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July 18, 2019

     In an election year, July signals the start of the town election season, with hopefuls announcing their intention to seek elective office. This year, three residents are seeking the Republican nomination to run for First Selectman against Democrat incumbent Pat Del Monaco. Two–John Hodge and Susan Chapman–have previously served New Fairfield as First Selectman. One–Michael Oliva–is a political newcomer looking to apply his experience in the private sector to town government. One of them will be selected by the Republican Town Committee at its caucus on July 22 at Company A Firehouse. I spoke with each hopeful to find out why they were running and what their goals would be should they be nominated and, ultimately, be elected.

     John Hodge served as First Selectman from 2005 to 2013, when he stepped down to work full time for the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation. A 26-year New Fairfield resident, Mr. Hodge said he made the decision to seek the Republican nomination because, “after six years on the sidelines I was growing increasingly concerned, particularly over the past 18 months, about rising municipal spending.”

     He said he was also concerned that the center of town was looking “the worst I’ve seen in the past ten years.” While citing the many vacant storefronts, he also focused on the general appearance of the town center saying that “flowerbeds have been taken out, there are fewer plantings, and no banners on the lampposts to mark the seasons” as there have been in the past. He summed is viewpoint up by saying, “the town no longer looks loved.”

    When asked about what his focus would be should he be nominated and elected, Hodge said he would work to get the streetscapes and paths completed as well as restore flowers and maintain flowerbeds consistently in the center of town. He would also work to bring more businesses into town. He noted the cornerstone of his approach would be to speak directly with landlords to form better partnerships between the town, landlords, and businesses. He stated that he does not feel that progress has been made with the main landlords in town and that he would be sitting down with them to discuss rents. He also would propose a “buy New Fairfield” campaign to encourage residents to support local business.

    He also said he felt that municipal spending was “out of control”, stating that operating budget expenditures have risen roughly $1.4 million in less than two years. In the four years prior to that, they rose only $650,000.

     When asked about the proposed school projects, Mr. Hodge stated that while he would abide by whatever the voters decide in the referendum in the fall, he was “completely unconvinced” that Consolidated School needed to be demolished. He felt that not enough due diligence and exploration of options had been done. He suggested  taking   more  time  to  investigate alternatives and “hold off for a while” to do that.

   When discussing the high school, Hodge acknowledged that it “can’t stay as is.” Again, he thought more time was needed to evaluate and explore options to determine whether it was better to build new or renovate. “The only thing thwarting that (approach),” he said, “is the State not reimbursing.” However, he said, the State’s position “is not carved in stone”, noting the State had reversed positions on several project he had overseen in the past, such as the construction of the Senior Center.

   The third area he would focus on would be Candlewood Lake–particularly the Shoreline Management Plan (SMP). In his opinion, the towns surrounding the lake made a mistake in ceding SMP review authority to the Candlewood Lake Authority (CLA), noting the updated SMP proposal includes language that allows FirstLight to implement fees as it, or anybody it might sell the lake to, sees fit without any type of approval process.

     He noted that the last time the SMP was revised, it had taken the towns using the threat of legal action to word the clause in question to remove the threat of fee assessment. He said he would like to see that clause reinstated in the current SMP draft “word for word”.

     Susan Chapman served as First Selectman from 2013 to 2017, succeeding John Hodge. She is seeking nomination by the Republican Town Committee because, she says, the current administration has “a lot of unfulfilled campaign promises,” most notably, failing to bring businesses into town, and keeping municipal spending down.

     Ms. Chapman also said she would like complete projects that she was involved in prior to the last election. She mentioned the street scape and walking path projects as well as keeping New Fairfield an affordable place to live, especially senior citizens.

     She commented that the landscaping in town is “not what it was”, and pointed out the overgrown flagpole area by Saw Mill Rd.

     If nominated and elected Ms. Chapman plans to pursue State grants to complete the sidewalk project and complete a walking trail route around town. She would also promote the town to businesses and work to improve town infrastructure.

     Chapman said she would also resume petitioning DEEP to eliminate walk-ins to Squantz Pond, noting that there is no limit to entering the park on foot, even after the park has been closed when the parking lot is full. She noted that allowing walk-ins puts a strain on law enforcement and park personnel, making it a challenge to keep parkgoers safe.

     She also stressed the importance of standing against the governor’s toll plans, noting that if tolls are approved, traffic through New Fairfield would increase as those entering the state would seek out and clog back roads.

     When asked about the impending school project referendum, Ms. Chapman stated that if it were approved by residents, she would support it. If it were to be voted down, she said she felt that the buildings must be addressed in some fashion, noting that she has advocated an auditorium renovation project for years.

     All things being equal, she stated the need for a scaled back project and that it must be well thought out and well planned. Chapman pointed to her history of working on projects and with the State.

     Michael Oliva is a newcomer to the political scene, but not New Fairfield. He grew up in town, moved away, then moved back ten years ago. His motivation for running for First Selectman is to use his business experience to eliminate the waste he has observed in town government. He worked for many years at Fedex as a senior technician, overseeing stock and invoices, then moved four years ago to New Wave Transportation in fleet management. He classifies himself as a “problem fixer” who “likes a challenge” and will “bridge the gap with non-partisan government.”

     If he wins the nomination and then is elected, Oliva intends to take a hands-on approach to speak with town employees and modernize and streamline processes. He feels that the town needs a change in leadership.

     He said that he “wants to fix the process,” and feels that current leadership is “not looking at all the options” when it comes to spending and finding more efficient and cheaper alternatives. He summed up his outlook by saying, “What can we do to better use the assets we have?”

     As with the other Republican hopefuls, he noted the center of town as an issue. He said that a simple fix would be completing and extending the sidewalks would serve to attract people to town to shop or stroll safely and give them a reason to come to town.

   When asked about the proposed school building projects, Oliva said he felt the entire process was “rushed”. He said he thought it might be more practical to budget for renovation projects over time. He voiced concerns that only one firm had been called in to give initial estimates and that he did not feel that the district had explored all its options.

     The Republican Town Committee will hold its caucus on July 22 at Company A Firehouse.

Story by Greg Slomba