Chamber Debate Proves Eye-Opening

In one question to his opponent, Republican four-term incumbent First Selectman James Zeoli made his case for reelection.

Zeoli asked Democratic challenger Ken Lenz during a 75-minute debate why would residents choose him when the town’s tax rate is low, its bond rating excellent, new businesses have brought more than 2,800 jobs to town, the Route 1 vacancy rate is low and the school system is excellent.{{more}}

“What would you have done differently?” Zeoli asked Lenz.

Lenz’s response was issued throughout the debate at the Grassy Hill Country Club and sponsored by the Orange Chamber of Commerce.

Lenz said it’s not appropriate that Zeoli sought a 16 percent pay increase and that whoever wins next month’s election will receive a 7 percent increase. Zeoli denied he ever wanted a 16 percent raise and said he was not present when salary discussions about the Office of First Selectman occurred.

He did say Orange is a $60 million business and the position has not seen a raise in close to five years.

“The position is due an increase,” Zeoli said.

Lenz told about 150 attendees he would not accept a 7 percent increase if elected, and he would only take whatever town employees receive. He also called Zeoli passive saying he waits to fill vacant economic development sites only when they become empty.

“This administration waits by the phone for new businesses,” Lenz said.

The style of the two candidates was apparent in their opening remarks. Zeoli spoke about attending a Christmas spectacular earlier that evening, even though it was October, for a local family that may be featured on national television.

Lenz opened by saying the Zeoli administration is no longer serving residents’ best interests and lacked the necessary vision. He said in 1981 homeowners were paying $1,500 annually in property taxes and now its $7,500.

Lenz said taxes have spiked 25 percent over the past eight years. He said many seniors say it’s becoming impossible to financially stay in their houses and there is a need for affordable senior housing. Lenz vowed if elected to create 50 units of affordable senior housing in town.

During the debate there were numerous contentious moments as both candidates accused one another of not knowing the town’s total budget number. At one point an exasperated Zeoli held up his budget book and waved it around.

Zeoli pledged not to run a negative campaign, while Lenz said sometimes the truth in politics hurts but it must be told. He said as a challenger he must set the record straight concerning the Zeoli administration.

“I believe the truth ought to be told,” Lenz said. “If it’s painful to the other side it’s fair game.”

“The Orange Republican Town Committee does not partake in negative campaigning,” Zeoli pledged.

Zeoli claimed Lenz said in a debate the first selectman has no authority over the school system. He said with two-thirds of the town’s money going to fund education “it is very important that the first selectman is aware of what the school system is doing.”

Lenz said Zeoli mischaracterized his statement, and he simply said the first selectman does not have hiring or firing power over school employees.

Lenz spoke of the need to have businesses pay for traffic improvements that are needed because of their projects. The Boston Post Road corridor is a traffic nightmare and a fifth lane needs to be added from the Milford line to Racebrook Road, Lenz said.

Both men were asked to name something each likes about one another. Lenz praised Zeoli for his work as a volunteer fireman and for the Orange Country Fair.

Zeoli said Lenz’s fiancé, Mary Ann Miller is a very nice person and that is what he likes best about Lenz.

Both men vowed to work in a bipartisan manner. Zeoli said he wouldn’t change a “damn thing” in his life and recited a story how he said at 5 he’d be “mayor.” Zeoli is a former 24-year school bus driver and farmer, and served on the Board of Selectmen for eight years before being elected first selectman.

Lenz, a practicing attorney, said it’s “time for a change.”