GROTON — After four years of Democratic control, the Groton Republican Town Committee is running seven candidates for seats on the town council on a platform of government transparency, opposition to the Mystic Oral School project, a return to civility and public input to council meetings and fiscal responsibility.
“I think we can start by saying that we’re running on a platform of accountability to the public and that one-party rule has been bad for the community in the sense that there’s been a lot of conversation and decisions that have been made in kind of the old-fashioned cigar smoking backroom, and then [the town council members] just come out and vote without any public comment or public conversation,” said John Scott, chair of the Republican Town Committee, and a candidate for town council.
Scott spoke at the Republican Town Committee headquarters, where six of the seven endorsed candidates met with CT Examiner to discuss the election.
Scott, who is a former state representative and a former town councilor and RTM member, said the behavior of the current town council had reduced its esteem in the community, which the Republican slate would work to restore.
“As a team, we will work well together to change that, have those conversations in public and change the direction of the town — and change the respect that the council has lost over the past two terms with respect to how they even treat each other. It’s almost embarrassing to watch them on television and how they’re behaving,” he said.
Scott said he and the Republican candidates questioned the judgment of the council in the decisions made concerning the Mystic Oral School project.
“I was also disturbed to see that the council engaged in a contract that nearly commanded a board — the zoning commission, who they have no authority over — to change the rules and regulations to allow the project to be developed. And that tells me that they didn’t have a clear understanding of their own role as town councillors,” he said.
Candidate Robert Boris said that the current council has limited conversation among its own members, using an example of a town council discussion on Sept. 14 about raising the surplus from 15 to 20 percent.
“The way that discussion happened in the town’s last meeting was it was just quickly dismissed as even an option to give the money back to the taxpayers or address the mill rate… There was one councilor who mentioned giving the money back to the taxpayers but he was very quickly dismissed. And the conversation moved on to increasing the minimum, documenting that the minimum would be escalated every year,” Boris said.
Boris said that if Republican members had been there, “it would definitely be a robust conversation.”
“I think if there’s surpluses, that should be in the taxpayers hands not accumulated at the council level. So that’s an example of where one party rule is very bad for the interests of the town,” Boris said.
Candidate Kathy Chase saw the decision to raise the surplus as fiscally irresponsible.
“As far as I’m concerned, we should not be using taxpayers for a savings account. It’s just irresponsible. If it’s not going to increase our place in the market for bonds, then why take taxpayers’ money?”
The 2017 election
The Republicans were swept out of office in 2017 after decades of dominating the town council. Scott said a number of factors may have contributed to the Republicans’ defeat that year.
“I think Trump certainly was a factor. In the campaigns that I was involved in for state rep that was a huge factor. Trump just was not popular here and we caught the brunt of the blame for his behavior,” he said.
Diane Barber, a 2021 Republican candidate who was on the council from 2015 to 2017, said she remembered that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy had threatened to take back $14.17 million from the town’s school funding that year, which affected how the town council approached the budget process.
“We decided that we had to raise the mill rate by ‘X’ amount just in case — certainly not all that he was threatening to keep from us but a good portion of it —and the 13th hour like, I’m going to say a month or six weeks after we did the budget, he said, ‘Oh no, nevermind I’m giving you all the money back.’ And people were very upset that the mill rate went up, and I think that’s part of why we lost.”
Scott said the Republicans were also proponents of a charter change that year that would have added a board of finance, done away with the RTM, and extended council terms. Scott said there had been two or three years of committee work put into the proposed change
“But the people voted no on the charter and no on us,” he said.
Another issue was the council’s renegotiating of the lease of Par 4 restaurant at the Shennecossett Golf Course.
“It wasn’t handled very well and all people heard was that we were going to throw the current tenant out and that wasn’t the case. We were still negotiating back and forth, and they ended up staying and it ended up working out for them but it was just a negotiation process that had gotten blown out of proportion where the world thought that we were throwing out this family that had been running a place for a lot of years,” Scott said.
Barber, who spoke with CT Examiner by phone, said the Mystic Oral School project was a “debacle” that never should have advanced as far as it has, and expressed concern about potential lawsuits against the town.
