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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Economopoulos: A strong, active political voice

As published in the Record Journal, Sunday November 20, 2011

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

— He’s one of the most vocal members of the Town Council and can often be heard at council meetings sharply criticizing the mayor and long-standing town practices. Recently elected to a third term, Democrat Nicholas Economopoulos last week announced he’s going to run for mayor in two years.

It’s been little more than a week since Democratic Councilor Vincent Testa Jr. lost his second bid for the office, and Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr., the second-longest-serving chief elected official in the state, won his 15th consecutive term.

Voters have had little reason to oust Dickinson, who presides over a $141 million budget that saw a less than one percent tax increase this year. Municipal cash reserves are healthy and the town’s credit rating is the highest possible. Those assets can be kept and improved on, Economopoulos said.

While many say Dickinson can’t be beat, Economopoulos says the mayor can be matched and the town can be modernized and run more efficiently and intelligently.

“He’s very humble and that’s one of the things I love about him and the public loves about him,” Economopoulos said. “But as far as running the town, I’ll have people helping me; he tends to do things on his own and that’s where he has a problem.”

Economopoulos said if he wins he’ll institute a series of commissions to research and help plan town projects, an idea he floated at a council meeting earlier this year that councilors overwhelmingly disapproved of.

“I want to stress that our weakness right now is that we don’t have plans,” he said. “Consequently, we get caught in the short straws. If a committee brings the mayor some choices, then he can make a decision.”

An example of a committee would be a group to research possible uses for the town owned Wooding-Caplan property, a 3.5-acre space the town bought in 1992 for $1.5 million that has been vacant ever since. While talk has circulated of the site being a possible home for a new police station, nothing definite has ever formed for the parcel.

Economopoulos, 62, retired in 2006 after teaching accounting at Sheehan High School for 34 years. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Central Connecticut State University and moved to Connecticut from Westbury, Long Island, for good when he was hired at Sheehan in 1971.

Since then, he’s made a large family with his wife of 34 years, Susan. He has five children, including one foster child, now 21, who he said was a homeless seventh-grader when they took her in. His children are now grown and are either in college or teaching, he said.

With famed Long Island politician Robert Moses as something of an inspiration, Economopoulos served two years on the Board of Education in 2006 and 2007 before being elected to the council. His greatest inspiration in life, however, has been his father, James, a short-order cook turned real estate salesman who died in 2000 at the age of 75.

“I had a strong Greek upbringing, and the way he treated people was unbelievable,” Economopoulos said. “He was big-hearted and I just saw how much he was looked up to, and I thought that was the way I should be.”

Economopoulos, a well known local basketball coach, has a specific list of things he’d like to improve in town and has spent the past year scrutinizing members of the housing authority, requesting financial documents and even calling for the resignations of the housing director and board of commissioners over allegations of mismanagement. On Friday the authority’s board of commissioners voted to fire Executive Director Stephen Nere.

“What has happened at the housing authority is an absolute blemish on our town,” Economopoulos said. “Technology- wise, we’re an embarrassment to the state. Our priorities are all messed up. I don’t want to invest a dime until we have a plan as to what we’re going to do.”

Economopoulos announced his bid for mayor at last week’s Democratic Town Committee meeting. Dickinson, 64, said he has no plans to even start thinking about running for mayor again, but would welcome any challenger.

“I need to enjoy a little while the election that just ended a week ago,” he said. “But the office is a natural focal point for a lot of decision making and in most circumstances it’s unavoidable.”

In the meantime, Economopoulos said he’ll be keeping watch on the council and speaking his mind about Dickinson’s decisions.

“Even if I don’t win it’s going to be a good two years of making sure he’s on the right path,” he said. Vincent Avallone, chairman of the Democratic committee, said this week he was surprised but glad Economopoulos has announced his run so early. It’s the earliest he’s seen anyone declare a run, but an early start might just be what it takes to unseat Dickinson, he said.

“Nick (Economopoulos) is a respected councilor and a respected person in the community,” he said. “And he’s going to need an early start to raise enough money.”

But Economopoulos isn’t the only outspoken member of the council. Republican Craig Fishbein has often found himself on the same side as Economopoulos, and the two were the only councilors to vote against a controversial parking lot deal that was overturned by a referendum last week.

“I hope that he faces issues as a good councilor and not with future aspirations in mind,” Fishbein said. “If that’s what he wants to spend the next couple of years working on, more power to him.”

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