STONINGTON — “Working on the shorter-term plan with a longer-term vision mixed in,” was how Danielle Chesebrough — who will be sworn in as Stonington’s first selectman on November 19 — described her state of mind Friday morning.
“Initially what I’m trying to do is meet with all the directors… all of my ‘direct reports.’ But, I also want to identify and meet with other people throughout the org chart,” she said in a phone conversation with CT Examiner. “I think it’s really important to meet with people at all different levels — they have all different vantage points.”
She said she plans to listen to town hall employees’ ideas about what’s working and what areas might need improvement — “the challenges and opportunities.”
“We have so many amazing people that work there and many of them have worked there for a very long time so they have some really good institutional knowledge about how things have and haven’t worked well. They’re veterans in their own right,” she said.
Chesebrough, 36, will leave her job of eight-and-a-half years as a senior analyst in investor relations for the United Nations, to take the helm as Stonington’s first female first selectman on the first all-female board in the town’s history. Chesebrough, who is unaffiliated and was endorsed by the Democratic party, ran on a ticket with June Strunk, chair of the Board of Finance. They will be joined by Republican Deb Downie, a member of the Board of Education who is also an environmental engineer.
“Everyone been kind of focused on the female angle and I know it gets a good headline and it’s not to dilute it because it is an important moment in our town history, but to me it’s more saying we just have such diverse backgrounds that I think we’re going to balance each other out in decision-making really well,” she said.
She said that other than during the campaign season, the town doesn’t particularly operate on a two-party model.
“Being on the Board of Finance, there were three Democrats and three Republicans and then I thought I’d be the tiebreaker — but that never happened,” she laughed. “At the board and commission level, you can barely tell who is with what party. Everyone is working toward the greater good of the town. Those healthy debates happen, but I haven’t seen them happen that much on party lines.”
Though unaffiliated, Chesebrough has declared she will caucus with the Democrats, which by Freedom of Information law will limit her communication with Downie.
“June and I will be able to talk, but Deb we’ll only be able to talk to at official town meetings so we’re going to have to figure that out because we want to be collaborative and work really closely with her. We’ll have to look at how we can do that and obviously still follow all the laws,” Chesebrough said. “On the plus side the public really gets to see the process live happening because lots of times the first time we ever discuss something will be at town meeting.”
Conservation and Development
As a longtime member of the Economic Development Commission, Chesebrough gained experience working on areas such as downtown Pawcatuck, which was rezoned as PV5 in September 2017, a change that increased opportunities for mixed-use redevelopment of the district’s historic buildings and expanded allowed uses.
“That’s why myself and others get so excited about the potential in downtown Pawcatuck because there’s existing and vacant lots that are just begging to be redeveloped and I think people really support that,” adding that, in particular, she hoped to see the Campbell Grain building lot developed in the near future.
About 12 buildings, including Laura’s Landing at 34 West Broad Street, could be eligible for historic designation in downtown Pawcatuck, which would ease FEMA regulations on those buildings and encourage investment, she said.
“The State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) already came down and has given positive feedback that these buildings will likely meet the criteria and it’s not expensive but we do need to put some funding toward getting someone to complete the applications,” she said. “Obviously it’s something we need to work on kind of quickly so we can make that a priority.”
She said some of the town’s past successes with adding zoning overlays, such as the Greenway Development District for the Perkins Farm property, were strong examples of balancing conservation with development. The 70-acre Perkins Farm site was originally zoned for 36 residential lots but with the zoning overlay the property was reconfigured to house a large medical facility, townhouses and apartments, with more than 50 percent open space.
“I think it would have been a missed opportunity and instead we got a commercial aspect to it, we got some residences and got 50 percent open space. Those kinds of projects are a win-win and we should be looking at more of them,” she said.
The Agricultural Heritage Reuse District, which was approved for the 78-acre Deans Mill Farm on Pequot Trail last week, and the 65-acre Stone Acres Farm in 2017, represented a way to preserve farmland while allowing other uses, she said.
Opening the charter
The town charter has a number stipulations that Chesebrough said she would like a charter revision committee to examine and research.
“For me one of the driving factors of opening the charter will be the issues of the tax collector and the town clerk [who are elected],” she said. “These represent a big risk for the town, so it’s something we need to take pretty seriously and look at.”
Other issues include potentially increasing the Board of Selectmen from three to five members, which she said “could have benefits in terms of FOI but also just more engagement, more opportunities for people to serve.”
Increasing the length of the selectmen’s terms from two years to four years “is something that both parties and a lot of people have discussed as being a challenge and it’s a reason why we don’t see more people stepping up to run. [It also could be] constant turnover for town hall staff — essentially getting a new leader every two years,” she said. “Just in terms of efficiencies and consistencies for the town, I think a four year term could be beneficial but it’s something we need to explore more.”
She said she is also in favor adding term limits to the charter, but emphasized it will require research first.
Whether to change to town manager structure is another question for the charter revision committee to explore, she said.
“I think we need to think about why we think we need a town manager, and what problems that might solve and if there are other ways to go about that because some towns have had a good experience with a town manager and others haven’t,” she said. “I just want to make sure we’re getting at the core challenges and addressing them — and not just thinking that a town manager will fix them, when in reality it really might not.”
The budget starts now
Even though budget hearings don’t begin until February, the budget process has already begun, said Chesebrough.
Last week, the Board of Finance set its budget guidelines for the Board of Education and the department heads. The next step, she said, will require a review of each departmental budget and considering new requests and needs — especially those that exceed guidelines.
“We are very fortunate, I’ve only been on the Board of Finance for two years, but June has extensive knowledge so that’s another area where we’ll work really well as a team,” she said. “Also, Deb was on the Board of Education, so it’s a unique combination of backgrounds, and [we’ll] be able to come in to the budget with a really good perspective of what the different needs are for the town.”
Chesebrough also said she wanted to create a task force or advisory group early on to look at ways to improve communication and transparency among the boards and commissions as well as with town residents, perhaps through a monthly newsletter.
“I’m also interested in a town-sponsored podcast where we interview different residents in town,” she said. “Going door to door for the campaign, I’ve been completely amazed by the diversity in town that we don’t appreciate in terms of people’s backgrounds and experiences.”
Other priorities include hiring a new Director of Planning, putting out a Request for Proposal for the sidewalk study in Pawcatuck and seeing the Mystic River Boathouse Park project through.
In addition, Chesebrough said she will look at the town’s steps toward climate change adaptation and mitigation.
“Traditionally different Board of Selectmen members spearhead or take on some additional work or oversight, and this is such a big area, I think in one of our first Board of Selectmen meetings we’ll be talking and discussing how we want to break this down and look at it,” she said. “I think we need a long-term plan with lots of short-term steps of how we’re going to get there.”
Chesebrough said she will recommend researching how other towns and cities have created their own climate adaptation and mitigation plans, to “not duplicate the wheel.”
As a priority, she plans to sit down with the Climate Change Task Force “to get a handle on how much capacity they have in reality and how much they can take on in terms of working on this,” she said. “They’ve been looking at this for a while, so to talk to them as a first step will be important.”
She acknowledged the breadth and depth of the tasks ahead and said was optimistic the town would achieve multiple projects during her tenure.
“We just have to figure out how to prioritize all these areas, we can definitely get them all done but it’s just going to be a balancing act,” she said.