From tax abatements to tax delinquency and from the Whale Tail to ethics inquiries, the questions at the final mayoral debate covered both broad issues and matters related to individual candidates.
The debate, hosted by the League of Women Voters of Southeastern Connecticut and , took place on Tuesday evening at . In the race for mayor are Democratic candidate ; Republican candidate ; unaffiliated candidates , , and ; and write-in candidate .
“This is their last, best shot to get their ideas in front of you before a decision is made next week,” said Gary Farrugia, publisher of The Day.
Supporters of each candidate greeted vehicles arriving at the school with campaign signs and materials. Paul Choiniere, editorial page editor at The Day, posed the questions to alternating pairs of candidates. The first candidate had a minute to answer, the second candidate 90 seconds, and the first candidate another 30 seconds to respond. Each candidate also had three 30-second rebuttals that could be used during the exchange or to add a response to a question outside their pairing.
The following is a summary of the questions as well as the statements and answers given by the candidates at the debate:
Olsen, the oldest candidate at age 57, joked that he wouldn’t take advantage of his opponents’ “youth and inexperience.” He also referenced Finizio’s “A Vision For New London” plan, commenting, “I’m not going to write a 40-page tome to tell you my thoughts about New London. I grew up here.”
Pero said he is an experienced leader who can bring stability to New London. He said in his time on the City Council he has helped with a home ownership program and reducing taxes, as well as transparency efforts such as putting expenditures online. “As your mayor, one of my first acts will be to provide a budget to the City Council,” he said. “It will not have a tax increase in it.”
Buscetto asked voters to not consider him a long shot and described himself as the most viable candidate for bringing New London to prosperity. “It’s a serious time for New London,” he said. “For the first time in 100 years you get to choose who will lead this city for the next four years.”
Hopkins-Cavanagh said immediate change is needed in New London, and that she has the business and marketing experience as well as a comprehensive plan needed for the job. “I was born here in 1960 and I watched my city decline…I cannot bury my head in the sand and I’m asking you to please consider my four-year plan for mayor,” she said.
Finizio said that in order for change to come to the city, the municipal government needs to change its policy priorities. He said this was the reason for putting together a plan as well as visiting neighborhoods and holding forums for public input. “I believe that getting a good person in this office is only half the battle,” he said. “Having a clear sense of where we’re going is equally as important.”
Lockwood said he realized he needed to be an advocate for the city’s youth after a girl in asked him, “Sir, are you going to help us save this park?” He encouraged the audience to vote against selling a portion of the park to the .
What have you done to address educational reform (Olsen and Pero)
“I am actively looking outside the box,” said Olsen. He said any expectation by the to get new results from the same budgets and programs is the “basic definition of insanity.” Olsen said he has looked to the Harlem Children’s Zone as a model for New London and brought it up with the superintendent and Board of Education.
Pero said that while he was ceremonial mayor on the City Council, he worked to ensure savings that could benefit the schools. He said he also supported combining the financial and legal functions of the city and schools, expanding after-school programs, and focusing on pre-kindergarten education. “I also believe we need to bring teachers back into the discussion…we need to get rid of the thousand dollar a day consultants,” he said.
Olsen criticized joint Board of Education and City Council meetings held under Pero’s term, saying they were “contentious, counterproductive, and quite frankly we didn’t get much done.” He said he has worked as an advocate for the schools, most recently with the Rising Star program of the .
In rebuttals, Hopkins-Cavanagh said she would create a combined downtown municipal campus to bring the mayor and superintendent into the same building. “It really is a special relationship that is somewhat dysfunctional in this city.” Lockwood said he would ask the City Council and Board of Education to work with him, and to ensure that the superintendent works for the Board of Education rather than vice versa. “The truth is we haven’t done enough in our community,” he said.
Is the best way to address youth violence bringing in more police or youth programs? (Buscetto and Hopkins-Cavanagh)
Buscetto said the , which he chaired, was formed to address the topic. He said some of its recommendations are already in place, including jobs for teens at the . He said the city needs to be sure it is focusing on successful programs. “We can’t fund everything,” he said.
Hopkins-Cavanagh said the root cause of the problem is a high percentage of rental property in New London. She said there is a need to stabilize neighborhoods by increasing the number of owner-occupied homes. “Unfortunately, because of the transient population in the city these children are growing up next to drug dealers, sex offenders,” she said.
Buscetto said safe, walkable neighborhoods have been one of his main goals. He said the issue is related to education and economic development, and that there is a need to ensure pre-kindergarten education is available to the city’s children.
In rebuttals, Pero said he has proposed increasing the number of police officers in New London over five years and advocated for a central community center. Olsen said he has been working on the community center idea with Councilor Michael Passero.
Will a dissolution of the mean more money will be spent on economic development, and who will do that job if the organization goes away?
