An unusually low-key, socially-distanced campaign is coming to an end when Woodbridge residents elect their local leadership in the municipal election on Monday, May 3.
First Selectman Beth Heller, a Democrat who is running unopposed, is seeking re-election to a third term. She has successfully steered the ship through a pandemic, closing public buildings early and switching to virtual platforms to continue the administrative duties of Town Hall offices.
“We had to be flexible – we had to change,” she said in a phone conversation last week, adding the change didn’t come easy to her, in particular since she missed personal interactions with constituents. But she credits the crew at Town Hall for stepping up to continue public services as needed. “Everyone stepped up and did the right thing,” she said. Municipal offices have since re-opened to the public, but the traffic in Town Hall was light, she said, since people got used to getting their business done online or by phone.
Outreach during the campaign came down to Zoom meetings hosted by the respective town committees and working the phones. Even headquarters were scrapped under the circumstances. “Our networks were really important this time around,” said Sheila McCreven, a running-mate of Heller’s for the Board of Selectmen. “But we will have our tents [outside the polls] on Election Day,” McCreven said.
Candidates on the Republican ticket similarly regretted not being able to interact with residents the way they normally would. When he ran for his first stint on the Board of Selectmen four years ago, David Lober remembers spending hours campaigning door-to-door, getting to probably 300-400 households. “You meet new people in town that way,” he said. Calling people’s phones and leaving messages does not satisfy in the same way. “There is no feedback,” he said.
Fellow Republican David Vogel tried to make the best of the restrictions, and didn’t let them hold him back. He did campaign door-to-door. He said people are less likely to come to the door, but some conversations did occur and some residents even called back when he left his campaign literature.
“We need more different ideas” in town government, he said in a phone conversation. “We can do better if we have a wider range of ideas.” With limited debate on boards and commissions, decisions are being made by a small group of people, and drive people away. “People feel they don’t have a voice,” he said.
That is also the basic premise behind the Republican slogan of “Vote Row B for Balance,” appealing to voters to create more balanced political representation, and break the “one party rule.”
No matter the election result, Heller will be working with a new Board of Selectmen, given that two of her fellow Democrats are not returning to the board (Sandy Stein and Mica Cardozo) nor are the two Republicans on the board, Joseph Dey and Dwight Rowland.
Instead, Republicans are fielding Lober, a retired anesthesiologist; also David Vogel, the retired long-time Yale crew coach and president of the US Rowing Board of Directors; and Stephen Francis, senior portfolio manager at Webster Capital Finance.
On the Democratic ticket, Sheila McCreven, Paul Kuriakose and incumbent Joe Crisco are seeking a seat on the Board of Selectmen. Crisco was the State Senator representing the 17th District for many years. Kuriakose, a real estate investor and manager and a technology strategist, is currently serving on the Board of Finance.
McCreven brings a wide range of public service to the table. She served on the Woodbridge Board of Education for 8 years, and chaired the board from 2007-11. She was instrumental in boosting the use of technology at the elementary school at the time. She also served on the Building Committee to enhance security and extensively renovate Beecher Road School. She is currently a member of the Amity Board of Education, even though her children have graduated and moved on.
Before taking her current position as communications director at Yale’s Office of International Affairs, Heller brought McCreven into Town Hall as her communications director and grant writer.
During her time at Town Hall McCreven shepherded the town through the Sustainable CT process, a state grant program which entices towns to work toward implementing sustainable programs in return for state grants. A newly added aspect to the program includes housing, which has become a hot-button issue in the state, but in Woodbridge in particular since Open Communities Alliance has challenged the town to change its zoning and allow multi-family units in most areas of the town.
Zoning challenge: Sustainable CT offers “a framework to help towns balance housing development with economic development,” McCreven said, adding that her expertise with the grant program may prove helpful in this process of sorting out the zoning challenge.
