OLD LYME —Looking ahead to her term as first selectman, Martha Shoemaker emphasized the goals of resolving the issue of sewers, creating efficiencies in town government and addressing business development.
“I look back and Tim [Griswold] said four years ago, let’s talk about sewers – and sewers are still a topic,” Shoemaker told CT Examiner on Tuesday morning at her office in Town Hall.
She said her administration will focus on working with the town Water Pollution Control Authority and the private beach associations to either bring the project forward or to stop pursuing it. In 2023, the town received a $15 million “forgivable loan” from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, but with the price of the project continuing to increase, it’s unclear whether the loan will cover the town’s cost.
“I really feel that we have to get some closure on this one way or the other. And that’s going to be my goal. We need to get closure on this. We’ve got the help of the state now. We’ve got help of other elected officials at the higher levels. And we need to button it all up one way or the other.”
Shoemaker said that in two years her goal was to clarify the status of the project.
“I’m not saying pipes are going to be in, I’m saying we’re going to know which direction we’re going.”
Shoemaker said that she and the town’s new finance director, Anita Mancini, who started in August, are focused on how to improve the budgeting process to be more efficient, less time-consuming and more informative to the public.
On Jan. 16 and 30, Shoemaker and Selectmen Jude Read and Jim Lampos will meet with town department chairs as they present their budgets for salaries, benefits, capital items, and other needs.
“I believe that it’s a good idea for us to hear them as the Board of Selectmen, and then review them and then we make our recommendation to the Board of Finance,” she said.
She said that she will request “specialist” members of the Board of Finance to attend the departments’ presentations because “it would mean more ears listening to the same amount of data,” which will increase efficiency.
She said that she has asked all of her managers to plan to attend the Board of Finance the night their budget is presented to answer questions.
“If another finance member has a question and I don’t know the answer to it or Anita doesn’t know the answer to it, they push it off to another meeting. But that slows the Board of Finance down and I want to make the best use of their time. These are elected officials, but they’re volunteers and so we want to make the best use of their time, too, so let’s try to be as efficient as possible.”
Accessible town meetings
Promised as a priority during her campaign, technology for live streaming and video recording of all town meetings is being set up, Shoemaker said.
“We’re looking into using Microsoft Teams because many municipalities and state governments are using that,” she said, “We are already connected to Microsoft 365 so we have it on some things.”
She said that RiverCOG is assisting with resources and workarounds for license attachments.
Shoemaker said that when new town boards are formally sworn in on Jan. 16, there will be a technology training on how to run their meetings on Microsoft Teams as well as a “run-through” of board and commission responsibilities.
“They all hear the same thing at the same time. If they have questions, we’ll have to work through them but at least if we give a good training, then we should save some time,” she said.
Shoemaker has been a member of Region 18 Board of Education for two terms and was elected as a selectman in 2021, serving a two-year term.
Asked how serving as first selectman may change her balance of responsibilities, Shoemaker said her past roles have provided ample training.
“I don’t see it much different than the last few years because I’ve done it already for two years. I know that this job has more responsibility than a selectman position, but I think I took my selectman position pretty seriously – and I will do everything in my power to do both jobs correctly,” she said.
She said that when she was a school teacher – for 33 years in the Waterford Public Schools – she also served in the AFT union, while filling a number of other roles simultaneously.
“I held a lot of hats when I was a school teacher… I did a lot of meetings [with] AFT Connecticut. I was an executive vice president, as well as doing my union duties. Mom, wife, bus driver for your kids.. I did all that. Plus, I took care of my elderly parents. So I’ve had multiple tasks before. This is much smaller. Plus education is in my blood.”
Shoemaker was most recently a purchasing agent for a FiberQ in Old Lyme and resigned from her position in August to focus on her campaign for First Selectman.
When asked about development, Shoemaker focused on Shore Road near the beaches, calling the area “one of our huge assets” that should be “developed properly.”
“There’s people that live over there that would love to see something beautiful happen and what it is, will still need to be determined,” she said.
She said that when she and her family moved to Old Lyme – on New Year’s Eve 1996 – Cherrystones was open and there were small businesses in the two-story building at 230 Shore Road, including a breakfast place and a video store.
