Come November 2nd, Orange voters have the choice between two distinct generational approaches when it comes to the top job in town; Long-time Republican First Selectman Jim Zeoli is running on a platform of experience and fiscal prudence. He is being challenged by Millennial Connor Deane, a Democrat, who emphasizes better planning and a more broad-based outreach from Town Hall to keep residents informed. Their differences as well as similarities came to the fore during public debates between the two candidates.
“You can vote for the same stagnant leadership or vote to catapult the town into the future, move Orange forward,” said Deane for a closing statement on October 14.
“With me you know what you’re getting,” said Zeoli. “People want to be in Orange, where Mr. Zeoli has been the first selectman for the past 16 years.”
The first of the debates, on October 7, was sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce. It took place at High Plains Community Center gym, where the crowd filled most of the seats, and showed the interest people take in the leadership of their town. The tone was for the most part cordial and respectful. There was a fair amount of agreement between the two candidates. Both are native to Orange, and both like to point out their local roots. As is to be expected in a relatively small town, those roots crossed on occasion.
In fact, Deane brought a picture of himself riding the bus in second grade, when that bus was driven by none other than Zeoli, before he was elected first selectman. But as much as mutual respect was palpable, Deane also pointed out where he would do things differently than the current first selectman.
When asked about their priorities, Deane mentioned support for the health department (“We need to make sure we make it through the pandemic,” he said); support for education (“it’s the number one revenue driver”); and to take a look at the commercial district (“We need to take the tax burden off the residents”).
Zeoli’s priorities involved sound fiscal management (which was attested by Standard and Poor’s AAA bond rating); new outdoor and indoor programs; and being proactive to support the commercial district.
On this last point, Zeoli mentioned several projects under way along the Boston Post Road. He said the owner of the Burlington Coat Plaza is thinking of subdividing a part of it, and repurposing it with uses such as warehousing and possibly a cannabis grower. They also are looking to put a solar array on the roof. He also mentioned the Sam’s Club and Lowe’s plaza, which is now occupied by Amazon. “I just wish they would register their vehicles in the state,” he said, since the town would then have extra revenue from vehicle taxes. But the impetus for that has to come from the state lawmakers.
Connor Deane thinks more attention needs to be placed on revitalization of the Boston Post Road. “I would like to see more niche businesses and more restaurants,” he said, pointing to some successful revitalization efforts just up the road, such as the Whole Foods Plaza and REI. “Maybe we need to resurrect the Post Road Study Committee to figure out where people are shopping,” he said.
The purchase of the Race Brook Country Club, a project that was brought forward by Zeoli earlier this year and passed at referendum with wide approval rating, also came up during the debates. Zeoli pointed out that the creation of open space doubled under his leadership. He was proud of the innovative financing that was proposed for the project – with the town bonding for $8.6 million, and then being paid back over 40 years. “This is the first time that the town bought open space and is being paid back for it,” he said. He also announced that there was some movement on contract specifics, and that the town is moving closer to an agreement. [The Board of Selectmen has since met in executive session to receive proposed terms of the agreement, according to Town Attorney Vince Marino.]
Deane meanwhile said he had voted against the Country Club purchase. “If we are footing the bill – we voted to bond for $.8.6 million – what are we getting for it? Open space,” he said. “I am not sure we see enough return on our investment.”
One question that was put to the candidates was in regards to the pot of money that is expected to flow to Orange from the American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA). Orange received just over $2 million last June and stands to receive the same amount in 2022. How would they use it?
Deane said he would make sure the public health department is funded adequately, to make sure that the town is ready to provide for the residents through the pandemic. Even if the number of infections seems to decline, “we’re not there yet,” Deane said. “And we need to be ready for the next thing,” he added.
He also mentioned the repeated flooding issues residents experienced in the area of Old Country Road and Coachman’s Lane. He was touched by the testimony of one young woman at the September Board of Selectmen, who spoke of carrying her infant son through the flood waters to get to her car, but the flood was too high. Even the fire truck could not get to her street, Deane said. “I would consider that a public health emergency,” he said. “I want to investigate and figure out how we can help these residents,” he said.
Zeoli agreed that the flooding deserves mitigation, if possible, and has since instructed the town engineer to hire a professional engineering firm to work out a plan to remedy the flooding. He said the town had a number of Covid-related expenses, including vaccination clinics and testing; expenses to prepare the schools for in-person learning; possibly booster shots going forward. In an ironic twist of fate, the Orange Visiting Nurses Association has experienced a significant budget shortfall, as many of their services had to be curtailed due to Covid restrictions.
Deane, who owns an acting and coaching studio in Fairfield, pointed out how the Board of Selectmen in that town discussed different potential projects of how the federal ARPA funds should be spent. The issue had him circling back to the need for consistent communication from Town Hall.
Similarly, he brought up the lack of a Master Plan for the Fred Wolfe Park development, saying residents should be informed about what is planned. “I feel we are haphazardly putting things together,” he said.
Zeoli pushed back on that point, saying there was a Master Plan, but it was poorly done, as it failed to take into account extensive wetlands in the area where the park was to be accessible to Peck Lane. He said the playground committee is working on its plan, and the Park and Rec Committee has been involved as well, all in public meetings.
It was the question of mask wearing that got the strongest reactions from the audience. The question posed to the candidates was “what is your position on masks in schools for both students and teachers in the Orange school system, given the current metrics in New Haven County?”
Zeoli said most of the staff has been vaccinated; “I feel if you are working in close proximity with other people – especially children under 12 who are not vaccinated – remember that.” As for the children, they cannot wear a mask all the time, he said. “They are like little heat engines.”
Deane took a different tack. “Do [masks] help slow the spread? Yes!” he asked, while some “nos” could be heard from the audience. He said the administration and the health department did an admirable job and kept the kids in school even during the pandemic. “Kids not being in the classroom is so detrimental,” he added. “If we get worked up about masks, maybe we should have a debate just about that,” he said. “This is my belief, based on science, and I stand by that.”
At the October 14 debate, which included some questions from the audience, Deane was asked about his lack of municipal experience.
“I’m a business owner,” he said. I balance my budget every year. I have leadership skills and strong ties to the community. You’re right, I don’t have municipal experience, and that’s a valid question, but I don’t think it’s disqualifying for me to want to be involved in the town.
“My leadership skills as a business owner and my understanding of the town make me more than qualified to be running for this office,” he said. If elected, he would delegate more responsibility to the staff at the Academy and “give the Town of Orange my full and undivided attention.”
Pictured: First Selectman Jim Zeoli and challenger Connor Deane talk about their vision for the town
By Bettina Thiel – Orange Town News Correspondent