A wide swath of issues — traffic, trucks, taxes, sewers, small town charm — has defined the contest for first selectman in Ridgefield, with Democratic incumbent Rudy Marconi being challenged by Republican Dick Moccia, a finance board member and former mayor of Norwalk.

The stresses and strains of the competitive race were evident during a joint interview with the two candidates on Monday, Oct. 21, as each candidate began with an “elevator pitch” — a brief summary of the reasons people should vote for him.

“I’ve been working for the Town of Ridgefield for the last 20 years,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said. “I feel I’ve gotten to know town hall and our government pretty well.”

Marconi began serving on the Planning and Zoning Commission in 1989, he said, was first elected to the Board of Selectmen in 1993, and became first selectman in 1999.

“Having grown up in Ridgefield,” Marconi said, he knows the town’s values.

“The importance of education,” he said, led to his long support for the schools — evident in his work putting together “the bundle,” a $90 million school rehabilitation bond package in the early 2000s.

The high value Ridgefielders place on open space was reflected in the preservation of some 500 acres — most significantly the Bennett’s Pond property — during his tenure as first selectman, Marconi said.

“The importance of Main Street,” he added, “... making a very viable Main Street with shoppers and walkers.”

And Marconi said he’d led “emergency planning” as chairman of the Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security’s Region 5, comprised of 43 western Connecticut municipalities.

“The safety of our people, our residents, is job No. 1,” Marconi said.

Dick Moccia, the Republican candidate, began with a pitch for democracy — and contested elections.

“I think it has to go into why I’m running,” he said.

Municipal leaders should have their records challenged, he said — it’s wrong to go years and years, term after term, without voters having the opportunity for change at the top.

“It’s not good for any town, or city,” Moccia said.

Marconi’s long tenure, often uncontested in elections, left citizens with no recourse: “It’s been a 20-year ‘my way’ type idea,” Moccia said.

And Moccia, too, cited his long history of municipal government experience. In Ridgefield, he served on the Parking Authority and now the Board of Finance. In Norwalk, his record includes service on the Common Council, Fire Commission, Fair Rent Commission, and four terms as mayor of the city of nearly 90,000 — from 2005 to 2013.

“I have the experience, having run a bigger city,” Moccia said.

In Ridgefield, Moccia said there’s more to do.

“My concern is moving forward,” he said. “We have to start looking toward the future.”

Main Street

Everyone loves Main Street, Moccia said, the question is what’s being done to protect it.

“The foot traffic is not what it used to be,” he said.

If land development and traffic aren’t held in check, he worries that what people love about Ridgefield could be lost.

“I don’t think moving forward we’re going to keep that small town charm,” Moccia said.

A big challenge is the “traffic moving through town” — especially “the amount of trucks” on Main Street (Route 35).

Marconi said he’s aware of the trucks Moccia has made an issue of. “I live on Main Street,” he said.

But Marconi was skeptical of Moccia’s suggestions that town police be used to discourage trucks from driving through town.

And he takes pride in the town’s success in preserving Main Street.

“If you look at Main Street today, there’s been very little change,” Marconi said, “and that’s what we want.”

Tolls

Moccia raised “the possibility of tolls on 84, which Mr. Marconi supports,” and said that with tolls on interstate highways, trucks and traffic on Route 35 would only get worse.

He recalled Marconi tracing traffic problems in town to backups on I-84 and I-684.

“You’re just going to recreate it if you put a toll anywhere,” Moccia said.

Marconi sought to clarify his position.

“Do I want tolls? No,” he said.

But tolls have to be looked at “when you analyze the various options” for raising much-needed revenue for state transportation needs, he said.

And tolls have one advantage over other revenue-raising options, Marconi said: they collect money not just from Connecticut residents, but also from out-of-state drivers.

“Call it a tax. Call it a user fee. Where else are you going get 30 to 40 percent nonresidents to help cover the fee?” he said.

Transportation financing, including tolls, has been under study since the administration of Republican Gov. Jodi Rell (2004-2011), Marconi complained. “We’re beginning to study the studies!” he said.

A solution to financing state transportation needs is critical, especially for Fairfield County where commuters are an economic engine for towns like Ridgefield, he said.

“We in Fairfield County need to support commuters. We’re losing the battle to New York and New Jersey,” Marconi said. “We have to be sure these people have a comfortable, efficient way to get back and forth to work.”

Tolls might not be the answer, Marconi said, but political leaders from both parties, and the various branches of the state government, need to collaborate on a workable plan for transportation funding.

Moccia said Connecticut’s transportation woes could be traced to a dysfunctional state Department of Transportation — something neither tolls nor more money would fix.

“We have the worst DOT in America,” Moccia said.

He proposed “a forensic audit” of the DOT and added state legislators needed to control spending and “stop raiding transportation” funds that are raised through “the highest gas tax in the country.”

