By Thane Grauel & Jarret Liotta
WESTPORT — Whether the next first selectperson needs to be a visionary who leads the town into the future, or a CEO-style manager who helps maintain its amenities and operation, was one defining question in Westport’s first political debate of the season Tuesday afternoon.
In an event sponsored by the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce, the three candidates for Westport’s top office — Democrat Jonathan Steinberg, Republican Jennifer Tooker, and Libertarian T.J. Elgin — squared off at The Westport Library, accompanied by their running mates, Democrat Candice Savin, Republican Andrea Moore, and Libertarian Louis D’Onofrio.
“This is a management job … It’s the CEO of the town,” said Tooker, who currently serves as the second selectperson under First Selectman Jim Marpe and has been very involved in promoting and working with the local business community through several town-led initiatives.
“There is no doubt I’m the only person on this stage who has relevant, meaningful experience,” she said.
Savin disagreed, citing leadership and “vision” as necessary qualities.
“It’s more than just managing the day to day … I think it’s important that the selectman reflects our values as a community,” she said.
“If the first selectman doesn’t stand up for our values … they’re not doing their job,” Steinberg, Westport’s current state representative for District 136, said in the one moment of the debate that drew minor applause.
Moderated by chamber President Matthew Mandell, much of the 90-minute debate focused on economic and business-related issues, including the position of town operations director, which was reinstituted by Marpe after he took office in 2013.
Steinberg said he would “repurpose” the position to create a director of economic and community development, as Fairfield has, noting that the duties of the town operations director were things the first selectperson should be doing as part of their job.
“Over the past four years we’ve had Jen Tooker focused on economic development and working with our businesses,” Moore noted, praising the current Republican administration for moving things in the right direction.
Both Elgin and D’Onofrio stressed their backgrounds as small-business owners and touted themselves as political outsiders who would strive for transparency.
“It’s time for a change,” D’Onofrio said, calling the other candidates “career politicians.”
Though there was agreement on traffic as an issue impacting residents and local businesses, Steinberg and Tooker disagreed on the solutions.
“We haven’t had a champion in Town Hall,” Steinberg said, noting that it was the first selectperson’s job to push the Department of Transportation toward finding solutions.
“It must start with the first selectman,” he said. “We need an avid, determined advocate for our community.”
“I believe that everybody knows we have traffic issues on our main arteries,” Tooker said. “Also, I think it’s very clear that those are state roads and that our ability to get things done immediately is hindered by the DOT, and by our legislative representatives, from not being able to get the attention of the DOT.”
Instead, she advocates creating a traffic advisory and neighborhood safety commission that would investigate how changes could be made on local roads, involving residents and town departments.
D’Onofrio said both candidates had already been in a position to make changes, but had not done so.
“It’s more lies,” he said. “You’re not going to see traffic become better.”
Elgin’s suggestion to deal with traffic, however, was vague and centered on erecting real-time signs around town that would say how long delays would be.
Motorists, he said, could then pull over and patronize local businesses during the wait time.
Mandell raised the question of Town Hall keeping locked doors during the pandemic, with visitors required to sign-in with a security guard and restricted in their movements in the building.
“I feel it is never appropriate to shut the doors of Town Hall,” D’Onofrio said.
“I’m not sure what the rationale is … I think this particular restriction has outlived its usefulness,” Savin said.
Moore defended the current administration’s action in the name of safety.
“I think the characterization of it being locked with no one allowed to come in is not accurate,” she said.
To see an archived video of the full debate, click here.