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Preston to choose between 18-year incumbent, Mashantucket tribal member

By Claire Bessette

Publication: The Day

Published October 31. 2013 4:00AM

Preston - The race for first selectman pits 18-year incumbent Republican Robert Congdon against political newcomer Vincent Eleazer, the first member of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation to seek political office in town.

Congdon who also served one term as a state representative, said he clearly is the most qualified candidate. Congdon has been active on regional agencies that deal with economic development, regional government, water usage and municipal advocacy.

He also is licensed to operate town heavy equipment in his dual role as public works director, holds a master's degree in business administration and became a certified public accountant shortly before running for first selectman 18 years ago.

Unaffiliated petitioning candidate Eleazer said he is equally qualified with experience working for the tribal council chairman, vice chairman and secretary. He said he also has worked on economic development projects and participated in labor negotiations at Foxwoods Resort Casino.

The Democratic Town Committee rejected Eleazer's endorsement request because he is not a registered Democrat. The party did not field a candidate, despite two consecutive elections in which Democratic Selectman Timothy Bowles narrowly lost to Congdon.

Bowles was elected to the state legislature last fall and is not seeking re-election as a selectman.

The losing first selectman candidate would enter the Board of Selectmen race with three-term Republican Selectman Michael Sinko and Democrat Lynwood Crary, who has served on various town boards and commissions. The top two vote-getters would win the seats.

Congdon said he is much better suited to tackle numerous issues Preston faces. He has supported the Preston Redevelopment Agency's efforts to obtain grant money to clean the former Norwich Hospital property, which the town acquired from the state in 2009.

The PRA has used $5.5 million in grants to demolish 37 buildings thus far. Congdon said cleaning the property is critical to attracting developers. Congdon rejected Eleazer's stance that the hospital property is draining town resources, saying the annual PRA budget is less than a half mill per year.

Eleazer compared the town's obsession with Norwich Hospital to "Moby-Dick," saying the effort continues to sap money from the town and cause anguish among residents. He said his tribal contacts would help the town attract development at the hospital property and along Route 2, where the tribe owns 90 percent of the land from Route 164 to the Ledyard border.

Eleazer has repeatedly said his Mashantucket Pequot tribal affiliation should not scare residents. He said it would benefit the town, fostering an improved relationship with the tribe for tourism-related economic development.

Eleazer said his allegiance would be in his chosen hometown if conflicts arose, and he defended his lone campaign contribution, a $250 donation from Tribal Council member Fatima Dames. He said she made the donation as a friend, not a government official.

"I don't have a hidden agenda," Eleazer said. "My nation is not sending me into Preston to find ways to get more out of Preston. My nation hasn't done anything to be involved in this campaign. I kept it simple. I don't see anything wrong with taking some funds from a family member or your community."

Congdon said Eleazer's tribal affiliation is a major concern, especially in light of a proposal by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to loosen land annexation rules for federally recognized tribes.

Eleazer said he would not support annexation that would take land off the tax rolls but said the issue is complicated, and town officials need to research it further before raising fears.

Congdon said he also is much more qualified to handle the upcoming renegotiation of a host-town agreement with the Covanta Energy regional trash incinerator. When Preston fought the losing battle over the Route 12 site in the 1980s, it "left a lot on the table" in host town benefits.

The town receives $800,000 per year and free disposal of its first 1,000 tons of trash per year. Congdon has met with officials in Bristol and Wallingford on their host town deals and is involved in efforts to improve the trash plant's standing in selling electricity to utility companies.

Eleazer said he "has gotten a little familiar" with the incinerator, but he questioned why incineration is still the accepted method of waste disposal. He would like to explore new technologies that create reusable materials out of pressed waste products.

"There are so many ways to look at than just burning," Eleazer said. "There are so many other ways we can create reusable products."

The selectmen race has been quiet, with no lawn signs, debates or even contention.

Crary called it "a natural progression" that he would run for selectman after having served on the Planning and Zoning Commission for 12 years and on the Conservation Commission. Sinko and Congdon both had served on the PZC.

In the coming term, Sinko would like to complete work to create job descriptions and standardized evaluations for town employees - something Preston has never had. The town selected its new law firm, Halloran & Sage, in part for its experience with labor issues.

Crary, who owns a 120-acre farm, said he is very interested in preserving Preston's farms from development pressure. He said many town farmers are approaching retirement age.

"A lot of land might be coming available," Crary said.

While the economy is slow, he would like to see the town promote farm preservation efforts. He said his family was among the first to sell development rights to the state in the 1990s.

"Now's the time to act," Crary said. "Farming makes Preston what it is. I'd hate to develop Preston just for the sake of saying we're progressing."

c.bessette@theday.com

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