MERIDEN – The City Council at large race features two incumbents, one former mayor and a representative on one of the largest school building projects the city has undertaken.
Four candidates are vying for two at-large seats Nov. 7. Democrats hold a 7-5 majority. We The People and Republicans caucus together, holding three and two seats respectively in the minority. A win for former Mayor Manny Santos, a Republican, would effectively tie the council 6-6 if all incumbents win.
“There is still much to be done,” Santos said. “The way to do it is to go through the council.”
Santos spent much of his two year mayoral term butting heads with the Democratic-led City Council on a host of issues including municipal and education spending and the amount of affordable and low-income housing planned for downtown.
Santos and City Council Democrats disagreed over appointment powers in the City Charter, specifically regarding the corporation counsel, leading to a legal challenge. A Superior Court judge and eventually the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of plaintiffs who argued that the mayor had the power to nominate the corporation counsel and to make committee recommendations, not the City Council. But in other respects the powers of the mayor are limited under Meriden’s unique City Charter.
As he seeks a council seat, Santos says he remains committed to fighting tax increases and what he sees as too much low-income and affordable housing downtown.
“More families will go elsewhere and businesses will look at demographics,” Santos said. “We should be bending over backwards to attract business. We need to make City Hall more business friendly. ”
Santos points to 105 Restaurant & Lounge on Colony Street, the site of complaints about exotic dancers and a shooting while the owners waited for a permit renewal.
Santos defended the owners and said it is one of several businesses facing stumbling blocks to opening its doors downtown. The business could thrive with more police presence, he said.
But other council candidates disagreed with Santos at a campaign forum Monday and said the city has to be careful about businesses that draw the wrong element.
Local attorney Bruce Fontanella, current vice chairman of the school building committee, is among three new faces the Democrats have put up this year to hold their majority. Fontanella helped oversee recent renovations to Platt and Maloney high schools, likely the largest school construction project the city has ever undertaken. He was an outspoken committee member in an effort to hold contractors accountable for their performance.
”I was a member of the Board of Education building committee that built the two high schools,” Fontanella said. “We finished the construction of the Maloney and Platt high schools on time and under the budget. I want to join the City Council to support its efforts to revitalize Meriden and improve the quality of life for all its citizens. I would like to enter that team and be part of the team to get to the finish line.”
Republican incumbent Lenny Rich, is running because he believes this year’s slate represents a chance for the Republican and We the People parties to gain a majority on the council. The two parties often cross-endorse each other’s candidates and vote as a bloc on the City Council.
“We need common sense spending to control taxes,” Rich stated. “This starts with allocating money properly. Control your expenses, you control your budget.”
Rich is also a strong proponent of citywide referendums on large projects, such as the redevelopment of the city’s two high schools which cost well over $200 million. Rich said the taxpayers will continue to pay the cost of the projects well into the future, in addition to the added labor costs incurred by the project labor agreements tied to the construction.
Incumbent Democrat David Lowell is the chairman of the City Council’s Economic Development Housing and Zoning Committee. Lowell said people he meets on the campaign trail feel good about the state of Meriden and are optimistic about the city.
“We need to be focused on people and issues, I’ve done that to come up with solutions,” Lowell said. “I’m not about the drama, and partisan garbage.”
Lowell has genuine concerns about the impact the state budget is going to have on the city’s finances and recognizes it’s a balancing act to keep taxes low.
But he is excited about the “economic and quality of life revitalization” going on in the city right now.
The strength and success of our city as a whole is dependent upon the coordinated success of the many redevelopment projects that are yet to come,” he said. “We all need to work together to keep Meriden on the path to becoming a more prosperous community.”
When asked about the high numbers of low-income and affordable housing planned for downtown, Lowell explained the need to replace the units to be torn down at the Mills Memorial Apartments on a one-to one basis. The first few projects at 24 Colony St., Meriden Commons I and II will have larger numbers of low and affordable rate units but will contain some market rate apartments as well as new commercial space.
The public/private partnerships allow investors such as Pennrose Properties to use the low-income housing tax credits to fund the mixed-use developments. It will also generate income to allow the same and other developers to build market-rate housing at the Meriden Green, 116 Cook Ave. and at the former hospital site.
“These phased approaches of the redevelopment are what is going to make Meriden successful,” he said.”You can’t get to one without mitigating the other.”