Published November 01. 2013 4:00AM
North Stonington - Incumbent Nicholas H. Mullane II and challenger Bob Testa will face off for the third time next week for the job of first selectman, which Mullane has held almost continuously since 1983.
Though both candidates are ideologically comparable - Republican and fiscally conservative - the battle of personalities came to the fore at a candidate forum last month when a question about term limits was posed.
"We all have a shelf life," Testa said.
And while Mullane conceded that he would leave the decision to residents, he said that no candidate has stepped forward who would do a better job.
"I believe that I am the best candidate, and that's why I'm allowing my name to be submitted again," he said.
Testa first ran unsuccessfully against Mullane as a petitioning candidate in the 2007 election after losing the Republican endorsement 52 to Mullane's 61. In 2011, Testa beat out Mullane for the first selectman nomination in a 17 to 14 vote, only to lose to Mullane by 100 votes in a September primary. Testa then challenged Mullane as a write-in candidate and lost, earning 490 write-in votes to Mullane's 766.
And this year, Mullane won the Republican endorsement again at the July caucus in a 58 to 44 vote against Testa.
Testa, who is running on a ticket with selectman candidate Tim Pelland, said he senses a "totally different atmosphere" than in his previous unsuccessful bids - one that he said stems not from a desire to oust Mullane, but rather support for his own campaign.
A senior project and production manager at C&C Construction/Clean Care of New England, Testa moved to town 12 years ago and has served for nearly 10 years on the Board of Education. He became chairman last year.
Pelland, an assistant director of plant operations at Stoneridge, has served for four years on the Affordable Housing Commission. He has lived in town for 26 years.
Testa said he would like to examine "from the top down" how the town operates, and advocates combining some town and school resources - such as the IT departments - to increase efficiency and trim spending.
"We're at a point where I think the town and the schools have to start looking at developing systems to fit funding the taxpayers can afford," he said. "We need to adapt to the situations, and we're not. We're trying to keep the same structures."
Testa and Pelland have said that easing the tax burden on residents is a top priority, and while they cannot promise to lower taxes, would work to maintain them at their current level and tackle what is arguably the town's defining issue - its lack of economic development - by aiming to fill the vacant buildings in town.
One of Mullane's problems is that "he wants to control all aspects of the town government," Testa said. He said he would like to look into contracting the services of grant-writing professionals instead of making grant-writing the first selectman's responsibility.
"The only thing Nick's running on is experience," he said. "Somebody has to start. And you have to have the will and the desire to do the job and serve the greater good of the people."
Mullane has nearly three decades of experience and the accomplishments that go with such a lengthy tenure - most recently, the completion of the Town Hall Bridge and the Village Bridge repairs, improvements to the town's recreation area, approval for a new $6.36 million emergency services complex and obtaining grants for a study on bringing a public water system to town.
Testa and Pelland are running on the platform of it not being enough. Testa said the town has "regressed" and that there wasn't enough effort made before the recession to fill the town's vacant buildings with businesses.
"We're trying to make up for the failures of the past," he said.
Mullane moved to town in 1970 and raised three children here with his wife, Florence. He served on the Board of Finance for seven years and one term as a selectman before claiming the first selectman seat in 1983. After losing in 1995, Mullane won it back in 1997 and it became a full-time position - because, he said, a part-timer "couldn't keep up."
The first selectman job may define Mullane as much as he has defined it. At the Republican caucus in 2007, Mullane told Republicans that if they gave him their endorsement and he won, he would not seek another term. Six years later, Mullane maintains that there is no one better qualified. And those that might be don't want to put up with naysayers' "pettiness" that he said is part of the job.
"You no longer can take a novice and put him in there," he said. His supporters have come back "behind the scenes," he said, and told that there is simply nobody else for the job. He agrees.
"The job is not what it used to be," he said. "It's not easy."
This year, Mullane is running on a ticket with Republican Brett Mastroianni, who has served on the Economic Development Commission for four years and owns East Coast Jewelry & Loan in Holly Green Plaza on Route 2. He is also the vice president of the North Stonington Business Association, and moved here seven years ago to raise his two children.
Mastroianni said he would work to make sure the town's boards and commissions have a voice and that the Board of Selectmen works with and moves forward with their ideas. He also said he would like to use the upcoming Plan of Conservation and Development - to be completed in December - to better market the town to businesses.
Mullane, who often works 50 to 65 hours a week - he retired from his job as a supervisor at Electric Boat in 1995 - including some weekend work, doesn't like to brag about the time he spends on the job, saying he'd rather know whether the public feels he is responding to their needs.
"I feel I'm honest, I feel I follow the rules, I feel I have the best intentions," he said.
Mullane blames the stalled economic on outdated, overly-complex zoning regulations that are being revised, and on a lack of aid from the state.
The Plan of Conservation and Development will address those issues, he said, along with a project to bring public water to town through an intermunicipal agreement with neighboring Stonington. Mullane said he believes he can bring public sewer and water to town in the next several years, after final studies are completed.
Mullane defends his leadership style and his notoriously chaotic Town Hall office, which is stacked floor-to-ceiling with boxes, files, letters and maps but in which he can locate what he needs or what somebody requests at the drop of a hat. He works with a full-time staff of nine there, but regarding accusations that he doesn't delegate enough, he said, "Who would I delegate it to?"
"I do all this work myself. I write the letters, I do the studies, I have people gather information," he said.
Mullane says his opponent lacks the background knowledge for the job, but said he will still find ways to be involved no matter the outcome next Tuesday.
"They've got a choice. Let them make the choice. I'll live with it," he said. "One way or another, I will continue to work for the town."
Also running for a selectman seat is incumbent Democrat Mark Donahue, uncontested and guaranteed his seat as a member of the minority party. Donahue, an industrial operations manager for Pratt & Whitney, has served one term as a selectman and served on the Board of Finance for four years previously.
Donahue said he would like to continue fostering better communication with the town's other boards and commission, particularly as the town shifts into "strategic mode" to plan for how it should look in the next decade or two.