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Norwich mayoral candidates have spirited exchanges in debate

By Claire Bessette

Publication: The Day

Published October 30. 2013 4:00AM   Updated October 30. 2013 11:42AM

Norwich - The three mayoral candidates sparred on many issues Tuesday - often the two major party candidates opposing the stances by their Libertarian counterpart - while all three agreed on issues such as allowing dogs in Mohegan Park, improving handicapped access to city buildings and seeking a role in negotiations between Norwich Free Academy and the public school system.

Republican incumbent Peter Nystrom defended his record spending part-time hours during his first four-year term while working another full-time job, and Democratic Alderwoman Deberey Hinchey defended her professional campaign consultant against allegations of harassment of voters and city registrars.

Libertarian William Russell has campaigned saying he represents the only real alternative, and Nystrom at one point said he and Hinchey had nearly identical voting records over the past two years on the City Council.

Questions broached many topics, with most submitted by some of the more than 80 people who attended the debate at Kelly Middle School. The debate, sponsored by The Day, is available on www.theday.com.

Nystrom said the mayor's office in the charter is a part-time position and said he has devoted many hours to the role, using all of his vacation and many of his weekends and days off on city business. Nystrom said with 27 years of experience in public office, he was able to "hit the ground running," and said he worked with developers to bring major projects to fruition, including the sale and renovation of the Marina at American Wharf and the Norwichtown Commons. He also said he helped bring national chain stores to the city.

But Hinchey, who pledged to retire from her job as a clinical social worker, said there is plenty more that could be done during regular office hours, including meeting with developers and business owners and making the city's needs known in Hartford.

Russell wants to make the mayor's office full-time and as influential as possible. He supports a charter change to a strong mayoral form of government, including veto power on the council.

The most contentious words were exchanged over the recent complaint filed by city registrars against Hinchey's hired campaign consultant, the Vinci Group of Manchester, allegedly for voter coercion and attempted intimidation of election officials.

Hinchey said the complaint was politically motivated and was leaked to the press by an anonymous person two weeks before the election.

Nystrom objected to that position and said city election officials should be concerned when an outside professional agency is accused of harassing elderly voters. He said in one incident, a Vinci Group representative was heard screaming so loudly at city registrars that a police officer in City Hall rushed to the office.

Russell agreed with Nystrom and said voters should not support a candidate "who would hire this kind of agency."

Hinchey and Nystrom both challenged Russell's position that many city services - including recreation, the senior center and Human Services - could be converted into nonprofit agencies, with dues paid by users to support them. Russell said taxes should be used only for services everyone uses.

Nystrom and Hinchey said it probably wouldn't be legal to attempt such moves. Nystrom said city staffing is "bare bones" now, citing the loss of city housing and building inspector positions over the years and the increase in blight.

Hinchey said a city trying to attract families and businesses needs a safety net for residents in need, good schools and recreation.

"Government has a duty to help provide for our families," Hinchey said.

One question asked candidates what the city should do with the $22 million Norwich Transportation Center now that the federally and state funded parking garage that serves as the Southeast Area Transit hub near Norwich Harbor is built and open.

Nystrom said he has worked as mayor to bring activity to the mostly vacant garage. One city travel agent has agreed to run bus tours from the center, allowing patrons to park in the garage. He also has pushed hard for federal and regional support for an idea to enhance nearby freight rail tracks to eventually serve passenger trains.

Hinchey said continued negative attitudes about what critics have called a white elephant would "shut the door" to creative ideas on how to use the center. She agreed with pursuing more tour bus traffic with the garage as the bus loading spot.

Russell said the best thing for the city would be to sell the garage or rent it to a master tenant who could find a use for it. Nystrom and Hinchey doubted a federally funded facility could be sold.

"It doesn't matter if the money is from Washington, the state or Norwich," Russell said. "It's your money."

An audience member injected humor into the debate, asking the candidates if they would support the decades-long ban on dogs in Mohegan Park. All three supported the notion of allowing leashed dogs in the park, with Russell adding, "as long as (the owners) pick up after them."

c.bessette@theday.com

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