Camillo, Oberlander square off in Greenwich first selectman’s debate
GREENWICH — The two candidates for first selectman went head-to-head Thursday night at a debate hosted by the League of Women Voters of Greenwich.
Before a crowd of about 300 in Greenwich High School’s Performing Arts Center, Republican Fred Camillo and Democrat Jill Oberlander made their cases to voters and debated issues from the economy to the environment.
Both candidates come in with backgrounds in government. Camillo has been the state representative in the 151st District since 2008. Oberlander, who previously served on the Representative Town Meeting, is chair of the Board of Estimate and Taxation.
Across several questions throughout the night, the two showed their sharpest differences on the role of government in town and the issue of long-term financing. Oberlander, as she has on the BET, advocated for more long-term financing for capital projects, such as the town uses in paying for its sewer work and for the Nathaniel Witherell.
“It’s already in play,” Oberlander said. “The question really should be, what are our needs? What infrastructure does this community need? Are we investing enough? How are we protecting our seniors, our children, our residents? How are we planning for the future?”
Looking at cost first and need second can lead to problems such as the failing GHS bleachers, Oberlander said. She cited them as an example of leaders working backward and not planning properly. Oberlander called long-term financing a mechanism to meet important needs.
Camillo said he opposes any change in debt policy, stating that 83 percent of the town’s debt is paid off within five years and 92 percent is paid off in 10.
“Under my administration that will not change,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that if I look at a particular project and it makes sense to go longer, that’s fine. That’s what leadership is. You have to look at each project.
“But you never, ever, ever want to abandon what has worked so well in Greenwich since the 1930s. If you go to long-term debt as a policy, it’s going to result in more spending and more taxes,” Camillo said.
Projects such as replacing the bleachers and remediating contaminated playing fields don’t have to be accomplished through long-term financing, he said. Reprioritizating town government and judging each situation effectively could get needs met without changing debt policy, Camillo said.
Camillo has made increasing the use of public/private partnerships a major part of his campaign, saying that for every capital project he would want to see an option for creating one.
“We absolutely have to do that,” he said. “I believe in government, but I believe in small government. You don’t want more government than you need. … There’s the old saying that if you get a government that’s too big and gives everything, then it can also take it away.
“There’s 169 municipalities in the state of Connecticut and most of them would love to be in Greenwich’s position with citizens and groups like the Greenwich Athletic Foundation open and asking, almost begging us, to get involved with these things,” Camillo said.
Groups such as the Greenwich Athletic Foundation, which has funded repairs of the bleachers, and resources such as Greenwich Library, the Bruce Museum and Greenwich Emergency Medical Service, “are critical parts of the community,” Oberlander said. But she advocated for the role of government.
“I think public/private partnerships are terrific,” Oberlander said. “I do support them, and I will encourage them. But I feel they are supplementary to government. Government needs to be the primary seat at the table. There needs to be accountability and transparency. We can’t outsource the government.”
The issue came up again when the candidates were asked about building a new municipal ice rink. Camillo said the town has made mistakes over the years in how it approached its facilities such as the rink or Cardinal Stadium, which has put the town behind. That is where he said he would especially look to form public/private partnerships.
Oberlander agreed that the town is behind on facilities and in investing in infrastructure. She said she didn’t want to rely on a public/private partnership to meet needs. Though supplementary funds from donors would be great for the rink project, she said she wanted government to fund it.
“I will lead a discussion on priorities, particularly on the infrastructure we have not gotten to,” Oberlander said. “Thirty years is a long time to talk about things and not do things. We have schools that are in disrepair and are not accessible. Greenwich is better than that. We need to have the conversation about the needs and priorities and then figure out how to get that done.”
Camillo responded by saying that he does not want government funding everything.
“Our peer towns are West Hartford and Fairfield,” he said. “West Hartford has a mill rate of over 38 and in Fairfield it’s 25. We’re a little over 11. We’re going to get to 38 pretty quickly if you rely on government to do everything.”
There were many moments of agreement between the two during the debate. Camillo and Oberlander agreed about the need for adding more senior housing in town, keeping the recent proposal to place a commercial mooring for a barge in a recreational part of Long Island Sound from happening, and protecting the local environment in light of climate change.
Under her leadership on the BET, Oberlander said the town had started funding its first studies to deal with rising sea levels from climate change. She also repeated her call to develop a climate change plan to protect the town’s infrastructure.
“Greenwich needs to move itself back ahead of the curve,” Oberlander said. “We’ve taken the approach where we’re not active enough. We need to be in a proactive government on environmental issues and on climate change issues.”
Camillo repeated his pledge to form a sustainability committee that would give regular reports.
“It would be a committee in action, not name,” he said. “Certainly environmental policy, aesthetics and quality of life issues would be a part of that. I want to make Greenwich the envy of the state when it comes to environmental policy.”
The two candidates also repeated their support for the proposed redevelopment of Greenwich Plaza to take place. But neither one backs the current deal in which the town would transfer its air rights to Ashforth Company, which owns the property and would pay for the $45 million project.
Camillo said it would be a big part of his “downtown vision” to connect Greenwich Avenue to the waterfront. He said he “loved what they’re proposing” but wants to decouple the project design from the air rights deal because they are “way too valuable for the town to give up,” Camillo said.
“That doesn’t mean I’d say no deal,” he said. “The Ashforths are a good family. They’ve been here for 125 years. They’ve been great partners in our community. I would work with them so whatever they put in on the railroads and any public benefit value, we would pay them or work through a tax abatement to make them whole.”
Oberlander called for more public involvement in putting together a deal, saying she would get BET, RTM members and residents in a committee to focus on the development and have an independent valuation done to determine how much the air rights are worth.
“We deserve the most magnificent gateway to Greenwich, one that does connect Greenwich Avenue as a cultural corridor from the top of the Avenue with the new library down to the new Bruce Museum and the art galleries in between,” she said. “This plaza development should incorporate all of that and I want the community to work from the bottom up, openly and transparently to reach that deal.”
On Oct. 17, Oberlander and Camillo will both take part in an event for members of the Chamber of Commerce event at 8:30 a.m. at the Greenwich Water Club in Cos Cob. That is not a debate but a chance for members to meet with the candidates and hear their views on the issues.
Camillo and Oberlander will face off again before the Nov. 5 election. At 7 p.m. Oct. 22 at the Round Hill Community House, the two will take part in a debate put together by the Round Hill Association. Selectmen candidates Democrat Sandy Litvack, an incumbent, and Republican Lauren Rabin will also take part in that event. Greenwich High will also host a debate at which the students will moderate and ask all the questions on Nov. 1.