By TAYLOR HARTZ
The auditorium at St. Paul Catholic high School was filled last Monday evening, when the 12 candidates for Bristol City Council took the stage to debate on the biggest issues facing the city.
The candidates – three incumbents, seven newcomers, and two former city councilors – shared their campaign platforms and spoke on issues ranging from Depot Square to public sector benefits in the event hosted by the Greater Bristol Chamber of Commerce.
Divided by the city’s three districts, the three women and nine men were each asked three questions and given an opportunity to rebut fellow candidate’s views.
Despite a question focused on complaints of polarization and partisanship on the current council, the candidates were not obviously split along party lines.
District two candidates all shared similar plans and ambitions for the future of Depot Square and the former Memorial Boulevard school.
It was a common idea amongst the candidates that the city should create an infrastructure for Depot Square before selling off individual lots of property.
The candidates also agreed that the Memorial Boulevard building is an important part of the city’s history and the council should continue to support the project’s initial phase.
“We don’t have to spend a lot of money for a simple solution,” said Marcus Patton, a Democrat, who added he hopes the council can put a halt to the “stop and start process” that has been seen downtown.
“I want to see dirt move there,” agreed Republican candidate Jodi Zils-Gagne.
After offering their plans for the two projects, the second district candidates were asked what the two biggest issues facing the city were.
The group collectively joked that they’d already covered Depot Square and MBS, but expanded their ideas for how to streamline the process.
David Preleski, a Democrat, discussed an “economic development plan” involving incentives for business owners and an improved tax base, while Levesque asked for a stop to tax increases and a more effective operation of government.
Candidates also discussed ideas for streamlining city hall processes and making new businesses in the city feel prioritized.
“We want Bristol to feel like Disney World [for new businesses], not like the DMV,” said Zils-Gagne.
Discussions on economic growth continued throughout the debates, with district three candidates suggesting ideas for better business models.
Bob Passamano (Democrat) raised the idea of having a single point of contact for businesses interested in moving to Bristol, and Republican council candidate Dave Mills, who is seeking reelection after stepping choosing not to run two years ago, agreed that an office focused on potential newcoming businesses would promote an enthusiastic and welcoming atmosphere.
A divide between the left and right was only evident when district three candidates were asked their opinion on the privatization of cafeteria workers Ð a topic that had been brought up several times by Democratic councilors at the council but pushed toward the Board of Education.
Mills and Jeremy Deprey, a Republican, agreed to defer the issue to the Board of Education, saying that the city elected the BOE members to handle their own budget and staff members.
Passamano and Mary Fortier, a Democrat in the third district, disagreed.
Fortier said that since the BOE’s budget is handled by the city, the council should have a say in such issues, while Passamano felt such issues should be open for public debate.
Despite a difference in opinion on either side of the aisle during this discussion, the candidates agreed that progress was their prerogative and would be the key to success for the city.
Hearing finally from District One, Democrats and Republicans agreed that bipartisanship was not an issue in the city.
However, they did agree that the city council could be more productive.
Incumbent Eric Carlson, a Republican running in the first district, said that a poor economy and state government made progress difficult for the city council.
“State and federal governments are the common denominator that creates a glass ceiling for Bristol,” agreed Tony D’Amato, Carlson’s Republican teammate in the first district.
D’Amato also called for stronger leadership in the council, while Mayra Sampson, one of the two Democrats in the first, cited a lack of community pride and involvement.
Incumbent councilor Calvin Brown, also a first district candidate, seconded D’Amato’s call for a strong leader.
“In order to make good policy you need a leader who is going to encourage open discussion,” said Brown.
Brown voiced his support for Democratic mayoral candidate Ellen Zoppo-Sassu during the debates. Fortier used the time allotted for her closing statement to voice her support for Zoppo-Sassu as well.
Fortier said that she believes the candidate and current councilor possesses the leadership skills necessary to lead the city. “Hard work is the difference between wanting Bristol to be better and making Bristol better,” she said of Zoppo-Sassu.
Mayoral candidates Ken Cockayne, the Republican incumbent, and Zoppo-Sassu will have their chance to debate on Monday, Oct. 19.
The Sept. 28 debate offered the first and only opportunity for the city council candidates to face off as a group prior to the Nov. 3 election.
The debates will be available for viewing on Nutmeg TV after airing on Channel 5 on Oct. 7 at 7 p.m.
By TAYLOR HARTZ