January 25, 2022

Essex Selectmen Candidates Hold Cordial Debate Before Large Crowd

Large crowd gathered for Essex Selectman candidate debate (photo courtesy of Jerome Wilson)

ESSEX— The competing candidates for first selectman and board of selectmen held a cordial campaign debate Tuesday before a large crowd of residents.

About 250 residents packed the auditorium at town hall to watch Democratic Selectman Norman Needleman, the party’s candidate for first selectman and Republican nominee Bruce MacMillian debate local issues and priorities. Also participating were Republican Selectman Joel Marzi and Democratic Selectman nominee Stacia Rice Libby. The first selectman seat is open this year with the departure of four term Democratic First Selectman Phil Miller, who was elected state representative in a February special election.

The candidates responded to written questions posed by Essex Librarian Richard Conroy during the 75-minute debate. The questions were submitted by residents in advance, with no questions from the audience. The candidates remained cordial throughout the debate, with all participants shaking hands at the end.

Bruce MacMillian (photo courtesy Jenny Tripp)

But despite the friendly tone, differences emerged on some issues. MacMillian, a former Travelers Insurance Company executive who chaired the Essex Housing Authority from 2005-2007, said he would use the powers of persuasion that go with the first selectman position to attract new businesses to vacant store fronts and commercial buildings in town. “I want to be the chief salesman for the town,” MacMillian said, adding that he would consider offering incentives for the right kind of business development.

Needleman, the founder of the Tower Laboratories manufacturing business who served on the economic development commission before being elected selectman in 2003, maintained Essex is “still faring very well,” despite some commercial vacancies because it is a “well maintained” town with “excellent education, reasonable services, and low taxes.” He suggested filling some large commercial spaces would be a challenge in the continuing slow national economy.

Neither candidate advocated quick action to adopt a blight ordinance, an option that was considered by the board of selectmen last year but never brought to a town meeting vote. MacMillian said he would make personal appeals to owners of unsightly properties, including long vacant commercial structures, before bringing a blight ordinance to the voters for approval.

Norman Needleman (Photo courtesy Jenny Tripp)

Needleman said two of three vacant residential properties that prompted calls for a blight ordinance last year have now been sold and improved. He also favored talking to property owners first, noting “talk is what we need to do before considering the sledgehammer of a blight ordinance.”

The candidates also differed on police services, with Needleman suggesting MacMillian favors a full time police department, something Needleman described as a slippery slope” towards higher costs for the town. Needleman said the town should continue with the resident state trooper program supplemented by some full-time officers. He said the exact number of town officers working with the resident state trooper should be a subject for discussion between town officials and residents.

The town currently has two full-time officers, with one officer on medical leave and another position opened up by the retirement of a senior officer in August.

MacMillian said he “thought we already had a full-time police department,” with four full-time police positions funded in recent town budgets. MacMillian said he would favor having “the current force fully staffed,” with four officers serving under one resident state trooper.

MacMillian also advocated establishing a police commission to provide advice and guidance “one the whole police issue,” including hiring, evaluations, and negotiations with the police union. He maintained there are retired law enforcement professionals living in Essex who would be willing to serve on a police commission.

Both candidates agreed Essex does not need to switch to a town manager form of government, a step that would first require drafting and adoption of a town charter. Needleman said the “first selectman model works very well,” and allows “greater accountability” to the voters. Needleman said as a selectman he has strived to have “competent professionals,” working in town hall jobs to “insure continuity,” even with changes in the elected board of selectmen.

MacMillian said he would not favor a change to the town manager form of government, noting “I thought that’s what I was interviewing for,” by running for first selectman.

Both candidates pledged to serve as a full-time first selectman. Needleman said his company is “on sound footing,” with a management team, allowing him to devote full time to the first selectman position. MacMillian said he is currently retired and would be a full-time first selectman with “no other commitments or distractions.”

The top three vote-getters on Nov. 8, including a possible losing candidate for first selectman, will be elected as the board of selectmen for the 2011-2013 term.

See related story to watch video recordings of debate