COLCHESTER — Democrats claimed that locals’ desire for “a return to civility” prompted their sweeping win of seats on the town’s Boards of Selectmen and Finance on Tuesday, with Democratic challenger Bernie Dennler III beating incumbent Republican Andreas Bisbikos in a nearly 2 to 1 margin.
Incumbent Democratic Selectwomen Rosemary Coyle and Denise Turner will return to the board, after receiving the highest number of votes, and are joined by the two top vote-getting Republicans, Art Shilosky and Clifton O’Donal.
Coyle told CT Examiner that she felt it was “very important” that the Democrats won overwhelmingly on Tuesday. She said a town needed to be run by compromise, good communication and listening to the citizens, and not by having a single person set the agenda — which is how she described the last two years.
“The past two years have been the most horrible experience of my career as a selectman in Colchester,” said Coyle.
Coyle told CT Examiner that local residents were badly treated during budget discussions earlier this year.
“People filled up the room at the Board of Finance meeting. They got insulted. They got ignored. They got told they didn’t know what they were talking about,” she said. “That’s not who we are as a town — it really isn’t. And I think the people spoke loud and clear. They wanted something different,” she said.
Dennler told CT Examiner that after knocking on thousands of doors since the spring, he knew it was possible for the Democrats to win the election. He said that people told him they wanted to see more focus on local issues and less on national politics.
“People feel that in recent years, people have kind of gone into their separate corners based on political party, and they wanted to see cooperation again … more about Colchester, less about whatever the issue of the week is that’s coming down from the national level and sort of taking the focus off of our local issues,” he said.
Dennler used an example of an incident in June 2022 where First Selectman Andreas Bisbikos requested the removal of a book from the children’s section of Cragin Memorial Library.
“It was really a distraction from a lot of the issues that were going on in town, and people found it was embarrassing for their community,” he said. “It’s not the kind of thing that they wanted the First Selectman to be wading into and making a political scene about.”
Among his priorities for office, Dennler said he wanted to “stabilize” town hall, which has seen a large amount of turnover in multiple departments, particularly the Finance Department, which he said has been struggling since longtime CFO Maggie Cosgrove left.
The Democrats also said they wanted a successful referendum for the Senior Center building project, which is scheduled for November 28.
“We need $900,000 more to finish the project. We’ve needed it since October of 2022. So it’s nothing really new,” said Coyle.
Dennler said he didn’t agree with the way the Bisbikos administration initially handled the project — he felt there should have been a referendum before construction began — but said the project now needed to move forward.
The Democrats also said they needed to complete yearly audits for the town’s finances, which are required by the state — Coyle noted that the town had yet to complete an audit for the 2021-22 Fiscal Year, and that they now needed to do an additional audit for the 2022-23 Fiscal Year.
Bisbikos said in a statement that he was grateful for the support he’d received in town and wished the new administration good luck.
“It has been an honor representing the Town of Colchester these last two years as First Selectman. My heart & soul was poured into the Town every day. Many projects and initiatives that came to fruition will have a positive impact for decades,” he wrote in an email.
Scott Chapman, a Democrat who won a seat on the Board of Finance, said he also wants to purchase transparency software that will make it easier for the town to see where money is being spent. He also talked about the need for collaboration between boards and engagement with the public.
“My personal goal … in service to the board of finance is making sure that we keep community engagement high, so that way we’re getting a broad scope of voices and not just a few voices,” he said.
Chapman has run a financial practice in Colchester for 18 years and recently retired from the Navy reserves.
He attributed the shift from Republican to Democrat, to the difficulty of getting things done through partisan politics.
“[The First Selectman]’s intentions, I’m sure, were well meaning, but ultimately his decision making and his temperament didn’t guide our community in the right direction, and the people spoke against it,” he said.
Karen Belding, who also won a seat on the Board of Finance, echoed Chapman’s comments about the need for transparency, and said that people needed to be able to trust the board members and feel confident when it came time for a referendum.
“One of the things that I myself was frustrated with, attending all of those budget meetings last year as a citizen, was it felt very hard to track a lot of what was being said,” she said, adding that numbers stated in one meeting would change in the next meeting.
“It just didn’t feel like things were put forward as clearly or as transparently as they could be to make you feel confidence in what was being discussed,” she said.
Belding, who has an MBA and leads project teams and manages budgets for an insurance company, said she’s been involved in the community for a number of years and decided to run for Board of Finance after becoming concerned about the way some of the budgets were handled.
In a phone call with CT Examiner, current Board of Finance Chair Andrea Migliaccio, a Republican, said the town did not have transparency software, which would have helped show the numbers more clearly, and that some documents were erroneously released to the public without her review.
She also said that she felt people in attendance at Board of Finance meetings “fanned the flames” in the meetings, and were part of the problem.
“They were always given the floor to make their comments. They came in with pitchforks … every third one saying the same thing and not listening to my response,” she said. “I’m sorry that somebody maybe feels that they weren’t heard. I don’t feel that I was heard.”
Migliaccio said that she and Bisbikos were always transparent about what was going on in the town, and that she believed sometimes people did not want to hear uncomfortable information.
Dennler said he is currently transitioning out of his job as the office manager for the First Selectman in Lebanon, and preparing to take office in Colchester on November 20.
Art Shilosky and Andrea Migliaccio did not respond to emailed requests for comment by the time of publication.
This story has been updated with comments by Andrea Migliaccio