Three candidates are competing to replace three-term Republican incumbent Jesse MacLachlan, who represents the 35th District — the towns of Clinton Westbrook and Killingworth — in the state legislature. MacLachlan announced that he would not seek re-election in August.
In 2018, MacLachlan defeated Clinton Democrat Jason Adler with 52.5 percent of the vote.
The Democratic nominee, Christine Goupil, was elected First Selectman of Clinton in 2017, on a platform that included replacing the position with a town manager. By the end of her first term in 2019, the town approved the plan and hired Karl Kilduff to manage the town.
Goupil, who has worked for The Prince’s Foundation, an educational charity devoted to fostering the public’s role in traditional urban design and architecture, moved to Clinton about 11 years ago. By her own account, she got involved right away in the Downtown Revitalization Committee, was elected to the town Planning and Zoning Commission, and has since worked to secure grants for the downtown district, the Unilever property that is now being developed into apartments, and a Route 81 corridor study that also benefited the towns of Killingworth and Westbrook.
If elected to the Connecticut General Assembly, Goupil said she would look for opportunities to streamline processes at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, particularly for wastewater systems to support development, while preserving the existing character of local communities.
“I believe development should take place in the areas of existing infrastructure, and we should try to keep the small-town feeling of our communities,” she said.
Goupil also said that she would like to focus on the role of technical schools, as an alternative to four-year colleges, to get young people prepared for new jobs in areas like the defense industry and renewable energy.
She said that she also wants to make sure that older residents in every town have adequate resources to help them remain active and healthy.
John Hall, the Republican candidate in the race, said that his family has lived in Westbrook since 1635. He is a lifelong resident and has served on the town’s Board of Selectmen since 2009. For many years, Hall chaired the Westbrook Zoning Board of Appeals and sat on the board of the Westbrook Foundation, which distributes grants and scholarships to support local students.
“The time is right. I’m at a point where I’m ready to take the challenge,” Hall said.
Hall and his wife Bonnie also own and operate Maple Breeze Farm and have about 60 American Milking Devon cows, a rare heritage breed.
Hall said that he has worked closely with lawmakers for about 30 years on agricultural policy as a member of the Connecticut Farm Bureau in Middlesex County. He said that he is also concerned about the environment and pollution, doesn’t use chemicals on his farm, and uses them “judiciously” in water treatment.
Hall owns a commercial and industrial water treatment business, Artech, based in Madison.
If he is elected, he said that among his top priorities is a close look at the state budget.
According to Hall, small towns are spending a great deal of money on COVID-related expenses with the promise that they will be reimbursed by the state.
“If they’re going to be doing some reimbursing, it’s got to come from somewhere, and I’m not in favor of raising taxes, so it’s got to be cuts,” Hall said.
He said that he is also concerned about high healthcare costs, something that’s been a personal concern as a self-employed business owner. He called the Connecticut Insurance Department’s move in September to cut requested rate increases a “good first step.”
John May, the Green Party candidate in the race, taught high school for nearly 20 years and now works as a financial advisor. He moved to Clinton about 10 years ago from Miami, Fla.
May pointed to high taxes and young people leaving for school and never returning as key issues the towns are facing. He sits on the town’s Economic Development Commission and on the Conservation Commission.
May said that he joined the Green Party about 10 years ago, because the Democratic Party had moved toward representing special interests and wealthy individuals, and hadn’t followed through with “Medicare for All” or with ending the wars in the Middle East.
“They take a lot of the ideas that progressives or Greens have put forward because they’re popular ideas, but they don’t tend to get them passed,” May said. “I left and became a Green when I realized we were not getting a single-payer [national health insurance] system.”
May said he wants to promote a “classroom to workforce pipeline,” finding solid, alternative routes to get young people into engineering and technology jobs, such as partnering with local companies to establish apprenticeship or internship programs.
May said such programs could cut the stigma associated with not going to college, support local industry, and keep young people in their neighborhoods.
He is also in favor of a state bank like the one in North Dakota, that May said could cut away the red tape of looking for a home or business loan.
Affordable housing and statewide zoning
Goupil said that a “glut” of impending retirements at the state level, and the ongoing difficulty towns face hiring zoning enforcement officers and planners, present an opportunity to discuss regionalizing some of these roles. According to Goupil, who spent eight years on Clinton’s Planning and Zoning Commission, many local regulations are standard across the region, offering a possible opportunity to work together on enforcement.
As for proposals to give the state more control of local zoning, Goupil said that part of the challenge of such legislation is that local regulations reflect distinct communities – Killingworth has more farms and two-acre lots, Clinton is more dense and suburban, and Westbrook is a mix.
“It’d be interesting to start having that conversation with the public,” Goupil said. “I think [legislators] definitely need to hear from all these communities on those types of changes.”
Hall said that local control is the best way to deal with local land use issues specific to shoreline towns.
