First Selectman Paul Giusti Q&A
Q: After New Canaan was notified of an award against the town in the Lakeview Avenue Bridge Arbitration, there was a breakdown in communication. First Selectman Jeb Walker took responsibility for not notifying all the town bodies about the award. As a result, residents have become uncomfortable regarding transparency in government. What steps would you take as First Selectman to ensure transparency across the board?
A: There are two broad areas regarding transparency to address: The specific area regarding any litigation or arbitration and the general day-to-day work of the town's government.
In regard to legal and arbitration issues, transparency is most needed in the financial aspects of any dispute. A separate budget that contains the anticipated costs as well as the range of outcomes is required for any significant litigation or arbitration. When this information is then shared with the various town bodies, all members will have an understanding of the potential financial ramifications of pursuing various outcomes.
Certain issues, such as legal strategy, possible settlements and other related issues will need to be handled in executive session to provide the necessary confidentiality. That said, it is incumbent upon the new administration to bring the appropriate town elected and appointed officials into these executive sessions to assure a common understanding of the legal issues and improve communication.
There have been a number of improvements to transparency in the day-to-day work of the town government in recent years, including the televising of most Board of Selectmen, Town Council, Board of Finance, Board of Education and Planning & Zoning meetings. This, coupled with access to the video of these meetings online, provides an opportunity for any New Canaan resident to watch these proceedings at their convenience.
Other enhancements, such as allowing emailed questions to the Town Council at public hearings, are a good use of technology to allow for better interaction.
Another way to improve transparency is to create a process for New Canaan residents to sign up for a monthly email that will come from Town Hall and provide updates about important town issues. This can also allow for return emailed questions that, again, will increase transparency regarding town activities."
Q: New Canaan residents seem to have a reputation as being resistant to change. In terms of maintaining the character and charm of town that may be seen as a good thing. However, when it comes to running local businesses, it may be a disadvantage. What changes, if any, must be made downtown so that the empty storefronts are filled again while not compromising the character of town the residents feel so strongly about?
A: It is clear that the challenges created by the recession have had a significant impact on New Canaan and our downtown. Competition from online shopping and big box retailers also has created enormous pressure on the ability for local retailers to compete.
While the single biggest thing that will help our downtown is an improvement in the economy, there are some things that the town can do. We need to have a "hands-on," integrated approach in order to increase our downtown's economic vitality and to attract new businesses. This requires taking the results of the Market Demand Study and then bringing together the various parties that have a common interest in downtown, such as the landlords, business owners, town officials and the Chamber of Commerce. With leadership from the first selectman, this group will be tasked with having a unified approach to attract new businesses and to retain those that are already here, creating focus, direction and accountability for our downtown efforts.
The town can also support the efforts to build upon successful events downtown -- from the sidewalk sale to restaurant week to the Holiday Stroll. These events create a reason for local residents as well as people from outside New Canaan to come downtown to dine, shop and enjoy the ambience.
Maintaining the classic New England look, feel and character of downtown is essential to assure our long-term success. This is a large part of what makes New Canaan special and why people want to shop or dine in our town in the first place. The instinct to preserve our downtown and not make any changes that would affect the character has served us well.
Q: You have stated several times that you have the support of many of the Republicans in the current administration including First Selectman Jeb Walker and several members of Town Council and the Board of Finance. While some might view this as a positive, there are others who are not happy with the status quo. Those residents would likely want to see a change in the next administration. How would you respond to those residents?
A: My response is to ask those residents to look at the positive role that I have played in serving New Canaan over the past 10 years and to make a decision on that basis. The reason that so many members of the Town Council and Board of Finance support me is because they have seen firsthand my work ethic, dedication to our town and leadership on important issues. They have worked with me side-by-side as we have tackled difficult problems and made structural changes.
The recession has created significant problems for our town. Several years ago when the economy began to deteriorate, the town leaders recognized the need to change our approach to managing the town's finances and approving the annual budget. With the understanding that we needed to work together to get the town through some difficult times, we found ways to reduce municipal expenses, work more efficiently and improve communication.
Those efforts resulted in some important accomplishments: reducing municipal debt $19.5 million in the past four years; historically low tax increases for the past three years; maintaining a fully funded pension; and retaining the municipal highest bond rating. We were able to provide the needed resources to our school system which was recognized by Connecticut Magazine as number one in the state.
None of these accomplishments were easy. They took an enormous amount of effort by a large number of dedicated volunteers who worked together for a common goal -- improving the financial health of our town.
Importantly, I have my own leadership style that focuses on listening, analyzing information, building consensus and then taking action. My approach will be to provide the leadership necessary to bring people together in order to accomplish important town goals.