Contrast of ideas, age & experience in Wallingford mayoral race
WALLINGFORD — There’s a nearly 50-year age gap between the candidates for mayor this year, setting up a showdown between an early baby boomer and a late millennial.
Republican Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr., 74, is running for a 20th consecutive term. Riley O’Connell, the Democratic challenger, is a 25-year-old newcomer to Wallingford politics.
Richard Krombel, a Wallingford resident and registered Democrat, reached out to the Record-Journal’s Voices initiative with a question about O’Connell’s readiness to take on the job of mayor given his limited work experience.
“When you look at Wallingford, the people who most reliably vote are older people,” said Krombel, who has worked the polls in the past. “I think he just needs to be able to … offer people some reassurance that despite his years, he would have a good handle on things.”
O’Connell said earlier this month that his age is one of the most frequent topics he has been asked about.
“I can totally understand the hesitation people have,” he said. “They just hear about a 25-year-old guy, or even see a picture of me, and say, ‘What is this guy doing running for mayor?’ But if I can go door-to-door and have even just a 10-minute conversation with folks, usually I can show them, or demonstrate, that I know what I’m talking about, and that I know how the town works and how we can get to where we want to be.”
He said that he has been watching, and studying, Town Council meetings archived on YouTube for the past five years, adding that Dickinson was not much older than he is now when he won his first election for Wallingford mayor in 1983.
When Dickinson made his first run for mayor at age 36, he also had not held public office. He had been working as an attorney and insurance lobbyist, had served as the Wallingford Republican Town Committee chairman, and had one failed bid behind him for the Republican nomination for state representative in the 86th District — which he made in 1978 at age 31.
A fifth-generation Wallingford native, O’Connell graduated from Choate Rosemary Hall in 2014 and earned a bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College in 2018, double majoring in political science and environmental studies with a minor in psychology.
He worked in the criminal investigations unit of the antitrust division of the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. from 2018 until he returned to Wallingford to run for mayor earlier this year.
“My horizon, in terms of what I want Wallingford to look like, is more where I want us to be in 15, 20 years,” he said. “I'm concerned about where Wallingford is but much more concerned about where Wallingford is heading.”
Despite his enthusiasm for Wallingford’s future, O’Connell has a formidable opponent in Dickinson — the second-longest serving mayor in Connecticut, behind Prospect Mayor Robert Chatfield.
In recent history, no one has come close to beating Dickinson in the race for mayor.
He has won every election since 1991 by at least 1,000 votes. He won re-election in 2011, 2013 and 2015 by an average of more than 3,000 votes.
Dickinson defeated Democratic challenger Jared Liu in the 2017 election by 1,659 votes, winning roughly 57 percent. He beat Liu again in 2019 by an even larger margin — 2,198 votes, or about 59 percent, according to election records.
Dickinson recently echoed comments he made two years ago while running for his current term — that he feels there’s still work to be done and challenges to be met, and that he has the energy and enthusiasm for it.
“I am very committed to seeing that the town prospers, that the community is able to provide a quality of life for everyone,” he said. “There’s always something new and there always will be — I mean, it’s not going to suddenly come to an end. But I have the energy and the interest, and basically devoting the time and whatever expertise I have to making the town a place to be proud of.”
Dickinson added that he doesn’t feel the need to make this his last term if re-elected.
“It’s a matter of energy — feeling the interest, feeling the patience,” he said. “It takes enormous amounts of patience to deal with the process [of town government]. Democracy is slow moving because everyone wants to have a voice in a process, so it requires time.”
Business in town
O’Connell and Dickinson spoke to the Record-Journal about Wallingford’s business outlook, town budget and state of technology.
On the subject of economic development, Dickinson said that the town’s share of the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds should provide relief from COVID-19-related financial problems to individuals and businesses.
“This is rare, if not unheard of, that government basically shut down businesses,” he said, “so I think government really has to play a role and trying to mitigate the negative effects of that.”
Dickinson also is working with town land use officials to expand the types of businesses, including data centers, that would be allowed in the town’s watershed for Mackenzie Reservoir, which provides drinking water for about 95 percent of residents.
“Planning and Zoning is actively looking at removing some of the obstacles and making sure we protect the watershed,” he said, “but also encouraging environmentally good businesses to be in our industrial parks.”
O’Connell said that the proposed data centers don’t raise the same concerns over pollution and traffic as the rejected Amazon facility at the former Bristol-Myers Squibb site, but that “the quality of life [issue] is incredibly important, since the town is responsible for negotiating what the contracts and ordinances are, especially for a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes situation like this one.”
O’Connell also looked to the most recent U.S. Census data. According to an equity profile on Wallingford from DataHaven, the town had a 1.6 percent drop in overall population between 2010 and 2019, including a 14.1 percent decrease in the number of children, but a 1.7 percent increase in number of adults.
“[It’s] essentially a metric for young families,” he said about the data. “Not only are young families a pillar of any community — the kids go to the schools, they participate in the community to a great degree — but also strictly from an economic standpoint, they pay the largest on average share of the tax base.”
