LITCHFIELD — Four candidates running for the Board of Selectmen, including incumbent Democrats Anne Dranginis and Jeff Zullo and Republicans Bill Burgess and Tom Waterhouse, all agreed Wednesday night that the key to their town’s success is cooperation.
A candidates’ debate at the Litchfield Community Center Wednesday night drew about 70 residents, who posed written questions ranging from taxes and education to communication and transparency.
The four candidates, all of whom have served on other boards and commissions in town for years, said they were dedicated to bringing together residents to find solutions to the town’s problems.
A discussion about last year’s failed referendum on a plan to use the old West Street courthouse as a new town hall came up during the debate. The Greater Litchfield Trust for Historic Preservation offered the historic structure to the town to replace its aging Town Hall; residents in Bantam said they wanted to use the now-closed Bantam Courthouse, also known as the Bantam School, for a town hall campus; and others said Litchfield should renovate its existing Town Hall on West Street.
Litchfield uses its Town Hall on West Street, as well as offices in the old Bantam School building, for municipal offices. The idea of combining those offices in one building has been debated for years. The referendum asked residents to approve the old county courthouse building for a town hall. Residents turned it down. A new town hall building committee would need to be established to bring any town hall building plan to the public. So far, that has not happened.
“After the debacle with the town hall building committee last year, after the referendum failed, we all came out confused,” Zullo said, adding that he has served on numerous town hall committees during his tenure on the board. “We need to have public hearings and make decisions based on what comes out of them.”
A discussion on a recent fallout between the boards of selectmen, education and finance came up during the debate. Earlier this year, the school board decided to leave the town’s health insurance pool and provide a new plan for the school district’s full-time employees. As a result, the town’s 30 municipal employees had to find new insurance. The school board’s decision caused friction between the three boards.
All the candidates said that situation should not happen again.
Candidates also acknowledged that residents wanted more accessibility to elected officials, and a better understanding of board decisions.
“Communication between boards (and the public) is something that really needs improvement,” Dranginis said. She suggested changing the selectmen’s meeting time so more people could attend, and having meetings at various locations so people could become more familiar with Litchfield’s many facilities.
“We also need to find a better way to communicate our meetings with the public,” Waterhouse said.
Zullo called for “a better digital presence” and suggested live-streaming meetings online. “We need a better digital strategy,” he said.
“Our starting point should be changing our perspective of a government team,” Burgess said. “We need to include all neighborhoods, all residents, and show them that we’ll listen to their needs. Listening to our residents should be an umbrella over everything we do.”
Other questions concerned the town’s future, and candidates were asked what they believed were the most important problems.
Waterhouse, a former chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission, called for a full inventory of all town buildings, to address their needs. “We need to straighten out the building situation,” he said.
Dranginis said the town needs “to focus on our Plan of Conservation and Development, and figure out what the culture of our town is going to be. We need to see if we can recruit more people, to get more people involved, to plan for the future.”
The candidates were asked how they would draw more young families to town, a concern often raised during budget season.
“We have to encourage people to move here, with more outreach, and more funding for the Economic Development Commission,” Zullo said. “More housing brings more families.”
“Quality education is number one,” Burgess said.
“It takes vibrancy at the top, younger people at the top, to bring more people,” Dranginis said. “I’m sick of people talking down Connecticut — it’s a wonderful place to live. We should show our green initiatives, enhance our recreation. ... We have a wonderful town.
“We have to have a culture of inclusion,” she said. “People need to feel free to ask questions, and know we won’t shut people down if they asked about something more than once.”
All four candidates agreed that Litchfield does its best to work together. “If we come together as one team, it will work,” Burgess said. “Let’s get on with it, and connect with all our communities.”
Litchfield’s polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Nov. 5. For information, call the registrar’s office at 860-567-7558.