Since the application is pending, Heller has refrained from commenting while the Plan and Zoning Commission is working on it. However, she did appoint a 13-member ad hoc housing study committee to “evaluate the data, engage the community, assess housing needs and submit a report to the Board of Selectmen,” she announced in her comments at the April 14 Board of Selectmen meeting. The goal is to develop an affordable housing plan, as mandated by the state.
Serving on the committee will be Debbie Brander, Mica Coardozo, Harriet Cooper, Mary Dean, Buddy Degennaro, Nicole Donzello, Elaine Feldman, James Graham, Kathleen Hunter, Donovan Lofters, Dwight Rowland, Lewis Shaffer and Dominic Thomas.
“We will have to engage the whole community,” in order to come to a plan the town can stand behind, McCreven said. “Communication is key.”
In their campaign platform, Republicans lay the blame for the lack of an affordable housing plan at the feet of the party in charge, namely the Democrats. But that view leaves out the history of vocal opposition to any efforts made in the past to update the zoning regulations by widening the areas that would allow multi-family housing or even affordable housing.
What antagonized David Lober about the application more than anything is that the applicant — represented by a group of Yale law students — labels the town and its exclusionary zoning as “racist.” “That is just bad faith,” he said. Several houses in the street he lives on have changed hands and young, multi-racial families have moved in. “The demographics of the town are changing,” he said.
Other towns such as Stamford and Westport have allowed limited areas to be built up for affordable housing, which protects them from legal challenges such as the one Woodbridge is facing, Lober said. If there is anything he learned in the operating room during his work as an anesthesiologist, it’s that “you stay out of trouble by planning ahead,” he said.
Bonding: The town is in the process of preparing for referendum a $2.8 million bonding package that would fund a number of long-standing projects, including the refurbishment of parts of the Beecher Road School roof and renovation of the senior center. The bigger part of that bond package would be to convert the old firehouse into a community center. That project in turn would require the remaining fire equipment, which is stored in the old firehouse, to be moved to a new shed to be constructed behind the firehouse.
Republicans, including Selectman Joe Dey, have been urging the board not to bundle the projects, but instead give the public an up-or-down vote on each. However, since the main projects — the community center and the fire shed — are linked, and the roof is a necessity, the board decided to keep it bundled as proposed. Like any other bonding issue, it will be put to the voters before it can move forward.
For Lober, he would like to see more scrutiny to see whether there is a real need for any project, the current ones as well as potential future ones, such as a renovation of the police station. If elected, he would work to figure out “how can we accommodate that need in the most economical way,” he said. The Beecher roof could be funded through the General Fund, he said, but the seniors deserve to be supported, since they are short-changed when it comes to return on their taxes.
His first stint on the board has taught him that the way the system is working, his influence will be limited. “I will not get traction all the time,” he said. “But I will get some traction on some of it some of the time.”
To effect change in public policy, you have to put moral pressure on the people in power, he said. “Hopefully we’ll have three [Republicans] on the board.”
Election Day: Election Day is Monday, May 3. Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Center gym. Eligible voters also can request an absentee ballot from the Town Clerk’s office. By law they can request such ballots until the day before the election, but since that would be a Sunday and the Town Hall closed, those requests should be made by Friday, April 30 at 4 p.m.
Town Clerk Stephanie Ciarleglio pointed out in a release that unlike in prior elections, applications are not automatically being sent to residents. Instead, eligible voters can obtain one by contacting the Town Clerk’s office at (203) 389-3422 or downloading the application from AB Ballot. Applications and ballots may be returned by mail or dropped in the ballot box outside of Town Hall at 11 Meetinghouse Lane.
On the ballot are a candidate for first selectman as well as those for the Board of Selectmen; candidates for the Woodbridge Board of Education; also half of the Woodbridge delegation to the Amity Board of Education; and candidates for two appeals boards, namely the Zoning Board of Appeals and the Assessment Board of Appeals.
The other boards and commissions, such as the Board of Finance and the Zoning board itself, are appointed positions, although the composition is regulated by state law to ensure minority representation. Candidates are vetted and brought forward by the two parties’ town committees and voted on by the Board of Selectmen.
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News correspondent