Finizio said he did not agree with putting rental units in at Fort Trumbull, as is being . He said he felt the development was an attempt by NLDC to “show a victory,” and that the establishment of a green, sustainable neighborhood would be a good route to take. “It will be no more expensive than the expenses we have already borne after a decade of failure from NLDC,” he said of his proposal to dissolve the organization. He described the Supreme Court decision on eminent domain as a black mark on the city, and that removing NLDC will signify that New London is controlling its own future.
Lockwood, who has also advocated for the dissolution of NLDC, said he had similar ideas. He said he believes there are capable people in New London to guide Fort Trumbull’s future. “I think we’re better off managing our own community,” he said.
In rebuttals, Olsen said that NLDC “deserves much of [Finizio’s] scorn” but that Finizio’s stance would continue to set back development at the peninsula. Hopkins-Cavanagh said NLDC is illegally holding deeds to Fort Trumbull policy, but criticized a green neighborhood as infeasible in the short term.
Pero also used a rebuttal, saying Finizio has changed his position on both NLDC and abatements for the townhouse project. “He changes positions too many times to get votes in the community,” he said. Finizio responded that he considered abatements a usable tool, but not in the Fort Trumbull development. He said his stance on NLDC also changed as a result of issues with the project, and that the mayor must be willing to change his positions if circumstances warrant it. “Rob, I wish in 2004 or 2005 you had seen what a failure this was and changed your mind too,” he said.
Olsen dismissed a and a homeless man as unimportant, but was it an indicator of serious problem? (Olsen and Buscetto)
Olsen said there is a need to seek more cooperation and financial support from surrounding communities in addressing homelessness, but that there is a cooperative effort among several partners on the issue. “We have pinpointed a small handful of people who are creating the bulk of the problems and getting them the help they need,” he said. Olsen said he also would not advocate such measures as shipping the homeless out of the city, a reference to Buscetto’s idea to .
Buscetto said he felt the Whale Tail incident had been “exploited” for political gain. “Somehow I was accused of blowing up the incident,” he said. I didn’t understand that.” Buscetto said New London cannot shoulder the responsibility for every social service, and that over 700 homeless people came to New London in 2010 with most from outside the city. “If Mr. Olsen wants to add to that total, I’m in disagreement with that,” he said. If someone else wants to, I disagree.”
In his response, Olsen said he thought it was a “travesty” that children are no longer allowed to play under the fountain, and that “in a little act of civil disobedience” he had cooled off there. Buscetto rebutted that he felt it was “irresponsible” for Olsen to advocate such an action. “I would never let your children or your grandchildren to run under that fountain in the condition it was in,” he said.
Now that the City Council has to the Stillmans in the townhouse project, will future developers now expect such tax breaks as well? (Pero and Hopkins-Cavanagh)
Pero said he considered the deal made with River Bank Construction to be similar to one made with , and said that these condos added $60,000 in tax revenue to the city last year. He said the townhouses will also be able to produce revenue. “To me it’s about the individual proposal,” he said.
Hopkins-Cavanagh said she has the expertise to market Fort Trumbull and support development concepts there. She said apartments are not the proper development for the site. “Obviously they have to give it away for someone to actually build it,” she said.
Pero replied that tax revenue is needed for New London to be competitive. “I took the right route because this is going to add tax revenue to the city, and disposable income,” he said.
In a rebuttal, Lockwood said he felt there would not be significant added value for the abatement granted. “If they think they can get them, anyone who asks for one is going to get one,” he said.
If records show that Lockwood owes approximately $37,500 in delinquent taxes, how can he take an adequate role in municipal taxes? (Lockwood and Olsen)
Lockwood said the taxes are a result of an improper assessment on property he owns, and that he brought the issue up to Olsen but was rebuffed by him and other city officials. He said the matter led him to challenge the assessment in court, and that such improper assessments are common but often not brought up if people cannot afford legal representation. “If I don’t fight for my rights, how can I fight for your rights?” Lockwood asked.
Olsen replied, “All my taxes and water bills are paid in full.”
“Congratulations,” Lockwood responded. “I just wish he would admit that he does know about this problem.”
Will Buscetto make public the result of the against him, and what qualities will he seek in a police chief if he needs to hire one? (Buscetto and Finizio)
Buscetto said the Board of Ethics is beginning its proceedings tomorrow and that he has waived the right of confidentiality so that the issues can be made public. “I will fight that all the way,” he said. “It’s frivolous, vindictive, in a timely fashion.” Buscetto also commented, “This secret negotiation was initiated by the chief [Margaret Ackley]. This was her exit strategy, not mine.”
Finizio said the charges brought against Ackley by Buscetto are “serious,” but that Buscetto has a right to defend himself and that people should withhold judgment until a finding is made. He said he will ask Ackley to stay on as chief if he is elected, and will conduct a “merit-based non-political national search” if she declines.
