‘The Town is in Good Hands’ vs ‘The World is Changing’
Zeoli & Moyher Face Off at Debate
Incumbent First Selectman Jim Zeoli and his challenger, Democrat Mark Moyher faced off in the first of three debates at High Plains Community Center on October 18, a debate, which at times turned philosophical, at other times allowed the challenger to needle the incumbent about his record. Responding to questions submitted by the public ahead of time, the candidates talked about leadership qualities, about education, economic development and Fred Wolfe Park.
On some issues – such as the value of open space and the need for affordable places to live – the two candidates did not disagree. But when it comes to education and the question whether or not the town should spend more of its fund balance for infrastructure improvements, they expressed very different views.
As far as education is concerned, Zeoli took the stance widely held in conservative circles that the schools don’t teach enough of the basics, reading, writing and arithmetic - or history, for that matter. “The focus in our education system is a little out of whack,” Zeoli said, adding how some high school students have a hard time doing mental math or writing cursive. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) and questions of sexual identity were never mentioned, but the background upon which these battles are fought nationally. “There is such a thing as parenting,” Zeoli said, cautiously treading a fine line.
Moyher on the other hand embraced a more liberal stance. “We can’t just go back 50 years – the world is changing,” he said. “You have to teach kids about things they encounter in the real world,” namely using calculators and electronic signatures. He said the first selectman needs to be supportive of the schools and make sure they have the equipment they need.
As for budgeting, Moyher criticized the town for having a fund balance of some 20%. He pointed out that the town criticizes Amity for its surpluses, but runs its own surplus, and suggested using some of that money to make infrastructure investments which will serve the town without raising taxes. For example, the town could be allocating more money for road repair and upkeep of town-owned buildings. Or the money could be used to build out Fred Wolfe Park with more amenities. He did agree with Zeoli that the town should not spend the rainy-day fund down to a level where it would lose its AAA bond rating. The bond rating determines the interest to be paid when the town borrows money for projects.
In his opening statement, Moyher pointed to his background in the financial sector. “I am confident I will be able to handle the fiscal responsibility that this town expects, while judiciously using our overfunded balance to address the needs of the community.”
Asked about the effect of the revaluation, which is under way, Zeoli pointed out that the value of houses and property may go up, but that does not necessarily mean that taxes will go up commensurately. If the value increases, the mill rate will decrease, so that the income for the town stays about the same.
Moyher pointed out that Orange chose to delay revaluation, which per state statute was due last year. But the state offered deferment as an option, and the town chose to defer. “We took a gamble,” Moyher said. In the end, home prices continued to increase.
As for providing housing opportunities, Zeoli had a leg up. Developers have been adding condos, apartments and even most recently some affordable units on Smith Farm Road. Zeoli welcomed all those new developments. He admitted that the new apartment buildings, which are not age restricted, may put some strain on the schools, but there is a need for housing, particularly for young people and seniors.
Similarly, there was a need for active adult housing, which contributed to the success of Fieldstone Village, he said. At the same time the town is offering “excellent services” to help seniors stay in their homes as long as possible.
One question asked the candidates how they would balance economic development with environmental impact, which gave both candidates the chance to lay out their environmental credentials.
“The environment is pretty important to all of us,” said Zeoli. He brought up the fact that he recently helped institute a food scrap recycling program in Orange. Residents can now bring their food scraps to the transfer station where they can dump them in designated toters. Recycling food waste costs half as much as disposing of it as part of the municipal trash.
Moyher has been a member of the town’s recycling committee for many years, and was actively involved in shredding day and similar events. He pointed out that Orange had not signed up to participate in the Sustainable CT program. Participating towns are presented with an array of ways to reduce their carbon footprint, and in return can get grants.
One issue that Zeoli has been criticized for is the lack of a systematic approach when planning uses at Fred Wolfe Park. Most recently a beautiful, inclusive playground went up close to where cars enter the park. When asked about further development, he referred to the ad-hoc committee working on the plans. A traffic safety study has been commissioned. However, Zeoli at the debate ruled out two things – developing more playing fields would require the purchase of additional mowing equipment, which he did not agree with; and no splash pad. Water parks are “a maintenance nightmare,” he said.
Moyher agreed that the playground is a great addition. But he questioned why Zeoli is resisting efforts to include the town-owned 14 acres that are currently farmed for corn. He also wondered why Orange was not on the list of communities receiving STEAP grants this year. And finally, he was wondering why Orange Soccer Association co-chair Tom Pisano, who has been getting into numerous arguments with Zeoli over the lack of planning for the park, was not appointed to the committee. Nobody knows the facility like Pisano does, Moyher said, and he could have brought perspective to the process.
Zeoli explained that the town hadn’t received the grant funds for the playground yet, which made them ineligible to apply for another STEAP grant. Zeoli pointed out that the petition circulated by Pisano, and announced repeatedly at the Board of Selectmen, was not a valid petition.
The petition is to cancel the lease of the 14 acres of cornfields, which are leased to the Hine Family, and to incorporate the area into the park for the benefit of the people. The petition, authored by resident Erika Higgins, was signed by 568 people on Change.org. The issue for the online petition is that people add their email addresses instead of the personal address. But according to the Orange charter, signers must identify their local street address.
When it comes to catching up with the electronic age, Moyher criticized that the town has no reliable vehicle of communication. The town’s website is woefully out of date, and people need to follow Zeoli’s personal Facebook page to find out what’s going on. Moyher suggested email blasts that are used in other towns to keep residents in the loop.
Zeoli said his communication method was through announcements at the Board of Selectmen meetings. He said he expects the town’s groups to do their own announcements. “I don’t micromanage the departments,” he said. And “I don’t believe in 30-second news.”
In his closing statement Zeoli defended his record of being approachable for anyone, irrespective of party or other affiliation. He said his method of talking to people directly gets fast results, such as most recently when he heard that the playground equipment at the fairgrounds was in bad shape. He immediately brought it to the attention of the selectmen and is in talks with a playground equipment company.
“I think I have proven to the town of Orange fiscal responsibility, management responsibility, and being able to deal with big problems, small problems,” he said. “The town of Orange is in good hands,” he added, and promised to move forward with economic development and housing progress.
Moyher stressed that the community needs to have a say in shaping the future of the town. “I am not – and do not wish to be – a one-man-show,” he said. “To be an effective leader you need to demonstrate confidence, compassion and character to be successful. It’s counterproductive if you deflect responsibility, lose your temper or come off as unapproachable,” he said.
Change can make people feel anxious, Moyher said, closing with a quote from Socrates, “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on the fighting the old, but on building the new.”
Zeoli reminded the audience that another debate open to the public will be hosted by Or Shalom Men’s Club, and is scheduled for Sunday, October 29 at 7 p.m. He also made mention of a potential debate on November 2 hosted by the Amity Mock Trial Club. At the time it was not clear whether that event would take place. High School Principal Andre Hauser explained that the debate would only take place if the candidates of both parties were available. It was his understanding that the students had invited the candidates of all three member towns.
“We love hearing from civic leaders,” Hauser said. “But during an election we don’t want to give the appearance of preferencing one candidate over another.”
The October 18 debate was recorded by OGAT and can be viewed on Optimum TV Channel 79, Frontier TV Channel 6063, or the OGAT YouTube channel.
You can view all the candidate bios for the 2023 municipal elections here.