Robert McGarry, the Republican First Selectman of Haddam, is running for reelection, and facing a challenge from Democrat Sean Donlan. McGarry was first elected in 2019, with 62 percent of the vote.
In the 2020 elections, the town voted for Democrats Joe Biden and Joe Courtney at the national level, and Republicans Brendan Saunders and Robert Siegrist for the state legislature.
The Connecticut Examiner spoke with McGarry about his priorities for another term.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Why are you running for reelection?
There are still things I’d like to get done. First Selectman in Haddam is a two-year term, and that’s not enough time to make progress on everything. You spend your first year, year and a half trying to get up to speed and get things moving, and then you’re up again for another election and possibly getting replaced.
What’s an example of a project you’d want to continue to work on in another term?
Scoville Hall, a manufacturing facility right in Higganum Center, has been falling into disrepair, and we’re working with the state now to do an environmental cleanup of that. We’ve already done the required environmental assessments, and are interested in having it transferred to us from the state. We talked with the Department of Economic and Community Development, and are in line to receive a $1.8 million brownfield grant to clean that up. We want to move it into a mixed-use area, that could be for businesses, restaurants, or a makers’ space, and keep that moving forward.
What’s an accomplishment you’re proud of from your tenure in office?
One thing I ran on was to tamp down some of the divisiveness that we had in town. We all felt it. People weren’t getting along, and the squabbling was eating up a lot of the town’s time, and we were not making a lot of progress. Since I’ve come in and opened up transparency in government, we’ve worked hard at tamping this down. It’s not eliminated, but it’s back down to a normal level. It’s allowed us to get committees together and have honest discussions and disagreements where we don’t make enemies, but can listen so we can move some of these ideas forward. It’s also reduced some of the tension even in the town office building. Employees felt it, and it was impacting their work.
It’s one of the things I’m most proud of, that we’ve gone back to a normal level of disagreement in town as opposed to the heightened one that we had for at least six years before that. It’s adding a level of professionalism to the position that hasn’t been there for a while. Not to be critical of my predecessors, but I have more than 20 years of government service at a federal, state and now local level, and that makes a difference, as opposed to someone coming in who either hasn’t managed large organizations or has managed a business successfully, but doesn’t really understand the differences between business enterprises and government enterprises.
How would you differentiate yourself from your opponent, Sean Donlan?
I know Sean Donlan, and I respect him, but I don’t know his background well, so I don’t know what he’s done beyond his law business. I do know that he doesn’t have as much experience as I do in the actual day-to-day running of government, and I think that’s a major difference for a position like this.
He’s been on the Board of Selectmen for a number of years, so it’s not like he’s totally unfamiliar, but I think my breadth of experience is bigger. The town is a complex organization, roughly 34 employees and a $32 million budget, so there’s a lot going on, and if you haven’t run a large organization — and I don’t believe Sean has — it’s quite a learning curve.
With hindsight, how do you feel you handled COVID-19 in Haddam?
I was a coast guard officer for 20 years, and a volunteer firefighter for 24 years, so for my entire adult life, I have been in some sort of emergency response position. It gave me the background to approach the pandemic in a more thoughtful, less reactive way. I knew communications were going to be important, and I had a lot of communications going out on the town website to keep people informed and bring them up to speed on what was happening. I was quite proud, as soon as the pandemic hit, that we closed the town office to walk-ins, but never closed entirely. People could always make appointments, and we were always able to keep the town running.