Adding tolls on major highways, he said, would increase trucking costs, which would be passed on to businesses and, eventually, their customers — Connecticut residents.

“Eight thousand delivery trucks in this state are delivering 60,000 parcels a day,” Moccia said.

Government needs to protect Connecticut’s employers, Moccia said, not put in tolls and drive business costs higher.

“That’s going to increase costs to all the people,” he said. “...Businesses are moving out!”

Moccia questioned the wisdom of trying to cover Connecticut’s transportation costs by making out-of-state drivers pay tolls.

“Whether it’s 20, 30, 40 percent, those people come to Connecticut to shop, buy food, go to restaurants.”

Moccia was also skeptical of fiscal solutions that involved a major bonding initiative.

“This state is so far in debt,” Moccia said.

Connecticut’s difficulties affect the town, he said.

“Property values are going down — not just in Ridgefield, but in the state,” Moccia said.

Connecticut is “losing 13,000 people a year,” he said.

Roads, schools

Maintaining the town’s infrastructure also worries Moccia.

“We need a road evaluation plan, which I adopted in Norwalk,” he said.

Moccia pointed to the problems in the last year with the condition of school buildings, which one school board member had described as “crumbling.”

“There’s been a lack of communication between our Board of Education and the first selectman’s office,” he said.

He spoke of a potential town bonding package to support infrastructure — “a mini-bundle for our roads and our schools,” Moccia suggested.

He proposed creating a “school building committee” to oversee care of Ridgefield’s nine school buildings.

“A representative of the Board of Education and a parent from each school,” he said. ”They could report to the main board.”

But overall, Moccia said, the school system is doing well. “We score high. The teachers do a great job. The administration does a great job,” he said.

Marconi said a long-standing system had been set up to share maintenance responsibilities: the town takes care of the outside of the schools, and the Board of Education is responsible for maintenance inside the buildings.

“That has worked,” Marconi said.

The town has put money into the schools for many projects — power washing facades, paving parking lots, putting in handicapped accessible playgrounds, he said.

“When we’re made aware of something, we do address it,” Marconi said. “...Roofs, every five years a company comes in and does an evaluation of all the roofs.”

Serving on the finance board, Moccia said, he’s gotten mixed messages from school officials.

“I was told the maintenance people do a great job. On the one hand, you tell me they’re doing a great job; on the other, you tell me the schools are falling apart,” Moccia said.

“There needs to be better communication between the superintendent and the first selectman,” Moccia said.

Affordable housing

Moccia also worried about the state’s push for more affordable housing in towns like Ridgefield — particularly through its 8-30g law, which allows developers to circumvent local zoning in projects where 30% of residential units qualify as affordable.

“We know affordable housing is the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” Moccia said. “There has to be more leadership from the first selectman’s office.”

Marconi said the state’s 8-30g law — allowing multifamily developments, and setting aside 30% of the units as affordable — isn’t the way to address Ridgefield’s lack of affordable housing.

“We’re never going to get there,” he said.

Town planning and zoning officials had worked on “an incentive housing zone” that was designed to address affordable housing needs more directly, Marconi said.

“I also look at Branchville as a golden opportunity to do that,” he said.

But Moccia had doubts about Marconi’s efforts to encourage a broad range of redevelopment in Branchville.

“I have concerns about Branchville, affordable housing,” Moccia said. “I don’t think Redding is going to let us have use of their sewer system…

“It’s great to have these ideas about Branchville — you’ve got to figure out where the sewage is going to go,” Moccia said.

He also raised a concern about the reconstruction of the District I sewer plant in the village area — which has prompted a 60% increase in sewer use fees, but isn’t designed to handle more wastewater from more development.

“The sewer project doesn’t increase capacity,” Moccia said. “That could be a problem.”

Townspeople, Marconi said, wanted and had voted to approve a sewer plant renovation that wouldn’t increase capacity and invite more development, more 8-30g housing on Main Street.

Marconi said he has carefully addressed the need for tax-producing development — working collaboratively with Boehringer Ingelheim to accommodate the pharmaceutical firm’s long-term growth in Ridgebury. “It’s about a $500 million expansion for Danbury and Ridgefield,” he said. “They’re great partners, we need to take care of them.”

The town, Marconi said, had used its purchase of the Schlumberger property to get more housing attractive to seniors built, while adding to the town’s cultural attractions with ACT of Connecticut’s theater rehabilitation and Broadway shows, and expanding the tax base with private development of both memory care and self-storage facilities on Old Quarry Road.

The Schlumberger initiative is “increasing tax revenues $300,000 to $500,000 a year, “ Marconi said, and “we were able to preserve a good part of that property.”

Marconi said Moccia had pointed to the state losing population, but failed to say that “Fairfield County has experienced an increase in population.”

Local “leaders in government” need to carry the flag for Fairfield County towns — Ridgefield and its neighbors, he said.

“These are great places to live,” Marconi said, “great places to raise your family.”