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Madison first selectman candidates Peggy Lyons (D) and incumbent Tom Banisch (R) answered questions at the Oct. 24 League of Women Voters and the Madison Parent Representative Council debate. (Photo by Jesse Williams/The Source | Buy This Photo)
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Less than two weeks to go until the 2019 municipal elections on Nov. 5, the hotly contested race for Madison first selectman took center stage as incumbent Tom Banisch (R) and challenger Peggy Lyons (D) sat down for a wide-ranging debate that saw both candidates sparring over town’s most pressing and controversial issues.
Hosted by the League of Women Voters and the Madison Parent Representative Council and moderated by League of Women Voter President Elise Low, Lyons and Banisch took turns fielding community-submitted questions in front of about 150 residents at Polson Middle School on Oct. 24, with chances to respond and rebut through the course of the hour-long event.
Questions were screened by the non-partisan members of Parent Representative Council, and covered both specific, controversial topics such as the fate of Academy School, as well as challenging candidates to articulate their vision and emphasizes important objectives that they would like to reach over the next two-year term.
Lyons, a former finance professional with experience on Madison’s Board of Finance and as a member of the police commission, has run her campaign on increasing cooperation and communication in town along with a focus on long-term vision and goals.
“I’ve watched how our town government functions, seen what we do well, and seen where we can do better,” Lyons said in her opening statement. “Madison is at an important crossroads. We can choose to stay with the old ways of procrastination and stagnation, or we can choose to move forward with more dynamic leadership.”
Banisch, the two-term incumbent, has maintained his campaign focus on fiscal responsibility, keeping taxes low, and an emphasis on sound business and economic policy in the face of decreased support from the state.
“We face real challenges ahead. Property taxes are the number one issue,” said Banisch in his opening remarks. “As more taxpayers leave Connecticut, those of us that remain are carrying a heavier burden.
“As first selectman, I’ve met those challenges, and I will continue to dedicate my time and energy to keeping Madison residents my priority,” he stated.
Though both candidates had chances to spell out their larger priorities and vision—with Lyons speaking about bringing together different parts of the town government and putting together comprehensive and actionable plans and Banisch holding steady to his accomplishments in infrastructure and commitment to fiscal responsibility—the debate’s biggest moments came when discussing specific projects on the town’s horizon.
A question about upcoming school maintenance, asking candidates to choose between an $84 million renewal plan that would see the building of a new elementary school and the option of funding approximately $100 million in maintenance projects over the next 10 years, illustrated two distinct visions for Madison.
Banisch answered first, saying that he does not support the $84 million renewal plan, citing tax increases and other financial considerations of such a large expenditure, and criticized the “politicization” of the process. He also claimed that he had reached out to other stakeholders as the town sought a solution.
Lyons disagreed with that conclusion.
“I don’t think the First Selectman’s Office has taken an active, participatory role in trying to find a solution to [the school facilities],” she said.
“There was a bipartisan committee that spent a year and a half doing this—they had 55 meetings and they took 60 options down to two—and you did not participate in that process at all,” Lyons said to Banisch. “On top of that, the Board of Education reviewed the plan; you did not attend any of those meetings. So the first time the Board of Education learned you did not support this was two weeks ago in a public meeting, when you said you were scared of the numbers you saw. These numbers have been there for three years, and I’m not afraid of them.”
Lyons did not commit to supporting either plan, but emphasized that waiting to make a decision would only cause further problems, as the underlying costs were not going away.
Banisch largely refrained from direct criticism or confrontation with Lyons. Instead, he spent much of his time laying out the improvements and accomplishments in Madison that he has overseen, including a recent $1 million addition to the Grand List, lobbying efforts at the state level that have protected Madison residents from harmful state policies, and an overarching Plan of Conservation and Development that he said has been very successful at bringing business into the town.
“We’re starting to see the fruits of that, in the types of businesses and the types of developers that are interested in being a part of the town,” Banisch said.
Banisch also offered a strong position on mitigating tax increases, another signature issue of his campaign.
“I think what we need to do is have a plan,” he said. “Our finance director...has a plan on how we can manage our debt and our capital interchangeably to hold things at a level that’s reasonable and still [get] things done that we need to get done.”
Another notable moment in the debate came over the Academy School issue, when Banisch, who has made his views on the school very clear, was asked what outcome he would like to see for the property.
Laughter from the audience momentarily prevented Banisch from answering, with many audience members clearly familiar with his position on the subject.
“I’ve been very verbal about this...I believe that Academy School should be sold to a private developer,” Banisch said.
A $14 million plan to turn Academy into a community center is currently making its way through the town’s budgetary process. Banisch said he thought the town could still sell the property while reserving some space for public functions, which he said would be more fiscally responsible and realistic.
Lyons for her part, said she felt residents had already made their thoughts clear on the subject.
“People want to keep Academy in community hands,” she said. “I think the bigger question isn’t whether or not the town should keep it, but what business plan is going to run it.”
Lyons said she would have the town planner put together that plan, which she claimed could prevent the project becoming a tax burden.
A Madison Cable Access video of the debate is available at www.youtube.com—search “madisontv.org.”
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