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High School Students Put DaRos and McConnell in the Hot Seat

Two juniors honors current issues classes did their homework and put the first selectman candidates to the test.

Last week -D and challenger -R to debate the current state of Branford politics. Yesterday, they faced a sea of mostly new constituents: nearly 100 Branford High School students who asked them tough questions about what it takes to be a first selectman and run this town.

Joel Hinrichs and Nick Rizzi, co-teachers of two juniors honors current issues classes, helped students prepare to meet their first selectman candidates and they apparently did a thorough job. Students held nothing back, asking the candidates about their thoughts on and the use of eminent domain – specifically as it relates to the Tabor property.

Hinrichs said students enjoy national news in his class but the local politics helps make current events more real to them. “The idea of a Costco,” he said, “that makes it real to them in a way. It gets them very interested to be able to talk with the candidates and be able to get their questions heard.”

To prepare questions for the Town Hall-style debate yesterday, Hinrichs had students read Branford Patch (they actually crashed the website last week!), WTNH, New Haven Register, The Sound and other online and print media sources.

Jennifer Flynn asked the first question to first-time political candidate Joy McConnell: What past experience makes you a good fit for first selectman?

McConnell responded that her background in education as a teacher and her study of law made her fit for the job. The most important part of the job, she told students, “is making appointments.” She added, “Appointments really help you run the town.”

DaRos said “decisions” are what makes a good selectman. “Not unilateral, decisions but decisions made through process.”

After asking some background about the candidates – what’s your day-to-day like and what gives you the upper hand verses your opponent –Bryanna Willaby started the heavy conversation of eminent domain. When do you use it, she asked?

DaRos told the students that Branford’s only case of using eminent domain was for health and safety reasons regarding the Tabor property and its contamination. “When it’s done correctly,” said DaRos of the process of taking property, “it’s a smooth operation.”

McConnell told students that eminent domain should be used in very limited circumstances like the need for a town to place a highway or other necessary infrastructure on private land. “To me,” McConnell said of eminent domain, “it’s very anti-freedom.”

She went on to tell students that Tabor cost the town $20 million. “The argument can be made that it wasn’t done properly,” she told students.

Things got heated as DaRos fired back that the town’s current costs for Tabor were $13.7 million, not $20 million.

Later Flynn was back in charge of the examining and asked the closing question to DaRos about where the $13.7 million comes from?

The town, answered DaRos, gets the money from a special fund. The town, he told students, can borrow what’s called long-term money for projects that span generations. Though Tabor cost $13.6 million and may cost as much as $20 million later, DaRos said it saved future generations more because building housing on the property could have created lawsuits for the town down the line.

To DaRos’ point of “borrowing money”, McConnell added that even though the money is borrowed, it’s still “tax payer’s money.” This point, she said after the debate, was the most important issue she hoped students understood. “How you pay for things,” she said, “you don’t understand until you become a taxpayer.”

The Tabor debate continued into the second class where students pressed even harder. “Would you use eminent domain in your next term” asked Charles Fowler to DaRos?

DaRos responded that he would only use it if he felt the public’s health and safety were involved.

McConnell said, “I absolutely would not have used eminent domain in that case.”

Moving on from Tabor, the hottest topic from this group was Costco. Jack Morley asked, “Bringing a large corporation such as Costco to town, how do you think that would affect small businesses like ?”

McConnell said “Small businesses I speak to are telling me that they are concerned with making their numbers.” She told the students that Costco would become an anchor store for small business to drive more traffic to them.

DaRos responded that he is not in favor of box stores but believes that Branford’s small businesses can benefit from Costco. Forty percent of the warehouse’s business, he continued is from clients like restaurants and small business. He then added that he’d like to see manufacturing or an industry-based business come to town to create jobs in addition to commerce. “Retail stores are not the best bang for your dollar... bring jobs that people can afford to live on the shoreline,” he said.

McConnell said Costco would help to level taxes and lift the burden from the homeowners.

Megan Wirtz furthered asking McConnell to explain how she intended to deal with additional traffic caused by Costco.

“What we really need,” she said to Wirtz, “is a very clear master plan for the town. If you are really going to bring Costco in, you need to plan properly.”

DaRos noted that when he was in office, Walmart came calling to Branford and he facilitated the move-in of the large store among Branford’s more than 2,000 businesses. He told the small business owners, he recanted, “You are going to have to change the way you do business.”

“You look at the Branford Green and its one of the most vibrant Greens in Connecticut if not New England… one of the most important things is to maintain a vibrant town center,” DaRos said of the balance of big verses small business.

The questions carried on about infrastructure, town plans, tax burden and hurricane response; the students were not easy. They listened, took notes and pushed the candidates further, asking follow-up questions.

Regardless of where they stood, or how competitive their debating became, both McConnell and DaRos seemed to be united in one thing: their pride of the Branford High School students. 

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