Nearing the end of an ordeal that began in mid-December of last year, Ridgefield residents gathered Saturday morning for a little democracy in action.
The three candidates in the special election to decide whether Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark remains in her position until November debated at Veterans Park Elementary School for the first and only time before the town votes on April 27.
The debate, sponsored by the League of Women voters, featured the unaffiliated-running Republican Kozlark, the Republican Town Committee-nominated Marty Heiser and the Independent-nominated Tony DiPreta.
After former Selectwoman Joan Plock resigned from the position late last year, Heiser and Kozlark both came forward to interview with the remaining board, which opted for Kozlark – the RTC felt slighted by the decision and called for the special election by gathering a petition.
The two Republicans spent much of the morning in stride, demonstrating similar views regarding specific issues in town. DiPreta often had a slightly different view from his opponents.
One subject that was bound to differentiate the candidates was that of next year’s school budget, which Heiser recently voted as a member of the Board of Finance to cut by about $850 thousand, or 1.81 percent, against both the Board of Education’s and the Board of Selectmen’s recommendations of 2.9 percent and 2.49 percent respectively.
Heiser stood by the finance board’s vote.
“It was a painful and difficult vote,” Heiser said. “It can be done, but I’m not saying it’s going to be easy.”
He recommended the Board of Education make these cuts to teachers’ salaries and benefits and look into further cuts in energy costs and health insurance.
Kozlark, on the other hand, defended the Board of Education and its budget.
“The Board of Education had worked very hard to keep their budget down,” Kozlark said. “The cuts made by the Board of Finance are detrimental to the school system and to the town – $850 thousand was just way too much.”
DiPreta felt the schools could be run more like a business, he said, and that the Board of Education should be more aggressive in cutting costs on products for the schools. He also mentioned his stance against the possible purchase of a cell tower, to which the town would contribute $350 thousand, money that could be used by the schools, he said.
Both Heiser and Kozlark stood in favor of the cell tower to be built in Ridgebury pending further authorization.
A question that started the debate regarding past decisions by the Board of Selectmen gave some trouble to Kozlark, who indicated she was “comfortable and pleased” with the decisions made by the board in the last two years.
Heiser, who had a few more minutes to come up with an answer, mentioned the legal issues with former firefighter Nick Gaeta as a “reprehensible” action by the Board of Selectmen. He also mentioned the struggling economy and the board’s tendency to “be all things to all people” rather than being more selective in choosing projects.
DiPreta focused on the treatment of senior citizens and veterans as a subject he would have voted differently from the board in the last few years.
Among the subjects on which both Heiser and Kozlark agreed were their support of upcoming additions to the library, their conservative support for closing an elementary school if or when enrollment drops and their support of bringing gas lines to the schools to save money on utilities.
DiPreta, on these same subjects, felt the library additions were brought forward at the wrong time economically, was opposed to closing a school and felt there would be other ways to save besides bring a gas line to the school.
The audience behaved the whole time as per LWV rules except for one comment that brought a few murmurs.
During his closing remarks, Heiser mentioned that there was only one Republican on the Board of Selectmen. There are in fact two in Kozlark and Selectman Andrew Bodner, but the RTC has indicated in written statements their lack of support for Kozlark as a Republican candidate.
The election will take place April 27 for the entire town to vote, and debate moderator Jean Rabinow urged those in attendance – only about 100 people – to spread the word.