With incumbent First Selectman Kevin Lyden opting not to seek an additional term in office, Democrat Hugh McKenney is running for the open seat in a race against Republican Ed Chmielewski.
Lyden served for six terms, running unopposed in 2019, as a petitioning candidate against Democrat Sue Sprang in 2017, as a Democrat against Chmielewski in 2015, and as a cross-endorsed candidate in 2013.
Lyden won handily in 2017, with 69 percent of the vote, and with 65 percent of the vote in 2015.
McKenney, who is a member of Salem’s Board of Selectmen and formerly chaired the Planning & Zoning Commission, ran for state representative against Holly Cheeseman in 2018, losing by 310 votes, a margin of 2.8 percent.
The Connecticut Examiner spoke with McKenney about his campaign and policy priorities if elected.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
What inspired you to run for First Selectman of Salem?
Salem has been very good to me, and my desire to give back to this community is why I’m running. I’ve been involved in town government for a number of years, and I think that it’s important to maintain an effective town government going forward. This is something I’ve always thought I’d like to do to help the folks in town. I think that Kevin Lyden has worked hard as first selectman for a number of years, and he deserves a nice retirement. He’s been doing this for a long time.
To what extent would you want your administration to follow in First Selectman Lyden’s footsteps? Are there any specific decisions he made that you would have handled differently, had you been in office?
I’d like to have a little bit more information go out to the town, perhaps more timely than Kevin would normally do. I don’t fault him for that, he’s busy, but I think I’d be a little bit more communicative. It’s important that people understand what’s happening in town, like road closures or meeting agendas. For example, we have a great recreation department that does all kinds of programming for seniors all the way down to little children, and I would like to see more of that information getting out on a daily basis so people know what the town government does.
A couple of weeks ago, we had a concert for the end of summer up at Salem Pavilion that was attended by quite a few people. People loved it, but a lot of folks only got wind of it at the last minute, and it would have had a bigger crowd if it had been advertised a bit more on social media. Right now, we currently have a system where people can go on to the town website, SalemCT.gov, and request to get informational emails sent out, but a lot of people don’t know that, and not a majority of people in town subscribe to it.
I’d also want to be more communicative about issues the town is facing, like with Gardner Lake Fire Company suing the town. I would have tried to communicate more directly to townspeople so they understood what was going on. I think Kevin’s communications could have been more timely and reached more people.
How would you have handled the fire company dispute differently than First Selectman Lyden? Do you think Salem needs two separate fire departments?
I do believe we need two fire companies in town. People need to remember that they’re independent companies. For people who say we should just merge fire companies, we can’t do that, because it’s not possible to tell two independent companies that they have to merge. The town has a relationship with each of those fire houses where we pay certain funds to help maintain the services to the town.
We do need to develop a new contract with Gardner Lake, and we need to have a formal process as to how the town funds the ambulances. We need to work on that with the Gardner Lake folks to really make the process transparent and to be fair to everyone involved, both the fire company and the townspeople. We have a responsibility to make sure that funds are spent wisely.
In a perfect world, I think that it’s better to have two fire stations, in terms of being able to get to the scene faster, but we need to make sure that we don’t duplicate a lot of our resources. The town had a study done five or six years ago that talked about how we could use synergies between the two companies since we did have some additional fire apparatus that may have been redundant.
We haven’t done a lot with that because of difficulties with the fire companies not wanting to work together as well as they could have in the past. We could get more bang for our buck implementing some of those recommendations, but I don’t necessarily think at this point in time that we should move to one big station, because we are in such a rural area, and a lot of housing insurance depends on how far they are from the firehouse. I’m not sure I’d want to start working in the direction of having one firehouse if that could possibly impact people’s insurance.
Do you see a world where, if you were first selectman, Salem residents might see a raise in local taxes?
I’ll be very honest with you. For the last several years, the town’s mill rate has been flat, which is a good thing for the taxpayer, but that has come at a cost. Services continue to be cut back. Over the last three years, we’ve had incentives to have our senior teachers retire, allowing us to bring in younger teachers at lower salaries, which is a good thing and a bad thing. It’s a good way to reduce the school budget, but it also takes away a lot of experience, and while you see those savings in the first few years, teachers do have salary raises as part of union contracts, so the funding for those salaries will be increasing quite a bit over the next few years. The savings we had to keep the budget flat won’t be realized in the long term. I’d like to say we’ll be able to keep taxes flat, but I’m not going to lie to people and guarantee that we won’t, because I don’t think we can.
According to the new Census data, Salem’s population has gotten significantly older. Does that concern you? What does that mean for the future of Salem?
It absolutely does concern me. I’m a big supporter of affordable housing for seniors. We have a development right now under construction on Route 82 that looks to be very promising, but I don’t necessarily think that’s the only thing we need to do. I’ve heard that the units being developed now have a long list of people who want to get into them, which is good, because I want the developers to be successful and I want this to spur other types of development. Many years ago, Salem was one of the fastest-growing towns in the county. I remember that when I first got here 25 years ago, we had a lot of housing development applications coming into Planning & Zoning, and there’s not so many now.
We need to look into how we can keep our seniors in town, because a lot of the folks who moved here 25 years ago, like myself, are looking around and saying they don’t know how much longer they can afford to stay here and maintain their house and property. We need to give those folks a helping hand, and I think we should have a dialogue to determine whether we might want to cut taxes for seniors, maybe around $1000 per person. We might want to limit it to if you make a certain amount of money per year, and we would need a lot of work to even see if it was feasible.
How has your experience in town government prepared you to lead Salem?
When I was chairman of Planning & Zoning, it was a very busy time in the commission’s history. We had a lot of public hearings, and public hearings are very serious, because it’s the time for the people to give their opinions. We would have a lot of public input on developments and quarries, and I learned an awful lot about how to do that. I helped navigate the town through a significant lawsuit we had with a quarry operator who was violating regulations continuously. It taught me a lot about how the legal system works and the need to listen to the people and respond to their concerns.
What sets you apart from your opponent?
I’m a workhorse. I do a lot of volunteer work. I like to help people, it’s in my DNA. Years ago, my father was a volunteer in my hometown and he instilled those values in me. My opponent is a nice guy, I just don’t believe that he has the experience and behaviors to successfully run the town. He volunteers for a lot of things, but his follow-through is not always there.