Re-election of incumbents fosters collaboration
All of the incumbent top officials in the Danbury area kept their seats this election, which could bode well for regional projects in the works.
The mayors and first selectmen in Bethel, Brookfield, Danbury, New Fairfield, New Milford, Newtown, Redding, Ridgefield, Sherman and Southbury were all re-elected, bringing with them a range of two years to 18 years of experience in the top job.
For these officials, the familiar faces of their colleagues mean not only a wealth of knowledge on how to tackle problems they’re all facing, but also a chance to build on projects and partnerships they already started working on this term.
“You can get a lot of really good ideas from someone that had the job for four or six years,” Brookfield First Selectman Steve Dunn said. “It has a continuity that helps you move forward quickly, especially with the high caliber of my counterparts.”
The partnerships are generally done in two ways, either with the towns working together on their own or officially through established organizations, such as the Western Connecticut Council of Governments, or WestCOG. This organization includes 18 municipalities spanning from Greenwich along the stateline up to New Milford and over to Newtown.
“It's important that there is a constituency maybe not region wide in the COG, but at least some people who can help guide and reflect on various projects,” said Rudy Marconi, first selectman in Ridgefield and vice chairman of the council.
Another regional organization is the Housatonic Resources Recovery Authority, which focuses on waste and recycling management for 11 local municipalities.
Through this group, towns have banded together to negotiate contracts that have kept down recycling costs, said Matt Knickerbocker, first selectman in Bethel and chairman of HRRA.
“Most of those people are long time incumbents and that helps,” he said. “It takes a long time to get up to speed on a lot of these complicated issues.”
A big issue West COG is tackling is tolls, with many of the communities opposing the idea.
Sheman First Selectman Don Lowe said it’s helpful that the leaders in place when the proposal was introduced are still in place as the plans go forward so that they can stay on top of it without missing a beat. In Sherman, the selectmen passed a resolution opposing tolls.
Other WestCOG initiatives include transportation grants and regionalizing the towns’ GIS mapping systems under the organization.
Dunn is also hoping WestCOG will work with towns to regionalize a cemetery management program. He said cemeteries throughout the region have caretakers who have been doing the job for decades and towns are having a hard time finding replacements when those people can no longer do it.
By regionalizing and using a central computer system, it will prevent cemeteries from becoming abandoned and streamline the required paperwork and processing.
“We need to take care of the cemeteries,” he said.
Leaders in Danbury and New Fairfield are also working with West COG on plans to create a walking and biking trail through the Margerie Reservoir, which straddles both municipalities along Route 37.
This project has been in the works for more than a decade, but West COG secured funding to study safety on the Route 37 corridor, which could help move the effort along.
“It’s something we both want to see completed, so I think just that continuity (in leadership) is going to help,” New Fairfield First Selectman Pat Del Monaco said.
Personal relationships between town leaders have helped further work towns need to do, Marconi said.
For example, when Ridgefield was next in line for grant money through the COG, Marconi offered his turn to Redding. He had listened to former First Selectwoman Natalie Ketcham’s plea for the funding for the Georgetown wire mill.
“That’s the type of rapport and relationships that we have, that we work together,” Marconi said. “That’s the advantage of going to a COG meeting, getting to know your colleagues.”
First selectmen and mayors are also working together outside of West COG.
Brookfield and New Milford have discussed sharing a dispatch center.
“It’s early days, but we’re thinking it could be a good thing for both towns,” Dunn said.
Sherman is also working with New Milford on sharing a number of services, including possibly teaming up on programs for seniors, Lowe said.
Danbury and Bethel are considering sharing an animal shelter. Both municipalities need a new one.
Knickerbocker and Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton have only briefly discussed the idea, agreeing they would revisit it if they were re-elected.
Bethel is repairing its shelter to meet state standards, but this is only a temporary fix. Danbury is tearing down its old shelter on Plumtrees Road and building a new one that Bethel could use. Danbury averages five dogs a week, while Bethel has fewer.
“An extra dog is not going to be a problem for us,” Boughton said.
Sharing ideas and building relationships
The town leaders across the state work together in many ways, not just on actual concrete projects. For many, a key part of this partnership is simply being able to share ideas.
“I was pleased,” Lowe said. “I’m just getting to know all of the town leaders. I really appreciate working with them and didn’t want to see that interrupted.”
He said the leaders also gather for an informal monthly lunch where they can share ideas and discuss what challenges they’re seeing in their own towns. He added that they all work well together and an outsider looking in would have a hard time discerning who belongs to which party.
The town leaders have looked out for each other through natural disasters and tragedies, such as the Sandy Hook shooting, Boughton said.
“The mayors and first selectman in the region get along really, really well,” he said. “Many of us have been in office a long time and have mutual respect for each other and have been supportive of each other through thick and thin.”
New Milford Mayor Pete Bass said everyone welcomed him and helped him adjust when he was elected in 2017 and now having even more re-elected leaders in the region with the institutional knowledge better helps them tackle issues.
“It’s really good for our community,” he said. “If we can all do it better, then it’s better for everyone.”