Southington council candidates differ on spending, agree on public input



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SOUTHINGTON — Republicans and Democrats running for Town Council differed on their approach to town issues such as spending and both parties hoped to increase engagement from residents in the upcoming term.

Republicans hold six of the nine council seats and all of the party’s incumbents are running for reelection. Vicky Triano, Republican council chairwoman, said it’s an experienced team that has produced results for Southington and works well together and with Democrats.

“The team is so committed to Southington,” she said, citing Republican councilors’ involvement in local groups and causes. “We’re not governing from afar, we’re right there.”

Two of the three incumbent Democrats are running for re-election along with four challengers. Chris Palmieri, Democratic council minority leader, said all the party’s candidates were vested in the community.

“We support a community for all,” Palmieri said. “We know that it’s important to represent all interests, to create equity within our community.”

Democratic incumbent Val DePaolo and newcomers Jack Perry, Christina Volpe, Kelly Leppard and Kristen Guida complete the party’s slate. Republican incumbents Tom Lombardi, Michael DelSanto, Paul Chaplinsky, Jim Morelli and William Dziedzic are running for re-election along with Triano.

Crime, public safety

In the wake of thefts and a stabbing at the Apple Harvest Festival, candidates said public safety was among the top issues for voters.

Republicans have laid blame with the General Assembly and legal changes that they say reduced consequences for offenders. Earlier this year, Republican councilors and Democratic councilor Chris Poulos, who wasn’t nominated by his party to run for re-election, passed a resolution calling on state legislators to toughen penalties for criminals.

“We did as the seven people who voted for that resolution, we did as much as we could as councilors to put pressure on Hartford,” said Dziedzic, a Republican. “Ultimately, this is something that the legislature has to answer for.”

Republicans have said that local police are handicapped by a legal system that often releases juvenile offenders even after they’re caught.

Lombardi, council vice chairman and a Republican, said he’ll continue to call on the General Assembly for change.

“This council is not afraid to speak up and put pressure on the state,” he said.

Democrats Palmieri and DePaolo voted against the resolution earlier this year but requested the town hire two more police officers. Republicans opposed the move, saying it wouldn’t be effective without changes in the judicial system.

DePaolo called the resolution “a piece of paper” but the hiring of more officers a real solution to the crime problem.

“To me, that’s action. That’s really good for our residents,” she said.

Open space

Republicans have pointed to the nearly 200 acres of open space that have been preserved over the past two year council term. Chaplinsky, a Republican councilor, said that total rises to well over 200 acres if land preserved as part of open space subdivisions is included in the total.

“We’ve accomplished a lot,” Chaplinsky said.

Morelli, a Republican councilor, said town residents have spoken loud and clear by approving multiple referendums for open space acquisition money. Earlier this year, voters approved $4.5 million to buy development rights at Southington Country Club, preventing the golf course from being sold and turned into homes. Morelli said such moves are the only way to prevent overdevelopment.

“If we can control the change so we don’t lose our character, that’s a big thing for me,” he said. “We need to continue what we’re doing.”

Volpe, a Democrat, is currently a Planning and Zoning Commission member. During votes on planning applications she’s also cited a desire to maintain the town’s character and voted against a plan to turn the former Lincoln College property into housing. She supported open space purchases including a lot behind Oshana School and the purchase of development rights to Southington Country Club.

Taxes

Despite the pandemic, Triano said the council was able to avoid tax increases over the past two years. While that couldn’t continue forever, she said it was important as town residents struggled during the worst of coronavirus.

The use of some federal pandemic money divided Republicans and Democrats. The town’s school district received $4 million in federal funds this year. The Republican-led council reduced the school board’s requested budget increase by $1.5 million, saying federal funds could be used to fill the gap and provide relief to local taxpayers.

Palmieri, DePaolo Middle School principal, said the use of the federal funds for operating expenses exploited a “loophole” and that the funds were intended to get kids caught up who had fallen behind during the pandemic. He said it also leaves the question how to fund that amount when the federal money is exhausted.

“We value education, that’s why we were opposed to it then,” Palmieri said.

DelSanto, a Republican, said the council has been successful in keeping taxes low over the past two years. That’s important for residential taxpayers as well as businesses that are expanding or moving to town.

DelSanto is chairman of the council’s Economic Strike Committee which was restarted when Republicans took control of the council two years ago. DelSanto said it’s produced results.

“Southington is where people want to be, this is where they want to live, this is where they want to work,” he said.

Engagement,bipartisanship

Palmieri, council chairman prior to Triano, said while Democrats were in the majority they left Republicans in leadership positions on some boards and commissions.

“We have proven that we have a vision for collaboration and bipartisanship,” he said. “There are zero Democrats in charge now under Republican rule.”

Triano said decisions made by Democrats were made without any Republican input. She said the council majority has also demonstrated bipartisanship and worked with Democratic councilors.

Perry, who made an unsuccessful run as an unaffiliated candidate in 2017, is running as a Democrat for council in November. He said the council should prioritize hearing from residents and needs to work harder in reaching out to residents for their opinions on town matters.

The council should “listen more and talk less,” Perry said.

“It’s not about what Jack Perry wants, it’s what the Southington community wants,” he said. “My goal as a councilman is to fill (council chambers during hearings) with as may people as possible, hear their concerns.”

Triano saw a similar need to hear residents. She said people have a desire to speak out now more than ever.

“We need an ear to the people, an open forum that they can come to,” she said. “We have people who want to be heard … I’ve never seen it like this before.”

New faces

Guida, a Democrat, said she’s heard concerns about public safety, taxes and education from voters she’s contacted. She’s hoping that people get involved in local elections.

“I do not have any political experience, and I think that’s probably a good thing at a time when politics are so divisive they are a distraction,” Guida said. “I do have experience as a community leader, as a past president of Southington’s Town-Wide Effort to Promote Success.”

Leppard, another Democratic newcomer hoping to take a seat on the council, was the town’s youth prevention coordinator and a STEPS staff member. As a former town employee, she’s hoping to use her perspective to improve local government and build partnerships between organizations in town.

“If we can build strong partnerships and collaborations on the local level,” she said, “that’s where we can make the biggest impact. We have the ability to make change on the local level.”

jbuchanan@record-journal.com203-317-2230Twitter: @JBuchananRJ



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