EAST LYME – Deputy Selectman Anne Santoro is running for first selectman to change how East Lyme controls its finances, saying her experience as a municipal attorney and Board of Finance member has prepared her to manage the town’s long-term planning while handling day-to-day responsibilities.
Santoro will face Democratic candidate and Selectman Dan Cunningham in the race to replace Republican Kevin Seery, who is stepping down after one term. Santoro recently told CT Examiner that her sense of community and concern for others was instilled in her from watching her father.
As an immigrant from Italy, she said he was always trying to help others in the community find work or assist with other problems.
“There would be a knock on the door and a neighbor would say, ‘Larry, can you help us with this?’” Santoro said. “So I was just used to that.”
Santoro said that deep-rooted concern for others will help her understand the issues faced by East Lyme residents as she works to increase communication between Town Hall and residents. And with a background in municipal law and procurement, Santoro said her experience lends itself to managing the town budget.
Santoro was involved in the budget process as a town attorney in Greenwich and Milford, and has worked as a procurement lawyer for the Smithsonian.
She spent four years on East Lyme’s finance board, and said she was especially proud of her work on the town’s procurement policy.
Even with East Lyme’s “reasonable” mill rate, she said, residents are still concerned about their taxes amid inflation. And taxes could “explode” if the town tries to undertake several projects at once, she added.
“People have enough burdens — the price of gas, price of food, price of home heating oil. Folks and any business will tell you, we’re all subject to the same downward pressure,” Santoro said. “So it’s all the more reason to be trying to plan ahead, because there’s always uncertainty. At least if you have a roadmap, you might have a way of getting there.”
Santoro said one of her initiatives would be to set up a committee that “investigates and evaluates” all of the town’s buildings and assets, so East Lyme knows the state of its properties and can start planning capital projects more accurately.
“The state requires us to have some kind of a longer-range capital plan, which is great but it isn’t detailed enough,” she said. “And we kind of move those dates because we have to put out a fire and move a capital project to another year. To me, that is short-sighted in the long run.”
Better planning would also mean better cooperation with the school board, she said, noting she would start speaking with the district’s finance director earlier in the budget process.
“If you do that long-range planning, you have a sense of maybe the town has a big project this year so it’s a bad year for the schools to have a big initiative, or this is a year where the town has wiggle room so it’s probably a good year for that initiative,” Santoro said.
She also said the town needs to move away from the “gimmicky” practice where departments present high budgets and then cut throughout the process.
“We do this wrangling in a relatively civilized way, but it seems to me it misses the point,” Santoro said. “The point is we should have had realistic numbers months before. And it doesn’t mean they can’t think about initiatives that maybe they can’t do this year, but I want to work on that.”
She also wants to hire a grant writer to help bring in revenue for the town.
Santoro remarked on the positive changes she’s seen in East Lyme over her 34-year residency, noting the introduction of retail stores and restaurants that were previously absent. While there may be debates about overdevelopment in certain areas, she said the town has effectively managed its growth.
She said she doesn’t want “overgrowth,” but to keep the town vibrant.
“East Lyme never became the seaside tourist town like Mystic, and it’s maintained an intrinsic style that I think will remain,” Santoro said. “It’s going through changes, but at the core it’s really a hometown.”
She commended the town’s successful track record in preserving open space for both conservation and recreational purposes, and praised the practice of mandating that developers allocate open space within their projects.
Even more substantial was the major purchase of land for open space, she said, pointing to a referendum last week where nearly 90 percent of votes favored bonding $1.75 million and spending $200,000 from the town open space fund to buy 255 acres from the East Lyme Land Trust.
Santoro acknowledged the purchase was a “tremendous effort,” but that the town must be cautious not to take on too much debt.
Planning for future purchases — especially identifying parcels that are most likely to be developed and interfere with aquifers or conservation goals — is an important first step to conserving land more efficiently, she said.
Santoro said she wants to bolster East Lyme’s open space account and not rely so heavily on bonding. She suggested the town move more money into the account each year and set it up for private contributions as well.
“It cannot just be our small contribution every year, but there might be ways of us directing certain funding in there so we don’t find ourselves without money to purchase, say a million dollar property,” she said.
Besides open space, the first selectman and Board of Selectman have little oversight of development, which is guided by the Planning and Zoning commissions and the town Land Use office. But Santoro said they can work more closely together.
“I think the selectmen need to generate their own opinions, or give opinions as a board on some of the ways you can adjust zoning regulations,” she said.
Santoro said her experience makes her especially qualified to handle important issues facing East Lyme residents.
As deputy selectman under Seery, Santoro was part of the town’s regular emergency management drills and walked through the procedures for responding to a disaster. She also has experience stewarding town projects, she said, including serving on the vision committee for the new public safety complex, which encountered financing issues after costs escalated above the $5 million voters originally approved to bond for it.
“Even though it got off to a rocky start, I knew it was the right choice,” Santoro said. “I can’t imagine now in the year 2023 building a police and emergency center in today’s dollars.”
Santoro also emphasized her negotiating skills from her time as a town attorney and working on large-scale contracts for the Smithsonian.
“You have to bring a lot of realism to the table,” Santoro said. “I do not believe in puffing and faking it. You negotiate from a position of strength, but I’m not going to make things up to get my way. I don’t scare people, I think I’m receptive and I’ll listen to you. I’m very confident in my experience.”
Santoro said she doesn’t seek the spotlight, but enjoys meeting with East Lyme residents and hearing what they have to say. She said the local government can do more to get people involved in town issues by finding better ways to directly communicate, making information more easily available on the town website, and being more proactive in holding informational forums for major topics.
Residents also need to be more engaged on town issues, Santoro said, even when they don’t impact them directly.
“You need to get the pulse of the public, because in the end we represent the people,” Santoro said. “This is not a kingdom where we go and do our white paper thinking. We need to be in touch.”
Editor’s note: Santoro was an attorney with the Town of Milford, not Hamden.