Trumbull First Selectman candidates finally debate; sparks fly
The two candidates for Trumbull first selectman finally debated each other in an exchange that featured fireworks from start to finish.
After earlier dates and venues fell through, the half-hour debate was held in the News Channel 12 television studio as part of the station’s Power and Politics series. The candidates clashed on apartments, education and the way each has handled the bid for the town’s highest office.
First Selectman Vicki Tesoro, a Democrat, went after Republican challenger Michael Herbst for what she called his negative campaign, repeatedly characterizing his campaign statements and mailers as “deceitful,” “untruthful” and “outright lies.”
Herbst said that every bit of information he has disseminated has been fact checked, and characterized his critics on the police and EMS commissions as political appointees.
The session began quietly enough, with moderator Mark Sudol asking the candidates why they were running. Speaking first, Tesoro said Trumbull has seen positive change in the past two years, and she wanted to continue in the same direction.
“Taxes remain low — that’s always the number one issue in an election,” she said. “We also didn’t use financial gimmicks, as was done in previous years.”
Tesoro said volunteerism had been reinvigorated since her administration had brought civility back to the community, an apparent reference to Herbst's son, former First Selectman Tim Herbst, whose combative streak had long been noted by local politicians and political pundits.
Speaking second, Herbst immediately brought up apartments, a topic that has dominated the campaign.
“We have close to 1,000 apartments proposed or approved,” he said. He added that such development would “change the skyline of Trumbull” and permanently change the town’s character. Apartments, he said, were the top issue brought up by residents, followed by education and taxes.
“I want to bring Trumbull back to where it was,” he said.
Tesoro, asked next about the top issues facing Trumbull, took the opportunity to rebut claims that she had approved 1,000 apartments.
“This is blatantly false, deceitful fear-mongering,” she said.
She said the current wave of apartment building started with a June 21, 2017, Planning and Zoning decision to allow up to 600 apartments in former industrial zones — a vote six months before Tesoro took office, she said.
“My opponent knows full well his son opened the door,” she said.
She also slammed a Herbst campaign statement about public safety that was condemned by the Police Commission and EMS Commission.
“He said I don’t support the police and EMS, which both commissions debunked,” she said.
Herbst conceded it was the June 2017 meeting that paved the way on apartments, but added that between September 2018 and January 2019, there had been 970 apartments “approved or proposed” by P and Z.
Herbst also drew a clear distinction between himself and his son, stating that he had not agreed with the former administration’s position on rezoning industrial properties.
“They were wrong,” he said. “I’m against residential zoning changes. I don’t care who did it.”
On public safety, Herbst said his information came from the rank and file.
“I know you have police commissioners that refute what I said; of course, they’re political appointees,” he said. “By talking to the people on the ground, they will tell you what the story actually is, not what the Police Commission or EMS Commission has been told to say.”
Both candidates have cited their educational backgrounds throughout the campaign, and launched into their next dispute, with Tesoro calling Herbst’s education criticisms about lack of support for the schools “untruths and outright lies” that have been debunked.
“I gave (the school system) $5.6 million more in two years — we have a $106 million education budget — and I gave them $2.5 million more than my predecessor did,” she said. “How can you say that with a straight face?”
Herbst brushed aside Tesoro’s comments, saying that “everything has been fact checked.” He also suggested that the Board of Finance and Board of Education could work together.
“We need to have more input from the finance board, working together with the Board of Ed in developing a budget,” he said. “Why don’t we find out how things work in town and work together to achieve them?”
The candidates returned to apartments in their closing statements. Tesoro, speaking first, referenced a pledge Herbst had challenged her to sign to oppose future apartments, saying she had requested a moratorium on apartment applications to study their impact on town.
“As Mr. Herbst may or may not know, because I’m not sure he understands the processes properly, Planning and Zoning actually approved a moratorium,” she said. “I have already been out working diligently to mitigate the effects of apartments on Trumbull — none of which I approved, by the way. My opponent should know Planning and Zoning approves apartments, not the first selectman.”
In reply, Herbst said the pledge was pretty much what Tesoro had said she was doing, but by signing it the town would have been committed to further study regardless of who won the election. He then addressed other issues in town, starting with the current senior center, located in a former school.
“We have a senior center that’s 102 years old,” he said. “We don’t let our kids go to that building, yet we let our seniors.”
A study into a new community center was all but done, he said, when the town commissioned a new study and a new committee.
Herbst also complained about the current aquatics facilities committee looking into potential locations for a new town pool, including the idea of building a new pool near the current pool at Beach Memorial Park.
“There’s a lot of other issues in the town that people should be made aware of,” he said as he summed up. “This is an important decision. People have to get out and vote, and make sure that the skyline of Trumbull doesn’t change.”
Tesoro said in summation, “If I'm re-elected, I will continue to focus on taxes, and keep our taxes as low as possible.”