Legislators talk policy, politics with residents

State Rep. Fred Camillo (R-151st) was part of the coffee hour where Greenwich's delegation met with residents about their concerns.

State Rep. Fred Camillo (R-151st) was part of the coffee hour where Greenwich’s delegation met with residents about their concerns.

If you like your coffee with a side of politics then the Glory Days diner was the place to be Monday morning as residents met with Greenwich’s legislative delegation to Hartford.

The informal discussion over coffee was led by State Rep. Livvy Floren (R-149th) but featured the full participation of State Reps. Stephen Walko (R-150th) and Fred Camillo (R-151st) as well. State Sen. L. Scott Frantz (R-36th) even made an unadvertised appearance to join in on various topics including state spending, the possibility of tolls, and education. More than a dozen residents turned out for what Ms. Floren said she hopes will be an event they do again soon.

“We want to hear your concerns and do what we can to answer them,” Ms. Floren said.

Political columnist and author Sarah Littman was among those at the table and she pressed the delegation for more transparency on education spending in the state, claiming that taxpayers did not know how much was being spent on ineffective charter schools at the expense of public schools in the state.

“So much money has been handed over willy-nilly and there hasn’t been transparency and accountability,” Ms. Littman told the delegation, noting that long-term bonding had been used to buy short-term technology for schools, which she said made no financial sense.

Ms. Littman took exception to fellow attendee Owen Dowd’s contention that this was because state government was run by Democrats and noted that not only was Mr. Frantz on the bonding committee but had voted to do the long-term financing for the short-term technology. Mr. Camillo spoke up and said that many of the bills that are approved in Hartford have “something objectionable in them.”

“We have to weigh the good versus the bad,” Mr. Camillo said. “How many bills have we looked at that were 80% good and 20% bad?”

Ms. Littman wondered why Mr. Frantz, who has been a vocal critic of growing state debt, would vote for bills like these and he said there wasn’t much choice in the matter.

“Every bill that’s in front of us essentially increases state debt and you can say yes or no, but if you say no on them then people will be saying that Greenwich representatives aren’t voting on anything,” Mr. Frantz said.

Mr. Walko added that it was extremely difficult in Hartford to have an overall, comprehensive policy due to the “massive bureaucracy” and the change that happened every two years because of elections. A former chairman of the town’s Board of Estimate and Taxation, he said it was very different than what it was in Greenwich where you could pursue that kind of overall economic policy. Mr. Walko said it was unfair to continue to saddle future generations with debt and there had to be spending done that was “effective for the citizens of Connecticut.”

Ms. Littman pressed the issue of transparency and Ms. Floren said the delegation had pushed for an online portal that just opened, showing transparency for each commission and agency in state government. Mr. Frantz had particularly been an advocate of making every dollar spent on economic and community development traceable so it can be determined how effectively companies are using those grant dollars.

Alan Gunzberg brought up his hope to see the state focus more on mental health issues, especially for schools.

“I know the governor has set up a blue ribbon panel, again, to study mental health for children but we’re still leaving our most fragile in a dangerous situation,” Mr. Gunzberg said.

Ms. Floren and her colleagues said they were eager to help.

“I think mental health, across the board, was something we should have addressed last session and we didn’t,” Ms. Floren said. “It’s going to be, I believe, the number one priority going forward, especially in early identification and early intervention.”

Ms. Littman also urged focus on this issue, saying that an issue she’s noticed after working extensively with children in Greenwich is parental pressure, which can lead to trauma. She recalled working at Greenwich High School and being appalled by a parent saying there was pressure on the parents because of the worry of how they will be judged if their kids don’t go to Ivy League schools and how she wanted to tell that parent to go get therapy because “it’s not about you, it’s about your kids.”

“These kids, even in private schools, are talking about the pressure facing kids from society and from their parents,” Ms. Littman said. “In fact I was teaching an essay course and one of these kids wrote that you can escape all these pressures from society but you can’t escape your parents. There is so much pressure and it’s impacting our educational policy with the focus on the test scores above all. We have to recognize that is creating a lot of mental health pressure on our children.”

Gabe DeLuca said he agreed there was too much of a focus on test scores and not enough on teaching kids common sense so they can interact with other people. Ms. Floren said that the legislature has focused on this and pointed to the renovation and reopening of Wright Tech, a state trade school in Stamford.

“Not every kid can go to college but we can get them employment ready,” Ms. Floren sad.,

A topic that particularly concerned resident Demosthenes Kostas is the continued operation of the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant in New York. Its close proximity to Greenwich has led many people in town to call for it to be shut down over fears it is built on a fault line. Mr. Kostas said closing it would be “the most important thing you have done or will do,” citing the earthquake in Japan that damaged the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, an issue still being dealt with.

“We have a time bomb at Indian Point,” Mr. Kostas said. “It can destroy America, not only us… It gives me nightmares to be sitting on a time bomb and we have to get going on having it shut down. If we get an earthquake, this could be another Fukushima. If you guys could do something about that it would be the greatest thing you’ve ever done for yourselves, for the state and for the country.”

Ms. Floren said the delegation had voiced “a lot of concern about that” and there had been many meetings about it between Connecticut and New York. She pledged that she would look into the issue some more with her colleagues.

“More has to be done,” Mr. Kostas urged.

The difficulty of bringing about needed improvements was also discussed, as Ms. Floren accepted a thank-you from Mr. DeLuca about how work had been done on the roads around his home. The street was repainted to add yellow X’s where cars were not permitted to stop and block. Ms Floren said even something as simple as that could end up a struggle.

“You’d have thought we were asking people to give up their first born,” Ms. Floren said. “It was unbelievable. It took us two years to get it done but we’re very happy to get it done.”

Mr. Dowd did have some suggestions as well for the political future of one of the event’s participants. He relayed a conversation he recently had with Mr. Frantz where he had urged him to run against current U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). A first-term senator and a Greenwich resident, Mr. Blumenthal is up for re-election in 2016 and Mr. Dowd said he thought Mr. Frantz would make the ideal challenger for him.

“I don’t care how much money Blumenthal can get from his father-in-law, Scott can beat him,” Mr. Dowd said. “I told him it was time and he can beat him. [Blumenthal] has nothing. He’s feckless. He’s like our president. Scott is attractive and smart and has the money. I don’t know what’s holding him back.”

Mr. Dowd offered several strong criticisms of Mr. Blumenthal and, particularly, President Barack Obama during the event, at one point leading Ms. Floren to get a laugh from the table by asking, “Tell us how you really feel.”

Speaking to the Post after the event, Mr. Frantz didn’t exactly rule out the idea, but nor did he commit to it. Mr. Frantz has long been considered within Republican circles to be a good candidate for higher office and the door could be open to a 2016 run.

“That’s down the road,” Mr. Frantz said. “It’s actually too far ahead at this point. I’m always willing to serve the people in the position that’s the most appropriate and the most effective.”

Resident Catherine Sidor said that change needed to come to state government.

“This spring there have been so many negative statistics about where Connecticut is in terms of its business environment and tourism,” Ms. Sidor said. “I’m hoping this session you’re going to take that on and say is this the reputation we want the state to have?”

Ms. Floren promised that would happen.

“We are going to take that on,” Ms. Floren said. “The state’s slogan is ‘Still Revolutionary’ and I think there’s going to be a revolution.”

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