“You have to deal with close proximity cottages, undersized septic systems, that sort of thing,” said Hall, who spent 27 years on the Westbrook Zoning Board of Appeals,
Hall said that these issues were in part the result of overdevelopment before the advent of zoning.
May said that zoning and housing issues should be left up to voters and officials in each town, rather than being directed by the state.
May said he wants people to be able to find affordable housing in Connecticut instead of leaving the state, and suggested lowering property taxes as part of the solution, particularly for people on fixed incomes like seniors and for young families.
Goupil said that while she understands the mechanism of the state’s 8-30g affordable housing statute, the law doesn’t work well in some smaller communities.
“When you come outside a city and you don’t have the opportunity for public transportation, some of these get placed in communities where people are really isolated and rely on a car,” Goupil said.
Goupil said “natural affordable housing” like manufactured and mobile home parks should be options, but they need to be managed in a way that ensures a healthy and vibrant community.
Hall said that local zoning boards should still have more of a say in the construction of affordable housing projects. He said developers take advantage of rules only requiring a certain portion of their new units to be designated “affordable” in order to circumvent local zoning rules to build dense developments.
Goupil gave “kudos” to State Rep. Jesse MacLachlan for voting in favor of the police accountability bill, but said that her experience running a municipal government has her concerned about the financial burden that the qualified immunity portion of the bill places on smaller departments and municipalities.
“How that bill impacts the towns is very different, so I think you need to understand your community and be at the table to have those conversations about how it’s impacting your towns,” Goupil said.
According to May, issues like access to food and mental health care in a community underpin many policing issues, and that police reforms become difficult when every municipality is lumped together.
“When you look at neighborhoods and communities that don’t invest or don’t have the means to invest in other services to help people out, this is where you see problems where the police are called into situations they’re not equipped to handle,” May said.
May said that the Clinton Police Department is a model of community policing and it works because the town provides the public services that help people meet basic needs.
Hall said that the police accountability bill was “rushed” and that the legislation needs a closer look and some re-working. According to Hall, even some of the people who voted for the legislation didn’t understand the entire bill, and he would need to look at the nuances of the legislation more carefully before saying what exactly needed to be changed.
May proposed looking into the idea of additional municipal electric utilities, like those in Norwich and Groton, to give towns more control over where their energy is sourced, to make energy providers accountable to customers instead of shareholders, and to improve disaster response.
“[Outages] could have been corrected in a day — it didn’t need to take a week — but since we’re simply part of a large group of different communities, we had to wait our turn,” May said. “If there were a more community-based response team, that’s something that could have handled what was directly affecting our community.”
Goupil said that Eversource had responded better to storms in 2011 and 2012 than to Tropical Storm Isaias.
“There was a flaw in this last storm that definitely needs to be addressed, and there does need to be accountability,” Goupil said. “I’ve seen so many friends and family that had to throw out everything in their fridge, so that was a big burden for people.”
Hall said that Eversource is a huge corporation with its eyes on profits rather than the ratepayer, and over time, the company has cut the number of employees living locally.
“It used to be, when we had a hurricane, that you had 30 or 40 local crews in each district that would come out for repair, now you have a handful,” he said.
The state budget and executive power
Asked how he would prioritize state budget choices — in August, Gov. Ned Lamont directed agency heads to plan for deep cuts in the state budget of 10% — Hall said he believes that there are places in the state budget that can be cut, and it’s good that the state is going to take a “hard look” at possible cuts given the COVID-related budget shortfalls.
Hall said that Westbrook has always been able to keep the cost of services low and taxes affordable. In the 11 years he’s been involved in the town budget as selectman, Hall said there’s been an average annual spending increase of just 1.5 percent, despite pay raises and increasing healthcare costs.
“I’d be interested in taking a good look at that state budget and getting some scissors and cutting here and there,” Hall said. “I think there’s room.”
Goupil said she’s concerned that across the board cuts would “decimate” some government departments. She said the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is already struggling because of staffing shortages, which puts more burden on the regulatory process for projects like wastewater systems.
“I get concerned with DEEP, both from their role keeping our community healthy, but also from an economic development standpoint,” Goupil said. “I would get concerned about cutting organizations that are going to help us move beyond this pandemic. It has to be very strategic.”
May said that Connecticut could look at raising taxes on some of the wealthier residents of the state and some financial transactions. He acknowledged the fear that Connecticut could lose its tax base if wealthy people take their money and move to Florida, but May said that they haven’t yet fled New York and Massachusetts despite higher taxes in those states.
May, Goupil and Hall all agreed that Lamont had done a good job of using public health orders early in the pandemic to keep people safe, but May and Hall said that as the pandemic has gone on, he has overstepped his role.
May said that lawmakers know their communities better and should be more involved in making decisions with the governor. Hall agreed that the legislature needs to take back more oversight, and that Connecticut is past needing Lamont to make public health orders on his own.
“I think it’s time we get back to some normalcy in the government,” Hall said.