“The town council voted for it unanimously, and I just don’t think anybody did the work, studying what this would do to the neighborhood — the infrastructure will not carry even 1000 new cars a day. There’s no water over there that I know of, sewer systems, and not to mention the schools that we just downsized, how many more children are going to be in the schools?”
She said the town council needs to allow citizens to speak at every meeting, rather than twice a month. “It should be more open to the citizens because that’s what you’re there for — to listen to the citizens on what they want to see in the community.”
Barber, who has lived in Groton for more than 30 years and worked at Foxwoods Resort Casino for 27 years, said that when she was on the council, with 8 Republicans and 1 Democrat, the discourse was respectful and that has fallen apart with the present council.
“I just want to get back to being respectful. I don’t think anybody gains anything by arguing and in people’s minds close when you start arguing. Getting into a debate or a discussion is fine,” she said. “I like sitting down with people that have a different point of view, and understanding where their thought process comes from… You might not come out where we both agree, but at least you understand each other and I don’t think that’s happening with this town council.”
“I watched my parents take advantage of the American Dream here and helped them build a company from nothing,” said Boris, whose family founded Command Technology in Groton in 1981, when he was 11. He grew up working in the company and has been a principal there for more than 20 years. He earned his masters at the London School of Economics.
“I thought, from my educational background, my life experiences with my parents’ company, it was time for me to participate and that I had something to contribute in terms of the skill set that I had in contract negotiations, problem solving, and my particular perspective on giving back to the community — that’s why I’m running.”
Boris said he wanted to make sure that everybody has equal opportunity in Groton to succeed.
“I’m an optimist, I’m a ‘can do’ person and I push through. Hard work has been good to my family and we’ve been able to achieve here, but I want to make sure that everybody has that,” he said. “
He said his experience as an employer would translate well to the duties of town councilor.
“I know what it’s like to make payroll and have families and employees relying on those wages, to deal with escalating healthcare costs, government contract negotiations, commercial negotiations, and to find creative solutions to problems,” he said. “In private business, you make good decisions and you live and die by them — and you have to balance budgets, and there’s no slush fund over here. We’ve kept the business going for 40 years and I have experience since I was 11 doing that, and that’s why I think that my perspective would be valuable.”
“In my work, I am the watchdog of about $3 million in federal and state money that is allocated to agencies. We allocate it out to other agencies and I have to monitor that to make sure they’re spending those dollars correctly, so I work with budgets and things like that at work all the time — and I’ve been doing that for 20 years,” said Chase, who is the director of contracts at the Senior Resources Agency on Aging, a private nonprofit.
Chase described herself as “fiscally conscious and fiscally responsible.”
“I don’t like to spend my money so I don’t want to spend yours. However, sometimes, you have to spend money and you have to be very responsible about doing that,” she said.
She said she is running because after her second term on the RTM, she wants to “get more in the weeds” of the town budget. “Once the budget comes to the RTM, it’s pretty much a done deal.”
Chase, who has lived in Groton since 1961 and attended Groton Public Schools, as did her children, said she wants to see the town move forward with economic development in a responsible manner and would like to see the single family housing built on the Mystic Oral School property rather than apartments.
“We have three schools right now that are going to be apartments and then there’s some land on Route 184 that is also going to be apartments… We have enough apartments being built right now.”
“I taught government for 20 years and know how it should run. I was watching one party rule and it is just not the democratic way, which should be representative,” said Furgueson, who is chief marketing and development officer of The Arc Eastern Connecticut, a nonprofit that supports families with intellectual developmental disabilities.
Furgueson, who serves on the Historic District Commission and is president of the Downtown Mystic Merchants, said he was running because it was important to have a voice on the town council that supported more business growth in Groton.
“I look back at what has happened in downtown Mystic and the amazing growth and the fact that the visitorship has skyrocketed during my time as president of DMM — I’m not going to take entire credit for that in any way, shape, or form — but I am going to say that it was I was able to foster conversations and support like Eric Goodman’s new building, Adam Young’s Sift development,” he said. “All those things I’ve been a part of and helped bring new businesses and expand businesses to downtown Mystic — I want that to be throughout the town.”
He said he and the Republican candidates were “here to serve” the diverse community of Groton.
