STONINGTON — With a diverse background that includes two years of experience on the Board of Finance, three-plus years on the Economic Development Commission and eight years as a senior analyst in investor relations for the United Nations, Danielle Chesebrough, an unaffiliated candidate endorsed by the local Democratic Party for first selectman, said her top three priorities if she is elected on November 5, will be coastal resiliency, economic development and fiscal preparedness.
Chesebrough, 36, moved to Stonington halfway through her sophomore year of high school. She has a husband, Sam, and three children ages two, four and six. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in political science from Clemson University and a Master of Social Work from UConn with a Policy Practice Concentration and International Substantive Focus.
“I would worry about us risking our bond rating if we don’t start implementing a more strategic plan. A huge portion of grand list is in a flood zone, so it’s a huge risk.”
In a conversation with CT Examiner on September 20, Chesebrough said that taking action on the recommendations from the climate resiliency study completed under First Selectman Rob Simmons was a top priority.
“I’ve become acutely aware of how much energy previous members put into getting our bond rating to where it is now, so we’re one of the best rated that we could be for a town our size … and one of the criteria that that they look at for municipalities is your climate plans and coastal resiliency,” she said. “I would worry about us risking our bond rating if we don’t start implementing a more strategic plan. A huge portion of grand list is in a flood zone, so it’s a huge risk.”
Chesebrough said she will focus on “economic development that fits the character of the town and trying to engage the community more in the conversation around what kind of development they want to have.” She said she would continue work she started with the EDC in redeveloping downtown Pawcatuck, particularly the Campbell Grain building lot and the blighted historic buildings along West Broad Street.
“My work at the U.N. was focused on bringing very diverse groups of stakeholders together, trying to find areas of consensus and move forward on very specific tangible projects and I think that’s something we can use more of here. The community conversations we have at EDC is a great example of how that can happen, but I think we can scale that up.”
“We’ve already started some innovative approaches … The town can’t just do nothing… We can try some different things to bring more investments into downtown Pawcatuck,” she said.
Chesebrough said that while the town is doing well financially, it needs to prepare to receive less funding from the state to be more independent and fiscally sound. “We’ll have to look at efficiencies that could be gained and how to balance taxes with the investments we want to make — definitely looking at it from a tax fiscal and prudence point of view but I think overall in the town we’re doing really well,” she said.
Bringing together diverse groups, finding consensus
“People need to understand that my work experience while it hasn’t been in municipal government, it is very applicable in bringing people together and working with people on all sides with different points of view,” Chesebrough said. “My work at the U.N. was focused on bringing very diverse groups of stakeholders together, trying to find areas of consensus and move forward on very specific tangible projects and I think that’s something we can use more of here. The community conversations we have at EDC is a great example of how that can happen, but I think we can scale that up.”
“The sewers obviously need to happen, and sidewalks, and there are other big capital improvements that need to happen — I do think we need to keep growing our grand list if we want to invest in things like sidewalks or parks or any of these other things”
Chesebrough said, “Experience as a Board of Finance member provided ‘strong training ground’ for the role of first selectman.”
“A huge part of the first selectman’s job is preparing the budget and then presenting it to the Board of Finance — that’s a huge chunk of work,” she said. “And given the fiscal constraints on the projects we have in the pipeline and the situation with Hartford, I think right now you really want someone in the role of first selectman who understands the budget process, who understands where we’ve been and where we want to go.”
Grand list growth, site clean-up, development
If the town is to support big capital projects such as sewer upgrades in Mystic, sidewalks in Pawcatuck and replacing the middle school roof, Chesebrough said, the grand list must keep growing.
“The sewers obviously need to happen, and sidewalks, and there are other big capital improvements that need to happen — I do think we need to keep growing our grand list if we want to invest in things like sidewalks or parks or any of these other things,” she said. “And we need to look for other areas [to develop] but we have to plan for the unexpected.”
The Stillmanville Mill, which collapsed in April, left a contaminated site that the town has spent about $600,000 cleaning up without hope of reimbursement from the owner of the property.
“We have to be very careful about any promises that are being made because it is a really contaminated site. It would be great to have it be a park and to attract a developer to come in — but it’s going to be a lot of money, in the millions, to get it cleaned up to the basic level, never mind developing it into something,” she said.
Regarding the Smiler’s Wharf project, Chesebrough said it was important that all sides learn from the process and “respect each other more and not assume the worst in groups of people,” she said.
Chesebrough would use the EDC community conversation model to “start healing some of the wounds that are there and bring people together for a more proactive conversation, addressing some of the key concerns that were brought up, like traffic and parking.”
“These are longstanding issues and if the town would help address them then maybe a compromise can be found,” she said. “I also think from the EDC side, we had more trust in the process that if it had gone through to zoning, the way things normally do and concerns were raised, the zoning board would have taken them into account and likely a lot of these concerns would have been addressed.”
Communication, a female board, and being unaffiliated
If elected, Chesebrough said she planned to improve the town’s communication and transparency with town residents.
“People don’t know what’s going on, including the good things. There’s a small group that’s very plugged in to the process and really know what’s happening and there’s others who really aren’t,” she said. “I would like to explore what a few other towns are doing — I know in North Stonington the first selectman gives a weekly video address — maybe we could do a monthly or weekly newsletter — that’s going to help people understand what’s happening but will also get them more involved and engaged.”
She said when the opportunity came up to run for first selectman, she was excited about the idea of devoting more time to the town.
“Honestly between the EDC and the Board of Finance, I was spending all of my vacation time and all the extra time I had just working on town issues and really loving it. It gets me excited and charged up,” said Chesebrough, who will leave her job at the U.N. if she is elected.
“I really do love my job but I’ve been there a little over eight years and they’ve been so supportive of me wanting to get more civically engaged and doing more,” she said.
“I think not having a party affiliation will help from the get-go. It means that I’m here to represent the whole town, no matter if you’re a Democrat, Republican or unaffiliated”
Chesebrough and June Strunk, are running on the Democratic ticket against Republicans John Prue and Deb Downey. Strunk is currently chair of the Board of Finance, and Downey has served on the Board of Education.
The election raises the possibility of an all female board.
“We’ve had a female on the Board of Selectmen but haven’t had a female first selectman and next year is the 100-year anniversary of a woman’s right to vote in the U.S. so it’s interesting timing,” Chesebrough said. “Ideally you do want diversity but it’s just interesting to go from never having a woman there to the possibility of having an all-female board.”
Chesebrough said her unaffiliated political status will help unify the town.
“I think not having a party affiliation will help from the get-go. It means that I’m here to represent the whole town, no matter if you’re a Democrat, Republican or unaffiliated,” she said. “Just automatically people might feel left out or feel not as welcome or heard, so I’m hoping it’s an aspect that help everybody feel welcome and part of the table.”