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The election that will determine the next first selectman is a few weeks away, but that hasn’t stopped people from asking Democratic candidate Peggy Lyons for her help when they encounter a problem they think their government should be addressing—something like a pothole-covered road or a missing street sign.
“It’s funny, because as a candidate, I’m already getting those calls,” she said.
In doing the footwork of campaigning—making phone calls, knocking on doors, and other sorts of outreach—Lyons said she has understood more and more that the people of Madison have a lot to say, and that they want their town officials to respond in meaningful ways.
“You’re never going to be able to solve all these problems,” she said. “Some of them probably aren’t going to be government issues...but at least [they] should be acknowledged, recorded, and at least addressed in some way.”
What exactly Madison residents want, and what their expectations are for government leadership might not be easy to generalize or quantify, with both looming long-term issues and plenty of everyday problems requiring action. Lyons said she’s familiar with many of these challenges, and feels like she has the tools to implement the kind of government that Madison needs.
Lyons is a 12-year resident of Madison, her husband David’s hometown. For her, Madison fulfilled a vision she had held onto since college of the kind of place that she hoped to settle down in—something with a “New England spirit” and small-town vibes.
“I’ve [also] always wanted to live near the beach,” Lyons said. “This seemed like, to be honest, a dream to be able to come down here, raise a family here in this beautiful location.”
A Background in Finance
With a B.S. from Cornell University and an MBA from The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, Lyons worked for close to two decades at large banking and accounting companies, including UBS, Merrill Lynch, and GE. Serving previously on Madison’s Board of Finance and the Economic Development Commission and currently with a seat on the Police Commission, Lyons said there are many ways her previous experience both in and out of government are applicable to the first selectman job.
“One of the things I’m running on is planning. Successful businesses plan well; they have a vision for the future,” she said, “and they have a long-term plan to reach that vision. And I think that very much should apply to government.”
Lyons cited the Plan of Conservation and Development, a 2013 document adopted by the Planning & Zoning Commission that provides an overarching framework for positive developments in the town. While lauding the motivation and potential of the plan, Lyons said nothing had really come out of it.
“It’s just sitting on a shelf,” she said.
Lyons spoke about several other long-term vision initiatives, from the Downtown Center Project and several economic development studies, which she said are somewhat disconnected and only address small cross-sections of the town. She described these as “a very good starting point,” but said there was a need to bring them all together.
Lyons described the Board of Selectmen 10-year Strategic Plan that made a similar attempt this past summer as “more aspirational than action-oriented.”
The Big Challenges
More immediately, as first selectman, Lyons would have to deal with some other big projects, namely, Academy School, and a school district trying to adapt to aging facilities and declining enrollment.
A $14 million proposal to turn Academy into a community center has enjoyed broad support from the public. The town is also currently considering an approximately $84 million plan to build a new elementary school that would include other maintenance and upgrades to the district.
When it comes to questions about how to pay for these projects as well as what exactly they will look like, Lyons said her job would be to collaborate with other boards and town officials and ensure that voters have all the facts they need.
“I think what we sometimes lose in this discussion is inaction costs money as well,” Lyons said, stating the need for “laying that out so that people are making informed decisions.”
As far as taxes, Lyons said keeping them as low as possible “while still delivering to citizens good value for money” would be a priority. She also said there were ways the town could “manage our costs better” from an operational standpoint.
One habit Lyons said she saw in town operations was a tendency to run government “in silos.” Lack of communication or collaboration between departments have created inefficiencies, she said. Simply streamlining how different departments source supplies could easily save the town time and money, according to Lyons.
Changing the Tenor
Protracted conflicts between the different elected boards has caused issues in Town Hall in the past. Though Lyons said she doesn’t have firsthand experience with the specifics in Madison, she said she would go into any situation of disagreement with an attitude of listening.
“A lot of the people in town government are volunteers,” said Lyons. “So people look at [it] like, ‘I’m investing all this time and energy in something and I’m a volunteer.’ That’s a very different dynamic than being an employee.”
She cited her experience navigating the “strong culture” of the investment banking world as evidence of her ability to get work done through sometimes difficult practical and interpersonal dynamics.
Another area where Madison has seen some struggles is in civic engagement. Communicating important issues and encourage participation in elections and town meetings are problems with which the town has struggled for decades. Though she said she didn’t have an easy answer to these questions, Lyons offered several ideas, including live-streaming meetings, holding question-and-answer sessions with government officials and regularly scheduled office hours with the first selectman, and offering more education on issues that will be at the ballot box.
“I’m all about increasing participation. For me, there’s only positives,” said Lyons.
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