Editor’s Note: Today, CT Examiner profiles Wallingford Democratic mayoral candidate Riley O’Connell. CT Examiner will profile the town’s Republican mayoral candidate, Vincent Cervoni, later this week.
WALLINGFORD – Aiming to become the state’s youngest mayor, 27-year-old Democratic candidate Riley O’Connell says his campaign will highlight finances, infrastructure, education and term limits, even as some town residents continue to be wary of his youth.
O’Connell, a fifth-generation Wallingford resident and member of the U.S. Army Reserves, told CT Examiner on Tuesday he’s had queries on his age by many residents while door knocking.
“It’s certainly a question I get a lot,” said O’Connell, who is running against Republican Town Council Chair Vincent Cervoni in the general election. “Usually, the first thing I do is point out the fact that our current mayor [Republican William Dickinson Jr.] was about my age when he first was elected. There are many similarities there. He also never served in elected office before running for mayor. The bigger difference is that my whole career has been in the public sector and public service.”
Dickinson secured his 20th two-year mayoral term in 2021, beating O’Connell by less than 300 votes. Dickinson, who was in his early 30s when he first ran 40 years ago, announced in March that he wouldn’t be seeking another term.
In addition to being a member of the U.S. Army Reserves, O’Connell worked as an advisor and staffer on Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz’s last reelection campaign. He also spent three years as a paralegal specialist in the criminal investigations unit of the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. He graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine in 2018, where he majored in government legal studies and environmental studies.
O’Connell, who has raised more than $60,000 for his mayoral run, has been a proponent of term limits for mayor and other elected positions in Wallingford. If elected, he said he’d limit himself to serving no more than 12 years as mayor.
“I think it’s an important issue and should be for every elected position in town,” said O’Connell, who lives in Wallingford’s east side. “I’d fight as hard as I could to get term limits actually codified in our charter. … I think that, regardless of what side of the political aisle you fall on, that 99 percent of us agree that the lack of term limits at the national level is the cause of the majority of our problems.”
O’Connell also said he’d work to freeze the town’s mill rate – which currently stands at 29.34 – and approve a budget without a tax increase.
“The mayor’s office has proposed a tax increase for 18 years in a row, and that is not feasible for most taxpayers,” he said.
Asked about his plan to address town budgets and finances, O’Connell said, “It’s multifaceted. It all comes back to the lack of technology, the lack of modernization and how the town is actually run.”
“In almost every budget, we are consistently overestimating expenditures and underestimating revenues. It creates an artificial surplus,” he said. “The budget needs to be balanced more honestly. It’s not about cutting services; we’ve had an antiquated perspective on how things have worked in the town.”
O’Connell pointed to the town’s $30 million Rainy Day Fund. While he said it’s encouraging to have that much money available, there are also downsides.
“We have added over $3 million [to the fund] in the last three years when people needed that money in their pockets more than ever,” he said. “In some ways, it can also be [a negative], because we, by state statute, cannot invest that money. It just sits there and loses value with each year.”
O’Connell said he admires Dickinson’s four decades of public service, but noted the town has used many of the same contractors and companies, which is bad for competition.
“It’s the consequences of having the same administration for 40 years now,” he said. “We have many contracts that have not gone out for bid for decades. So there is a lack of competition, essentially, in terms of getting the highest quality of work in return for these contracts.”
One example, O’Connell said, is the town’s pension fund.
“We need to go out to bid for a new contract for a fund manager or a third party for the pension fund,” he said.
Another hot-button issue in town is whether to consolidate Wallingford’s two high schools. The school board would ultimately make that decision but, O’Connell said, he’d be strongly against consolidation. There are currently 13 elementary, middle and high schools in Wallingford, which has a population of about 44,400.
“I have a concern with what’s happened in the past in that Wallingford has closed down schools because of population decline, or projected population decline and then, 10 or 15 years later, had to pay tons of money to bring those schools back,” O’Connell said.
He also warned that consolidating the two high schools could result in increased class size and limited resources for students.
O’Connell, whose mother and several relatives are teachers, said the town’s infrastructure, including many of the schools, must be updated and refurbished.
“They are in terrible shape,” said O’Connell, whose campaign platform includes a 15-year infrastructure plan.
He also said the Town Hall building is in need of major improvements, something he would prioritize if elected.
“You have problems with the roof, you have problems with water leaking through the building and water damage, and you have ceiling tiles falling off,” O’Connell said. “You have pretty much degradation in every way, shape and form. In addition, there is also a lack of modern technology almost everywhere in Town Hall. There are only a handful of computers, despite the dozens of town employees that work there.”
The key difference between himself and his Republican opponent, O’Connell said, comes down to planning.
“I’ve made it clear that we’ve had a plan from Day 1,” said O’Connell, who announced his candidacy for mayor in the summer of 2022. “I’ve had a website up with my whole platform laid out in detail for some time now. It’s not just about the things I want to accomplish, but, specifically, detailed ways of how we are going to accomplish those things.”
Comparatively, Cervoni just recently released a detailed plan for the town, according to O’Connell.
“The lack of a plan is the biggest thing, and I think the other is judgment,” he added. “My opponent has been on the council [for 13 years] and has voted lockstep with the mayor,” particularly on budgets that include tax hikes.