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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Testa primed to face Dickinson

As published in the Record Journal Tuesday February 22, 2011

By Robert Cyr
Record-Journal staff
(203) 317-2224

WALLINGFORD — Town Councilor Vincent Testa Jr. may be the Democratic hopeful for the mayor’s seat this fall, in what would be his second attempt to defeat Republican William W. Dickinson Jr., the state’s second-longest serving top municipal official.

Since 1985, many have tried and failed to oust the 64-year old Dickinson from office, and there’s good reason for it, says Nicholas Economopoulos, a Town Council Democrat — people like the charismatic mayor, a guitar-playing, well-spoken lawyer. “He buys open space, people like that stuff,” Economopoulos said. “He keeps taxes down and he keeps his salary down. He has this image of being prudent and paying attention to everything — and it’s not true.”

Dickinson could not be reached Monday for comment. Testa, the 51-year-old father of two, said he hasn’t decided yet whether he’ll formally announce his bid for office, but said he was very interested in running. He said he’ll likely get a better idea of his plans after talking with party officials at the Democratic Town Committee meeting March 16 at 350 Center St.

“I’ve had an interest for a while — I haven’t made that a secret,” Testa said Monday. “I haven’t made the decision yet, but I’ll be making a decision soon.”

Testa ran in 1997 in a municipal election with relatively low voter turnout and lost by a more than two-to-one margin. He said he lacked the experience in government to fare better, having served on the school board for four years.

“A lot of time has passed since then,” he said. “I learned a lot more about how the town operates. I was the one who pushed to get the town’s self-insurance model. It has saved us a lot of money.”

But the question remains: can Dickinson be beaten?

“Everybody’s beatable,” said Vincent Avallone, Democratic town chairman. “You need the right candidate focusing on the issues and people working together. It also takes getting more voters out — below 50 percent come out for municipal elections, and it’s not enough to beat him.”

A big issue for Democrats is the town’s handling of union contracts, which recently drew attention when two unions won arbitration awards and Dickinson cut staff and services to meet the pay raises in the awards.

“There’s got to be a major change in the way we negotiate those contracts. The stand that the mayor’s been taking is just not in keeping with current labor practices,” Testa said. “Every union has made suggestions on how they can help in this budget crisis. What he’s refused to consider is individual union concessions. We’ve missed a lot of opportunities to save money. We go to arbitration and we lose, and it’s not an effective strategy.”

Unseating Dickinson will take more than a few new ideas, however, said Republican Jerry Farrell Jr., council vice chairman.

“I was a freshman in high school when he was elected, just to put perspective on it,” said Farrell, who joined the council in 1996. “It’s not impossible to beat Dickinson but you’re really climbing a mountain.”

The idea of Testa running for mayor didn’t come as a shock to the two other Democrats on the council, and both said it would be a good fit. Testa started his political career in 1990 on the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission, and served eight years on the Board of Education. He’s been on the council since 2004.

“He’s come up through the chairs — he’s well spoken and well educated and he has a real understanding of how government works in town,” said John Sullivan, council Democrat. “In order to beat Bill Dickinson you have to have a majority of registered voters turn out. We need to energize the young people and get them actively involved in government. It’s best for the entire town.”

Sullivan said town government could be made to run more efficiently, and the mayor’s hard-line reaction to financial troubles overlooked streamlining and tightening costs, instead of trimming staff and services or raising taxes.

Along with getting more businesses into town, Testa said government should be evaluated for efficiency and that cutting jobs or services tied to public safety should be a last option.

“We’ve got a very stagnant economic development plan and we need to bring more businesses in,” he said. “Our Grand List has declined while other towns’ have gone up, even though the economy is tough. There’s only so much we can do in cutting. We can’t keep raising taxes.”

But Farrell says the success Dickinson has enjoyed with conservative fiscal policies is due to a formula that will have to be used and bettered by his opponents.

“His calling card has always been keeping the town on a fiscally conservative path, but he also tries to keep in mind what it all means to the average taxpayer. That’s been his winning formula,” Farrell said. “If someone wants to beat him, they’d have to take that formula and prove they’re more of a fiscal conservative than he is and still manage services. That’s a very high order.”

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