Budget, mill rate
One of the biggest jobs for the Wallingford mayor is to create a proposed annual town budget, which the Town Council can amend. If the council does not adopt an amended budget, the mayor’s proposal goes into effect automatically.
Dickinson vetoed the council-approved budget for the past two years — when the council enacted a zero mill rate change in 2020, and again when the council reduced the proposed mill rate increase this year.
O’Connell has pledged to freeze the mill rate and utilize what he sees as excess in the general fund, in addition to hiring a grant writer.
“Wallingford is in a bit of a pit, in terms of all the deferred maintenance we have on our hands,” he said, “but we also couldn’t be at a better time to start digging ourselves out of that pit, in terms of access to state and federal money.”
He said that Wallingford has strong allies in state Rep. Mary Mushinsky and U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro — both of whom are long-serving Democrats — to help Wallingford access state and federal funds.
“There’s just never been a relationship between either of those people and the mayor, for a variety of reasons,” O’Connell said. “I'm not a fan, by any means, of the term free money. It’s misleading. But if there were anything close to free money, it’s state and federal, because that money’s going to get spent no matter what. We’ve already paid into it. We might as well have it going back to Wallingford.”
Dickinson said that he has included incremental mill rate increases in his budget proposal to offset annual increases to expenses.
“I don’t think you can freeze a mill rate and do anything but cause problems,” Dickinson said, “because all the costs go up — salaries go up, benefits, all the costs go up … To be fair about it, you have to at least be entertaining new revenue that will handle all of those costs going up. Wallingford has a Aa1 credit rating, and that’s because we have reserves. If we keep using the reserves the way we are, we will not have a Aa1. The credit rating agencies watch that.”
He added that he believes the town is not on as firm a financial standing as it was before the increased use of reserves in the budget.
“That is what motivated the vetoes that I have issued,” he said. “You act as a fiduciary, you have to be careful about how you use money. It’s public money.”
Wallingford’s lack of technology, especially the ability to work outside of government offices, caught up with the town during COVID-19.
Wallingford’s Town Hall closed to the public March 30, 2020, nearly three weeks after COVID-19 had been declared a pandemic and Gov. Ned Lamont declared a public health and civil preparedness emergency.
Dickinson has stood firm in his position since the start of the pandemic that town government employees need to perform their jobs in person.
“You end up with people saying, ‘I should get more money because I’m working out here [at the office], and so-and-so is at home,’” he said. “It’s impossible.”
Supplying a computer that would allow employees to work remotely also is not an option, he said, because there’s no way it can be 100 percent secured from hacking or ransomware attacks.
“There’s no security, total security, for anything online,” he said. “It’s a major issue at the federal level, about how they’re going to provide adequate security for government computers, and it’s rated in the billions of dollars … The only way to prevent that is to not be on the internet. If they’re not on the internet, you can’t hack into them.”
O’Connell said he would have reacted differently in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I certainly would have closed Town Hall sooner,” O’Connell said. “Wallingford has one of the oldest average populations in the state, which translates to one the most at-risk populations, when it comes to something like COVID … There’s only so much we can do with the current infrastructure we have, I get that. But there’s also certain times you need to make a difficult decision, and we didn’t do that.”
He also brought up the lawsuit filed against the town by former Youth and Social Services Program Coordinator Janice Server. She alleged in June 2020 in a complaint to the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities that Dickinson retaliated against her after she requested to work from home due to her health issues. The town settled a lawsuit in March.
“Wallingford was grossly unprepared for anything like this,” he said, “much more so than any of our comparable neighbor towns … Most of our Town Hall employees can’t work from home, and that’s something we need to to work towards.”
Commentary on mayoral race
Jason Zandri, a Democratic Town Council member not seeking re-election, said that he thinks the pairing of Dickinson and O’Connell is good, offering representation across the age spectrum.
He said that while “Mayor Dickinson certainly brings his experience and expertise,” the old rules of running a town may not apply in a post-COVID-19 world.
“If they do, great,” he said. “If they don’t, then I think it will be a struggle for anyone that is used to doing things a particular way.”
O’Connell “brings new and fresh ideas that are often not looked at by someone set in their way of how they do things,” he said, which “allows for the possibility to try something that’s never been done before. Again, the post-COVID world may be quite a different one.”
David Gessert, a former Republican Town Council member from 1973 to 1987, who served three years as council chairman and was a Public Utilities Commission member for 24 years, said Dickinson has made steady improvements while working hard to keep costs under control.
“He's extremely conscientious, cares very deeply about the community,” he said.
Gessert said that although O’Connell is “apparently very bright,” he hasn’t had the life experiences of raising a family in town, paying taxes or owning a business that would help him learn how the town works.
“I think he may have potential down the road,” he said. “There’s no substitute for solid experience and a great track record.”
Zandri said that the mayoral race is “an anomaly, always.”
“What you think may be a catalyst for Mayor Dickinson or his opponent often isn’t,” he said, “so there’s no way to put your finger on it.”