Buscetto replied that was negotiated in secret and “unacceptable.” He further referenced the agreement by saying he will not advocate that a new police chief have a pension increase, shared health care costs with the city after retirement, and a “self-authorized $200,000 in overtime.”
What action will you take if voters approve the sale of a portion of Riverside Park to the Coast Guard Academy? (Lockwood and Pero)
Lockwood said he believes a political action committee opposed to the sale will file a lawsuit if the sale is approved, and that the city must be prepared for that. He also said the City Council could have stopped discussions on the sale after receiving a petition opposing it. “From day one, even when I was running for state rep, I listened to the people in that community and they wanted to save the park,” he said.
Pero said he felt it was important to get public input on the question, that selling approximately half of the park to the academy was a good compromise, and that voters will ultimately decide the matter. “I wouldn’t just vote on one issue alone, because you’re going to have to live with someone for four years,” Pero said. The construction of a simulator on the property will also bring more visitors to the city, he said.
In rebuttals, Olsen said he has been working to develop playscapes, grills, and picnic tables at the park to attract visitors. Buscetto responded that these features could also be added to the remaining acreage after a sale, and that the money from the sale could be used to revitalize the park.
Hopkins-Cavanagh’s plan calls for zoning changes to prevent any new apartment complexes in the city; what is the reason for this initiative, and could it inhibit development? (Hopkins-Cavanagh and Olsen)
Hopkins-Cavanagh said apartments do not create stable communities. She said the city used to have more stable housing, and that it became degraded after more properties came to be owned by absentee landlords. “Now it’s become a business for outside landlords, and that’s where we’re getting our drugs and that’s where we’re getting our crime,” she said. Hopkins-Cavanagh said she would support initiatives to help people become homeowners, and that increasing the percentage of owner-occupied housing in New London will also lead to improved education and reduced crime.
Olsen said the educational system is a more important factor in bringing people into New London to live and start businesses. “The primary issue that’s going to be a draw to our community is our schools,” he said. “And as long as our schools are scraping the bottom, it makes it extraordinarily difficult to address that goal.”
Pero said in a rebuttal that he has been successful in helping people become homeowners through New Home New London, and that he has pledged to continue the program for at least two years.
Finizio has said his revitalization vision is a 10-20 year plan; given his changes in address and political parties, can he be expected to follow through? (Finizio and Pero)
Finizio said he has been consistently progressive, and that most of the political party changes were done in accordance with Rhode Island law to participate in primaries there. He said he also had to move at times to pursue his education. “NYU doesn’t come to Westerly or New London,” he said. Finizio said he has become more experienced as a result of his education, work, and political service elsewhere and that he is now married and settled into a permanent home in New London.
“I just believe you’re untried, you’re untested, and from what I’ve seen you’re a little unpredictable,” Pero responded. He said he felt a land value tax assessment supported by Finizio would penalize property owners for not building out to lot size, and that he has the budget experience to assist a new finance director in next year’s budget. Pero also criticized Finizio’s as “sloppy,” saying he believed it indicates Finizio would not be able to manage a municipal budget.
Finizio accused Pero of “trying to make a huge political issue” out of a clerical error by a campaign volunteer. He said the finance issue has been resolved, and criticized Pero for his earlier support of eminent domain as well as a Riverside Park sale.
“We know what a Rob Pero mayoralty would look like and that is why I have reached the decision that it is time for new leadership for New London,” he said.
Would you support establishing a youth center in New London? (Lockwood and Hopkins-Cavanagh)
Lockwood said it would be good to have tutoring programs as well as a place for children to go after school, but that he would be glad to meet with the city’s youth to hear their thoughts. “The way to find out what the youth need is to go talk to them. I’m proud that our youth are here tonight,” he said.
Hopkins-Cavanagh said her four-year plan includes establishing a consolidated municipal campus as well as a new , with a visitors center to be established in the current building. “Unfortunately, a community center is not what I would do in the first four years as mayor,” she said.
In a rebuttal, Buscetto said the city’s youth would always have a voice if he were elected mayor. He cited his recent selection to receive the recognized his work as a youth coach. “To understand the youth you have to know the youth,” he said. “And furthermore you need to support the youth.”
Pero has pledged not to raise property taxes in his first two years as mayor; is there any contingency for an unexpected occurrence, such as a cut to municipal aid, or is it an ironclad promise? (Pero and Buscetto)
“My commitment to keeping New London affordable is one of the centerpieces of drawing people here,” said Pero. He said expenditures can be reduced $2 million through debt reduction, a wellness program for municipal employees, and other measures. Pero said these savings can go toward downtown reinvestment, but serve as a contingency if needed. He said he also made the promise to keep taxes level two years ago and kept it.
