as president of the Waterford Federation of Classroom Teachers. After retiring, she went to work for FiberQA, a small manufacturing firm in Old Lyme, serving as purchasing agent and assisting with project management.

    In 2021, while running for first selectman, Shoemaker won a second four-year term on the school board. During the campaign, Griswold, her opponent for first selectman, questioned whether she could effectively serve as a selectman and as a school board member at the same time.

    “I think I handled it pretty well,” Shoemaker said in a recent interview.

    She resigned from her job in August.

    “For my sanity, I thought I should drop one,” she said of the time demands of working while serving as a selectman and running for first selectman.

    In an interview this week, Mesham, 56, suggested Shoemaker’s serving as first selectman and as a school board member could be problematic, particularly if she were to become chairman of the school board.

    “That’s a lot of power in one person,” Mesham said. “You’d be dealing with both of the budgets in town (general government and education).”

    Mesham was serving as executive officer of the state police’s Troop E barracks in Montville when he retired in 2020. He previously served in a similar role with Troop G in Bridgeport, in each case managing about a hundred people, and worked in resident state trooper programs serving Deep River, Essex, Old Lyme and Westbrook. He was a patrolman with the Guilford Police Department.

    “I worked with first selectmen and presented to boards of finance,” he said of his time as a resident trooper. “Costs are always a concern. The program is very adaptable to towns’ wants and needs.”

    After he retired, Mesham was appointed to the town’s Inland Wetlands Commission, which he represented as a member of the 36-1 Buttonball Road Property Committee. In that role, he helped draft recommendations the Board of Selectmen unanimously approved earlier this year.

    When the Republican Town Committee approached him about running for first selectman, Mesham was receptive.

    “It’s a natural progression for someone who was in law enforcement,” he said. “I developed a thick skin, and had experience leading people and knowing how to deal with people.”

    Mesham also pointed to his involvement with a Boy Scouts group in Lyme and Old Lyme.

    “It’s a passion for me,” he said. “The mission is to instill young people with the ability to make ethical decisions throughout their lifetime. … I think I’m good at motivating people, getting them to work toward a common goal.”

    Both Shoemaker and Mesham expect to deal with long-running issues in town, if elected. Shoemaker identified two such issues: the Halls Road Improvements Committee's recommendations regarding potential changes in the town’s commercial district and plans to install sewers in the town’s shoreline communities.

    Sidewalks, lighting and landscaping have been proposed for Halls Road, as has an “overlay” zoning district that might facilitate new commercial development and alternative forms of housing. In any case, Shoemaker said, it’s important that the town provide guidelines for future development.

    “I like the overlay,” she said. “It allows us to plan for change. It’s important to proactively plan for change.”

    Mesham said he’s supportive of sidewalks and landscaping on Halls Road but is opposed to a plan to build a new pedestrian bridge that would connect Halls Road and the town’s historic district on Lyme Street.

    “I’m not sold on a bridge … especially when we’ve got a $57 million school project we’re paying on and a $5 million senior center renovation ongoing,” he said. “Let’s make sure we keep them on track.”

    If elected, Mesham said, he will seek to make more town information available online, adjust Town Hall hours to be more accommodating of the public, resume regular meetings of department heads and institute cross-training among employees, equipping them to perform multiple tasks.

    The League of Women Voters of Southeastern Connecticut will host a debate among the candidates for Old Lyme first selectman and selectman at 7 p.m. Monday in the auditorium of Lyme-Old Lyme Middle School. Questions for the candidates can be emailed to info.lwvsect@gmail.com.

    b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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