GROTON — The local Republican Party is running five candidates for the Town Council, which currently has an 8-1 Democratic majority.
Scott Westervelt, the single Republican on the council, opted to run under the newly formed Groton Independents ticket. CT Examiner spoke with Susan Dean-Schinbrot, John Scott, Pantea Umrysz and Harry Watson about their priorities.
Thomas Frickman, who is also running for Town Council on the Republican slate, could not be reached for an interview.
CT Examiner: Is a lack of housing a problem in Groton, and what is the Town Council’s role in addressing it?
Susan Dean-Schinbrot: Yes, there is a lack of housing in Groton. I don’t know that we are going to be able to make the housing necessary in a timely enough manner to support Electric Boat. That is my number one concern. I’m very concerned that we put a tremendous amount of effort into getting housing built for the new hires at Electric Boat, and by the time we do it’s not necessary, and we’re stuck with a housing glut in the long term.
Most of the new hires are in the shipyard, and that’s a specific type of housing that has to be affordable — not affordable in what the state calls affordable, but affordable for those people. Having grown up here and lived here for 61 years, it comes and goes. And that’s a concern. I don’t want my grandchildren stuck with a bill I made. That being said, if we can get housing built quickly, I think it would be great. I’m not sure what the Town Council can do except to really push the town manager and Public Works.
John Scott: Groton has met and exceeded the affordable housing category [required by state law 8-30g], but we appear to need additional housing to accommodate the growth of Electric Boat. I’m in support of working with developers who want to create housing that will fit the needs of these young engineers coming to Groton to work at Electric Boat.
Pantea Umrysz: I definitely think housing is a problem. My husband and I own a side-by-side two-family, and I put it on Facebook to find a new tenant because our previous tenant bought a house. We had over 100 people message us, and it was just overwhelming. We had heard it was an issue, but you experience it firsthand.
I don’t know what the Town Council can do, but I know it is a problem and I think we need to start working toward some solutions of what we can do to help with that. We have two different boats. We have to take care of our residents, and we have to provide for the growth that’s happening at EB.
Harry Watson: We do need more housing. EB is expanding and hiring a bigger workforce. It would be nice for people to live in town who work in town, and not have to travel from wherever they might have to travel from.
The Town Council’s role is to advocate for it. We have Planning and Zoning, we have a Planning Department, and an economic development specialist to address those things. But it’s the Town Council’s role to advocate for what they think we need.
CT Examiner: Do you think the tension on the Town Council has gotten in the way of getting work done, and how can the council work through that?
Dean-Schinbrot: It’s gotten in the way, 100 percent. I know just being on the RTM it’s gotten divisive. And it’s easy for people to turn off mentally. I have friends that used to watch and stopped watching. I have friends that I thought I might be able to get involved in local politics, and they don’t want to. They say it’s nothing but a cat fight every time. And that’s sad. We need young people to get involved. We need older people to get involved. We need more people involved.
We shouldn’t be running around trying to find people to fill vacancies. There should be a list of people who want to fill them. Until you get the Town Council to be civil with each other, we’re stuck. We won’t go forward. You have to have a balance of opinion, and I think that comes from having Republicans and Democrats on the same board. Debate isn’t divisive. You have to be willing to hear the other person’s opinion.
Scott: It 100 percent has gotten in the way. It is an embarrassment to see the behavior of this, pretty much one-party controlled entity, and they can’t even get along with each other. It’s been a problem now for going on almost four years. And it’s got to stop.
I think we need to get some new people on the council. Hopefully the five Republicans that are on the slate will win some or all of those seats and change the dynamic of the council. They can’t keep going like this. It’s not productive. It’s not healthy.
Umrysz: I do. We’ve been present at a lot of Town Council meetings, and that’s part of the reason for wanting to run. It becomes more of a battle of egos, and it becomes a distraction. We’re arguing about each other rather than the topic. It just feels like there’s a lack of civility.
I feel I have a very diverse background, and the ability to just talk to people as a human and be kind is so important. You don’t have to agree, I think differences in opinions are good. But you need to be able to work through the issue and make sure it’s not about you, it’s about what’s in the best interest of the town.
Watson: I think they are spending a lot of time on not getting along, when they could be putting that time to good use. We’re all volunteers. If you spend an hour at every meeting bickering, you’re wasting time. It’s OK to disagree and debate, but not to the point where it’s taking up all your time. You should be doing good for the town.
CT Examiner: What do you think are the biggest challenges the town council will have to address in the coming years?
Dean-Schinbrot: I think we’re going to have to address the parking issue in Mystic. I think we’re still going to be addressing surplus property. I’m not sure that holding on to the properties is a good thing, but sometimes I think we need to because we come back and say we could really use this for something. When we built the library years ago, we used the old Bridge Drive-In property, and it worked very well in the center of town.
I would like to see the center of town develop. It’s important for a town to have a center and not be scattered. And I’d like to address in some form the blight of some of the shopping centers in Groton. If you look at the Aldi shopping center, it looks fabulous, and it attracts people because it looks nice. I’d like to see the owners of other commercial property put some effort into making them look better.
I think we’re going to develop a problem with the gap between a lot of senior citizens and young people. They’re going to have very different needs as time goes on, and I’m hoping we can address that.
Scott: I think we need to keep an eye on the town finances, that’s always a challenge. If we keep increasing the taxes, we’re going to make homes unaffordable for everybody. One of the challenges is that in the last revaluation, home values increased significantly, and taxes are increasing significantly because of it. I think that’s the challenge we really have to keep an eye on. If you look at town spending under Democratic control from 2019 through the current budget year, town spending has increased about 25 percent. That’s a huge number.
Umrysz: Housing, development and growth. How do you do that in a smart, strategic way? We have these developments that are starting to happen, but you have to be mindful of the residents and the environment. We have the growth in downtown Mystic. How do we protect our community, but still be able to capitalize on the tourism that’s happening and the small businesses?
A lot of these things are going to reformat the landscape. I’m not as familiar with what the council’s role is with schools, but I’m passionate about education and programs for kids, and making sure they’re prepared for whatever happens.
Watson: The budget is always a big one. In my opinion, we have to try to be as conservative as we can and keep the town running. Quality of life for all the residents is the most important thing. Our Parks and Rec division is taking on a lot, and that’s up there on the list as far as quality of life goes. We have a lot of open space, but you can always use more.
You want to be friendly to small businesses. There’s too many pieces of it to say them all. But the biggest issue is quality of life.