WESTPORT, Conn. — Pensions, challenges facing the town and leadership strategies were some of the topics discussed by Westport’s first and second selectman candidates during Monday night’s League of Women Voters debate.
Republican Jim Marpe and his running mate Avi Kaner, and the Democratic team of Helen Garten and Melissa Kane met in debate at Town Hall. In kicking off the discussion, each candidate described why they are qualified for the position and what they plan to accomplish in office.
Marpe, former vice chairman of the Board of Education, said the skills he developed during his eight years on the board — specifically consensus building and his “non-partisan” approach to problem-solving — will translate well in the selectman’s office.
If elected, Marpe said three of his primary goals will be to reform pension and retirement medical benefits; assure that the town’s amenities, such as Longshore, the library and Compo Beach, are brought up to the same world-class standard as the schools; and to improve communications between the selectman’s office and residents.
“There’s 26,000 of you out there, and I think it’s very important that we hear what you have to say and to address that,” said Marpe, who said one of his initiatives will be to host annual “state of the town” meetings.
Garten, the current vice chairman of the Board of Finance, touted her years of financial experience. During the “difficult recession years,” the board — under her leadership as chairman— was able to fund the schools and town services while keeping taxes low, she said.
Garten said that, if elected, her “financial expertise” will allow her to develop a financial policy that ensures Westport will always have the resources to invest in its schools, town amenities, expand senior tax relief “and all the other things we want to do.” She, like Marpe, also spoke about the importance of reaching out to residents.
“When I leave office, if it was said: ‘She managed the town’s finances wisely so that we could reinvest and move forward, and her door was always open and she listened to every Westporter,’ I would be satisfied,” Garten said.
When asked what they think the biggest challenge facing Westport over the next two years is, Marpe brought up then need to reform pension plans and post-employment medical benefits.
“Frankly, until we’ve gotten a complete understanding of the overhang of those costs and how we’re going to resolve them overtime, it actually holds all other plans and ideas hostage,” he said.
Garten said while pension reform is no doubt important, the biggest challenge will be managing the town’s finances effectively on a daily basis to make Westport has the ability reinvest in itself.
“We should be improving Longshore, we should be improving Compo, expanding senior tax relief, funding innovation in our schools, and it takes careful financial management to free up those resources,” she said.
Kaner and Kane, the candidates for second selectman, were each asked what role they would play in that position.
Aside from being a full-time partner to the first selectman Kane, a current member of the Representative Town Meeting, said her most important role will be that of an advocate for the community.
“I see myself as an extension of Helen into the community, as the conduit for the community to Town Hall,” said Kane. “I am lucky enough to be in Westport all time. I don’t commute, so this will be my full-time job, 24/7."
Kane said she will work to “leverage, strengthen and create new partnerships” with a variety of community organizations. Another focus, she said, will be working to attract new and innovative businesses to town.
Kaner, current chairman of the Board of Finance and owner of a New York supermarket chain, said he will use his existing expertise, and the “expertise I develop every single day dealing with real issues out in the field,” to work hand-in-hand with Marpe.
Due to his eight years on the Board of Finance, Kaner said he will act as a liaison with the board. And thanks to Marpe’s experience on the Board of Education, Kaner said he sees himself also working in a liaison role with the education board.
Kaner said he also see himself playing a “CEO to CEO” role, working closing with the town’s major employers.
“We have an opportunity to meet with the CEOs of these employers, get to them and what their issues are, and try to help them and let them help us, in a win-win situation for the residents and for all the merchants in town,” Kaner said.
The full debate is available for viewing on the town website. The candidates will meet again at Earthplace on Oct. 21 for a debate on the environment.