Published October 27. 2013 4:00AM
Voters in New London face a particularly important choice Nov. 5 in the first City Council election held since the switch to the mayor-council form of government. The two branches of city government - council and mayor - spent much of the past two years in a feeling out process, adjusting to their respective roles, sometimes disagreeing and frequently clashing. In the process, however, the council and mayor made the tough decisions necessary to get city expenditures back in line with revenues and end the chronic deficit spending that had depleted the city's fund balance.
The next two years should provide greater opportunities for progress on some of the other challenges facing the city. These include stabilizing a police force hit by a large-scale exodus of officers to other departments; spurring economic development, including building upon the vibrant restaurant scene in the downtown to expand retail offerings; and working with the Board of Education on a successful conversion to an all-magnet-school district.
After conducting candidate interviews, assessing records, backgrounds, achievements and ideas, The Day offers the following council endorsements for the Nov. 5 election. It is our assessment of the best team to serve the important council roles of setting policy and serving as a check on the power of the mayor.
Michael Passero, Democrat. Mr. Passero seeks election to a third term. He has performed well in the role of council president the past two years, both in running the council meetings and interacting with the Finizio administration. A city firefighter and attorney, he is articulate about the issues and sober about what the council can reasonably achieve.
Among the council's primary priorities, said Mr. Passero, should be evaluating how city government organizes its economic development efforts and restructuring departments, as necessary, to more aggressively and effectively market the city and assist its businesses. His focus is on the need to expand the tax base.
Keith J. Robbins, Republican. It is rare to find a candidate with the experience Mr. Robbins would bring to the council. He is the former first selectman of Bozrah, his prior home, and served two years as chairman of the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments. He is also a past president of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.
Mr. Robbins, a salesman for industrial electric supplies, seems genuinely excited about his new city and its potential. He will demand accountability from the administration on issues of spending and policy. His record suggests he will be blunt, but not petty, focused on getting things done, not on getting even.
Erica Richardson, Democrat. An account manager and single mom of a 6-year-old son, Ms. Richardson can relate to the struggles of many city residents trying to balance budgets and deal with a high property tax rate. But she is no political novice, a former congressional aide and legislative assistant to U.S. Rep. Sam Gejdenson, she is currently a member of the city's Police Community Relations Committee, insisting that its meetings - including its assessment of how the department handles complaints of police misconduct - be open and fair.
She recognizes the nexus between driving economic development in the city and improving its struggling schools, necessary to make New London more attractive to many families. Ms. Richardson strikes us as a very determined individual.
Martin T. Olsen, Republican. Mr. Olsen seeks a return to the council after his unsuccessful run for mayor in 2011. He was the last mayor, elected by the council, under the former city manager form of government, and did a good job of it.
We expect Mr. Olsen would drive the council to serve one of its vital roles as a check on the mayor. He raises legitimate questions about the qualifications of some department heads appointed during the Finizio administration. Mr. Olsen insists that proper procedures are followed.
Michael Tranchida, Democrat. Before his retirement in 2012, Mr. Tranchida served a decade as city clerk. This institutional experience means that on day one Mr. Tranchida will have the understanding to place policy decisions in their proper context.
A practical person, he recognizes expansion of the city tax base is the top priority, but also a major challenge. He sees a city that has to become more business friendly and provide "one-stop shopping" for potential developers and businesses to expedite the permitting process.
Ronna Stuller, Green. Any council can benefit from considering some creative solutions, and Ms. Stuller can provide them. She trumpets the positives of urban living, with its environmentally friendly lifestyle footprint, walkable communities and diversity.
To ease the tax burden on homeowners, Ms. Stuller pushes for changes that would mitigate the higher tax assessments and higher tax bills owners pay for improving their properties. The city, she says, should seek financial assistance from the large non-profits located in the community. This retired educator deserves serious consideration.
Efrain Dominguez, Democrat. This school teacher grew up in public housing in the city and was educated in its schools before graduating from Eastern Connecticut State University. This life story should give him special appreciation for and understanding of the struggles of many in the city, helping inform his actions as a council member.
Mr. Dominguez will have a steep learning curve. It was clear in our interview that he has much to learn about the workings of municipal government. But it was also apparent he is eager to learn. Given his enthusiasm there is little doubt that in a short time he will prove an asset to the council and his city if elected.