Buscetto said Pero has given himself and Councilor Adam Sprecace credit for several initiatives that were a result of larger City Council actions. “I must tell you we did it together," he said. "Because as you know in New London it takes four votes." Buscetto said that he would continue program review to cut unproductive programs, and that he has the business experience to handle budgets.
Pero said successful budget measures that he has overseen include self-insurance and a reduction in workers’ compensation. He said the city’s new finance director has only been in the job for four months and will need someone with experience to assist him in the next budget. “You want somebody who understands this budget,” said Pero. “I understand it better than anyone.”
Lockwood, in a rebuttal, said the city needs to find proactive ways to be sustainable. “Hartford scares me when they say they won’t cut aid to the municipalities,” he said.
What would your role be in improving student performance? (Finizio and Olsen)
Finizio said that as an ex-officio member of the Board of Education, the mayor’s main role will be advocacy efforts and ensuring an efficient budget and innovative approaches. He said the mayor should also ensure that the city bonds to fix at the high school so the district does not lose federal funds. “I would suggest that we need to look at mentoring programs, not just for students but for parents,” said Finizio.
Olsen said he has personally been a mentor at for several years. “I think the mayor is the one who is going to be moving public opinion and helping to shape public policy,” he said.
Finizio also said New London Public Schools are being compared to districts with different demographics, and that there is a need to evaluate teachers and measure performance based on student achievement. “We need to get away from blanket test scoring as a means of evaluation,” he said.
How would you work to expand the city’s tax base? (Buscetto and Lockwood)
Buscetto said his business experience will allow him to better communicate with potential developers. Buscetto said he would also look to see what New London is missing and fill those niches, and take a proactive approach toward spaces that may become vacant such as . He said there is a need to address currently destitute properties such as Edgerton School and the Lighthouse Inn as a means of self-investment. “As your mayor, I will advocate for these incremental improvements to the city,” he said.
“Actually, I’ve been out already doing that,” said Lockwood. He said he has been having discussions with developers about bringing in businesses such as a hotel, grocery store, and outlet stores and will continue to do so even if he is not elected.
Can Hopkins-Cavanagh explain her strong opposition to the land value tax method of assessment, and how would you encourage development of vacant space in downtown? (Hopkins-Cavanagh and Finizio)
Hopkins-Cavanagh said one of her main priorities is improving the assessor’s office and making a more fair system of taxation. She described land value tax as “eminent domain by levy” and said it would be more widely supported by businesses if it was a successful initiative. Hopkins-Cavanagh also criticized Finizio, accusing him of not paying taxes or purchasing property in the city. “He’s never really done much of anything in his career,” she said.
Finizio denied the accusations, saying his house is in his partner’s name, that he has run his own legal business for six years, and that he has worked for the New York City Council as well as the private sector. Finizio said land value tax is not a perfect system, but that there are numerous examples where it has been successful in revitalization. “We have to try something different,” he said. “We have been trying the same thing in downtown New London for decades and it hasn’t worked.”
Both Finizio and Hopkins-Cavanagh had two rebuttals remaining in this last question, and Finizio used his to urge people to vote against the Riverside Park sale. He said the question is as important or more important than the mayoral race. Hopkins-Cavanagh, who also opposes the sale, said she is the only person who has offered an alternative to the sale by suggesting the academy expand to property currently owned by the .
Lockwood said that he has been criticized as having no plan for the city, but that he has been listening to what people are advocating. He said he has not been seeking donations for his campaign and that the City Council has made missteps in its stances on Riverside Park, tax abatements, and NLDC. “Our children are our future and it’s about time we started doing something for them,” he said.
Finizio said public access television host Murray Renshaw warned him that he would be encountering rough politics during the race, but that he was willing to weather it and pursue a campaign against long odds. “I believe that New London needs an alternative,” he said. “We need a choice for real new positive progressive leadership for our city.”
Hopkins-Cavanagh said she has started two companies and offered solutions in her platform. “I am not a career politician. I will not leave the office. I have no desires to go to a higher level in politics,” she said.
Buscetto said he has been acknowledged as a leader through the leadership award as well as the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut. He also accused Finizio of engaging in . “Over the next four years I believe you’re looking for results and not rhetoric,” he said.
Pero said no candidate is likely to win a majority, and that the winner should be someone who had the ability to bring people together. He said New London’s mayor will have to be ready to submit a budget in December. “On day one I will be ready to lead,” he said.
Olsen told the audience that the question of the mayor’s chief administrative officer has not been raised at any of the debates, and promised that he would vet his choice through the city’s personnel office. He said he also appreciated the enthusiasm for the community and candidates shown at the debate. “Let’s have a civil community here,” he said. “This is important.”