“We have submariners, small business owners, elderly — we have such a broad range of population that makes up Groton. I don’t feel that our government right now is totally representative of all the different thoughts and ideologies that make up this great town,” he said. “Whether it’s a D, or an R next to your name is irrelevant. It’s people who want to serve their community that’s what this group sitting around the table right now is all about. We want to serve our community for the better.”
“I bring to the table a diverse level of experience. I’m a former small business owner in town, sold that and moved on to work for an insurance and risk management firm. I manage a significant book of business, doing insurance and risk management work for volunteer fire companies and fire districts throughout New York and New England,” said Scott, who said he’s gained wide experience in handling budgets through his positions in state and local government and has maintained his connections locally and with Hartford.
He emphasized the importance of open public meetings and giving council members sufficient time to speak. “They limit conversation to five minutes and you can’t properly discuss any piece of legislation or ordinances in that time.”
Scott lives near the Mystic Oral School. He said that when he was a state representative he had worked on a bill that he believed would have helped the town develop the property.
“There had been a transaction done long before I had been involved in Hartford, that had separated off a piece of Oral School property, and given it to the DEEP. And so I was thinking that that was hamstringing the possibility of getting the property sold and I was looking into a process where that piece of land could be given to the town and then let the town be the one that markets the parcel,” he said.
That legislation was defeated, but after Scott saw the scale of the project proposed by Respler Homes LLC, he decided to run for town council because he was disturbed to see the scope and size of the project and how the council handled the process.
“When they proposed 930 units plus mixed commercial use up there, that’s not responsible development on that property so that’s the main reason why I got involved,” he said.
“The Mystic Oral School is really why I initially got into this, mainly because I live literally at the bottom of the hill from that [project]. I saw what was going on — a group of us that started out with three people in a garage and now we have 130 plus supporters to try and block the mega development up there,” said Westervelt, who is co-chair of Mystic Oral School Advocates, a group opposed to a proposed development. An engineer in Navy defense contracting, Westervelt has lived in the Mystic Oral School neighborhood for 37 years.
He said that as the group started attending meetings, members started to find out that outside of select town staff and the town council, “no one basically knew anything — and that to me is not how democracy is supposed to work.”
“As we got deeper into it, it’s my opinion that the town staff serves at the pleasure of the town council, not the other way around. And, as we’re watching this in the town council meetings, we’re seeing that the town council doesn’t even know as much as they probably should, based on the amount of support that they’re giving this project — that was bothersome to me,” he said Westervelt.
Westervelt said he also saw infighting among the town council members, which he saw as unacceptable.
“A councilor would come up with a difference of opinion, and they’d be shouted down, they were like kids in the schoolyard. You have to be respectful. You have to discuss these things, you need to get into dialogue, you need to have discussions, instead of just shouting someone down, and not completing it,” he said.
He said that the Mystic Oral School project could put the town in a very fiscally damaging position.
“It can tie up to the town for 10,20, 30 years if the TIF goes through and if we build what they’re talking about. So I just think that transparency is key. It’s a team and it’s got to be made up of multiple people and there are going to be differences, there’s going to be different personalities, but you’ve got to work as a team to find a solution.”
“Sometimes when people look at Groton, they only think of Pfizer and EB. But having grown up here, I’m coming in from another view that this is southeastern Connecticut and we have the opportunity to make Groton something more than what it is. It shouldn’t be a parking lot for two large employers,” said White, who works in the finance group of a defense contractor and has a background in expense management.
White said she supports sustainable economic growth and wants to attract new residents and encourage small businesses to move to town.
“If you want people to live in Groton, make it a place where people can raise their families. My son is going through the Groton public school system, which I went through and we need to be able to share what we have, and just improve slightly — make little investments in our town to get us to that next level,” said White who grew up in Groton and attended Groton public schools.
She emphasized that being a town councilor is a public servant role that requires ensuring that the “community I live in will be a better community for the future generations.”
She said that the Republican candidates represented a diverse group that would represent Groton’s different communities.
“Diversity is more about being able to understand where other people are coming from — listen, and then make that choice of, ‘we can agree to agree, we can agree to disagree.’ And it’s being able to take the synergies of all of our diverse backgrounds and say, ‘Yes, we can work together, even though we may not necessarily agree on everything.’”