Norwich City Council President Pro Tempore Mark Bettencourt is running against incumbent Mayor Peter Nystrom, who is seeking a third term. In 2017, Nystrom was elected with 57 percent of the vote. Bettencourt, who lost to Nystrom in the 2009 Norwich mayoral race, has served on the City Council for a collective ten years.
The Connecticut Examiner spoke with Bettencourt about what inspired his run, and what policies he would prioritize if elected.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What inspired you to run for Mayor of Norwich?
I lost election to the City Council six years ago, and really didn’t have any particular desire to get back involved. But then the committee tasked with coming up with a school consolidation plan in 2016 failed and I was asked to come in and chair a new school facilities review committee to come up with a workable plan. That led me to run for City Council again two years ago, and in my time on the council, I’ve come to see that there is a lack of vision and direction for the city.
What in particular have you seen that you’d want to handle differently?
A group of us in the Democratic caucus realized that the education department was overspending its budget by over $1 million per year under the Republican-controlled council, and nobody was doing anything to address that.
I ran two years ago on a platform of responsible leadership for Norwich, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do: be good stewards of government on behalf of the citizens and taxpayers.
I think we’ve been pretty successful at improving communications between the Board of Education, Department of Education staff, and the council, and there is a much better relationship now with much more trust than before.
We’re anticipating a significant surplus now, and some of that is due to reduced expenses and additional funds related to COVID, but we’re also putting money into an account so there will be money for expenses down the road, too.
How much power does the mayor have to make change with issues like that?
In Norwich, we technically have a weak mayor, and it’s referred to as a bully pulpit, so it’s only as good as the person sitting in the chair and that person’s ability to work with a majority of the council to get anything done. My thing has always been working in a collaborative effort. I’ve always worked well and communicated well with Republicans.
You’ve also made fiscal responsibility a central campaign issue, which is traditionally more of a Republican talking point.
Yeah, I’ve had Republicans say lately that we’ve kind of usurped the Republican refrains regarding this issue. Nobody wants to pay more taxes. I don’t. I pay taxes here just like everyone else. So doing what you can to control spending and increase revenue is central to what should and has to happen at a local level.
This is local government, not Washington, D.C., and while we have our differences, we should be able to work together without letting politics get involved too much. Just because you’re a Democrat doesn’t mean fiscal responsibility shouldn’t be your priority.
On some social issues like racial equity we’re a little more to the left in that traditional sense, and there are areas where I want to increase spending to address blight and housing issues in the community, but I want to come up with plans to fund those things without breaking the bank.
Are there any specific situations you would have handled differently than Mayor Nystrom, had you been in office?
He came out in the City Council and threatened to sue the Board of Education, and I thought that was counterproductive. I took a firm stance with the Board of Education that the situation couldn’t continue, but I didn’t threaten to sue anyone. When you start taking stances like that, it makes discussions a lot more difficult. It’s kind of an attitude thing. I’m much more willing to step up and make changes, and I’m not afraid to make difficult decisions, even if sometimes they’re not totally popular ones within my group. Case in point, a number of years ago when I was just an alderman on the City Council, I saw that the ice arena was not being managed well, and brought someone in who could manage the business better, which made some people upset. A company came in and wound up putting $1.5 million of private money into the rink and refurbishing it, so now, we have a very nice asset for recreation.
How do you want to improve the housing situation in Norwich?
We have issues with short-term rentals and Airbnbs right now, and unfortunately, the law makes it difficult to deal with that. Short-term rentals shouldn’t normally impact a neighborhood, but people will rent an apartment or house out and it becomes party central for the weekend, and then there are parking issues and noise complaints. There are responsible people that take care of the properties and they’re not a problem, but we’re trying to find a way to deal with that through licensing rather than zoning enforcement and create rules and regulations of how many units you can have and whether it’s owner occupied.