DEEP RIVER — The town showed its affection and appreciation for the late First Selectman Richard H. “Smitty” Smith Monday as hundreds gathered at sunset around town hall in a vigil for the longtime municipal leader who died suddenly Friday at age 65.
The vigil, which precedes the funeral for Smith Thursday at 11 a.m. at St. Joseph Church in Chester, came as the two remaining members of the board of selectman, Democrat Angus McDonald Jr. and Republican David Oliveria, scheduled a special meeting for Thursday to discuss the process for filling the vacancy for the remainder of Smith’s term that runs through November 2017.
McDonald, who joined Oliveria to meet with town hall employees Monday afternoon, said the special meeting that begins at 5:30 p.m. in town hall would review “temporary organizational changes to cover leadership in the coming month.” McDonald, who was first elected with Smith in 2011, said he and Oliveria are still discussing who would assume the full-time job of interim first selectman through the unexpired term. The appointment of either McDonald or Oliveria to the top job would also create a new vacancy on the board of selectman.
“Dick Smith leaves a remarkable legacy to service, commitment, and dedication to the people of Deep River,” McDonald said. “While we know we can never replace him, we have an obligation to our community to move quickly to fill the vacancy.”
Town officials from both political parties joined elected officials from around the state in praising Smith, a Democrat whose 26-year tenure made him one of the longest serving municipal chief elected officials for both Middlesex County and the entire state. A South Carolina native who arrived in Connecticut around 1970, Smith was elected first selectman in 1989, and had been unopposed for a 14th consecutive term in the town election last fall. Smith had also served as a part-time town police officer since 1973.
Oliveria, first elected to the board in 2009, said Smith had done “an incredible job as first selectman running all aspects of the town.” Town Treasurer Tom Lindner, a Republican who was elected to the part-time position in 1989, said Smith was “always there for everybody in Deep River.”
Speakers at the vigil, where residents of Deep River and other nearby towns held lighted candles and roses in honor of the longtime town leader, recalled Smith’s tireless dedication to the town and its people. Jonathan Kastner, the first selectman’s assistant and friend, said Smith was “a problem solver who somehow found a way to keep adversaries from being too adversarial.” State Rep. Phil Miller, a former first selectman of Essex, said Smith was “a role model for anyone in any kind of public service.”
Smith built a record of accomplishment that changed and improved Deep River during his 26 years as first selectman. There is the row of fully occupied industrial buildings at the Plattwood Park Industrial Area off Rte. 80, a 20-year- development process where Smith earned statewide recognition for using state and federal grant funds to construct buildings for small or start-up businesses as a way to help grow the town’s tax base. One of Smith’s most recent accomplishments was a Main Street redevelopment effort that began in 2005, and concluded in 2009 with construction of a Walgreen’s pharmacy on the former Deep River Inn parcel, along with various streetscape improvements for the entire length of Main Street.
State statute gives the two remaining selectmen up to 30 days from March 26, the day after Smith’s death, to appoint an interim first selectman who would serve until November 2017. The appointment could be forced to a special election by a petition with signatures from five percent of the town’s total voter registration, or about 158 voter signatures, that must be submitted within 15 days after any appointment to fill the vacancy.
Editor’s Note: Deep River resident and professional photographer Kim Tyler, who graciously supplied all of these photos to ValleyNewsNow.com for publication, has also generously agreed to make many of the photos that she took at the vigil available to our readers at no charge. We applaud her wonderful act of public service. The photos will be uploaded later this evening and we will provide a link to them at that time. For more information about Kim Tyler Photography, visit ktphoto.net