“We utilized that a lot with our young kids. We’d go to breakfast. We went for Friday night video rental. And it’s got a beautiful parking lot already there. I mean, what can happen there?”
She said that the Shoreline Gateway Committee, which published a community survey in July about the future of the area, wanted to talk to business owners along Shore Road.
“[It’s] to say, what can we do? What would you like to see? I know many of them participated in the survey, but we need their help, too. We need more of their input.”
Shoemaker said it was important to talk with owners of the closed businesses that appeared blighted along Shore Road, and to ask what they can do to keep the outside of their buildings looking decent, and what’s stopping them from moving forward.
“Have some of those owners approached zoning and were told that’s not going to work? What can we do to help them? That’s our goal – what can we do to help them with that property and move forward?”
Shoemaker said that the Hallmark Drive In was a good example of an owner revitalizing a business.
“Look at how vibrant Hallmark became this year. I mean, what Julia did to change that. And every single time I went by, it was packed… After working there for years, she went in, did a complete clean up, repaint, made it look vibrant again from the outside, attractive to people who were driving by.”
Plus, Shoemaker said, the employees were friendly, welcoming to the community and helpful to tourists, providing “great customer service.”
“What did she do? She took something and revitalized it. And we can revitalize other things as well,” Shoemaker said.
Sidewalks along Halls Road “are a must as far as safety,” Shoemaker said. “I love the idea of the bow bridge being part of that sidewalk system. I’ve seen pictures of the historical one and I think it would be nice to replace it and have it back. And I know that it’s going to take a lot of fundraising, grants, etc. to do but where there’s a will there’s a way.”
As far as the proposal for the Halls Road Overlay District, which was defeated by one vote in March, and will likely be resubmitted with a number of changes including the addition of affordable housing, Shoemaker said she hadn’t seen the updated version of the proposal.
She said she believed that “something should be done” because otherwise the town will continue to be limited by its current zoning regulations along Halls Road.
“We have to look to the future, and everything that gets applied for under that overlay goes through zoning again. So the overlay is just saying you have permission, you have the option, to provide us with a plan, but it doesn’t say they’re going to let them do it,” she said. “It’s still going to go through a critical review.”
She said the town should start adding specific visual requirements for development.
“How do you want buildings to look? I know there are other area ZEOs that literally will [say], ‘Okay, we’d love to have you here, but we want the outside of the building to look like this.’ I think we have to tell them that. This is what we want our town to look like,” she said. “Put some rules in place. If you don’t want a plastic fence and you only want a wood fence, then tell them that this is the only way we’re going to do it. Be specific.”
Shoemaker said that in her training as a mediator and negotiator, she had learned that listening to people is a priority.
“Everyone’s going to have a different viewpoint or something to add, and every single person in this town is valuable. And I will listen, I can’t promise that I’m going to agree with what you have to say, but I will listen to you. And I will do my best every single day for the people in this community and try my hardest,” she said.
She said she had updated the look and content of the First Selectman’s weekly newsletter to include her weekly activities and the happenings in town hall – and encouraged residents to sign up.
Shoemaker said she had just finished three intensive days of Traffic Authority training.
“I learned a lot about signs and reflectometry. And what you have the authority to do on a town road and what you don’t, and when you have to call DOT. And all the different kinds of things that you can borrow from the state, like a library, to try things out,” she said. “You constantly learn something new that’s available to us.”
She said that resources – some free, some at reduced cost – are available to the town as a member of RiverCOG and the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.
“We have to look at those because we have to try to be as fiscally responsible as ever, in these trying times – inflation is going up and we have to try to keep our costs down.
But also staying efficient because sometimes it’s not efficient to keep an old copier just because it’s free or whatever… you gotta look and see what our cost is going to be to replace it if we have to. So just to be as conscious as ever of what this town wants and needs – and be nice to each other.”
Shoemaker commented that her party affiliation as a Democrat had no bearing on her service as First Selectman.
“I said this in my campaign – when you are elected into an office like this, you shouldn’t play party lines. It’s an apolitical job. I don’t ask what your political affiliation is when you walk into my office. I’m just here to help you if I can. And that’s the way I see it – I’m working for the residents of this town. I’m not working for one party or another,” she said. “My hope is that we can come together a little and work together in a more friendly and harmonious way.”