Candidates for Board of Selectmen took to the stage Wednesday at Samuel Staples Elementary School in the last of three candidate debates scheduled before the Nov. 2 municipal election.

The event was presented by the Easton Democratic Town Committee and Easton Republican Town Committee as an opportunity for incumbent First Selectman David Bindelglass to debate his Republican challenger, Jeff Parker. Incumbents Republican Selectmen Kristi Sogofsky and Democrat Bob Lessler also participated.

After each candidate delivered a two-minute opening statement, they answered questions in a round-robin format posed by moderator Vance Hancock. The questions revolved around town services, the future of the South Park property, plans for commercial zoning and the village district, ways to improve the town, and sources of threats to Easton home values.

Debate moderator Vance Hancock asked the candidates if they believed that there is a problem regarding misinformation being disseminated in Easton.

Incumbent Democratic First Selectman Bindelglass said that it was both a national problem and a problem in Easton. Bindelglass said the situation will only improve if there is a commitment from the entire town. “We need to think about what we read and we need to see if it passes the smell test. … An informed group of people in this town is the best way to combat misinformation.”

Republican candidate Jeff Parker said, “Whether you call it misinformation or a slanted point of view, the answer is ‘yes,’ and has added to the strain among different groups of people in town. People have stopped talking to one another and that has caused division and unrest. We must address it going forward.”

Incumbent Selectmen Robert Lessler, a Democrat, also said the community of Easton is being negatively impacted by misinformation. “That’s why David [Bindelglass] and I have made a major effort over these past two years to improve transparency and communication in town,” he said. Lessler warned against relying “on information that you get from Facebook groups or from organizations that are aligned with one faction or another, one ideology or another.”

Incumbent Selectmen Kristi Sogofsky, a Republican, agreed that Easton is being negatively affected by misinformation, which she said is “coming from a lot of sources from both sides of the aisle. “As a former journalist, facts matter to me,” she said. “It is all about objective information and where it comes from. Obviously the source is a big factor in whether you are getting the truth or not.”

Hancock asked the candidates to respond to a question about their longterm vision for the town. “This question involves some vision about the future of Easton. How can Easton improve? Or is it perfect already? What have you done in the past to improve Easton, and what will you do to improve Easton?” he asked.

Lessler said, “I think that over the course of 22 years I’ve done many things that have helped improve Easton. I mentioned the land acquisition and preservation ordinance that I wrote. I’ve also been a vote for every one of the pieces of property that we’ve preserved over the years. … More recently, I led the committee to celebrate our 175th anniversary last year. I led the rewrite of our ethics ordinance, and I was I guess the key thorn in the side if you will of the … land use ordinance rewrite committee because I had some different ideas from most of the other folks on that. But I think what we came up with was a great compromise and shows what working together even from different points of view can do for us, and that helps improve Easton. Listening to people with different ideas is a good thing. I’ve followed David in urging that we handle the Covid pandemic by following the science and by urging every eligible person to get vaccinated. There is no better maxim and nothing more that we could do for Easton than to love thy neighbor by getting vaccinated if you are able to. That will improve Easton.”

Sogofsky said, “I think the greatest thing we can do to improve Easton actually lies with all of us right now, and that is to close the gap that has so greatly divided our community over the past two years. I have talked to many people who have said they don’t ever remember the town being this divided. And that is an improvement that all of us can be a part of, that all of us really need to work on. Because if we are a divided town and we continue being at each other’s throats and pointing fingers and placing blame and badmouthing each other, badmouthing our neighbors, at the end of the day, all of the other stuff we do kind of doesn’t matter. Because we’re going to argue about it and we are going to be divided on every single issue, every single ordinance we try to take up, every improvement we try to do to this town, there’s going to be a ‘winner’ and ‘loser’. If we are a more united community those feelings aren’t as harsh, those feelings aren’t as painful if you maybe didn’t get the result you had desired. You are more understanding and you are more acceptable, and you can have conversations with people and you can realize that, yes, we may disagree or are coming from different perspectives, but at least we’re working toward a common goal, which is the betterment of our community. I think that’s the single most important thing we can do to improve this community at this time.”

Bindelglass said, “Think about if you’d asked that question two years ago. Change sometimes comes from places where you can’t imagine it coming from. None of us would have sat here two years ago and imagined a pandemic. And yet we’ve had to manage through it. No one would have imagined some of the social upheaval that would come in this country. But it also provided an opportunity to have conversations. I worry a little bit when we talk so much about healing that what we’re really talking about is going back to a time when we don’t talk about the things that do concern some of us. As I walk around and I meet people, people are actually happy now to have the opportunity to talk about the things that trouble them. To some that may be divisive. We’ve seen how that’s been handled in our schools. It’s caused a lot of consternation. It’s caused some activities that we all admit or all agreed were not the best things in our town to promote healing and unity. But the world changes. And no matter how much we want to build a moat around Easton, you either have to figure out ways to negotiate the change or you get swept away by it. And that is a town effort. I couldn’t agree with Kristi more. It is something that we all have to do together. My question is mostly: Is it about talking to each other more about what really effects us? Or is it about talking less, which is what I think I hear when I … hear about going backwards to the way things were.”

Parker said,“As most of you know, I have served on the Board of Education for the last 10 years, and almost seven of those years I was the board chair. During that time we not only added new programming in both the elementary and middle school, but we were able to get that done with an average budget that was under 2%. I am very proud that our board was the most non-partisan board that I think we had in town. I think David made that observation when he was on the board. You couldn’t tell a Republican from a Democrat. You saw six people working together in the best interest of kids. As your first selectmen, I would take that same attitude, moving forward so that we were doing and providing the very best services possible for our citizens.”

At various points, all four pledged to make active and attentive listening a priority and to find ways to marginalize those most determined to divide and undermine attempts at compromise. They all aired support of a town government responsive to the needs of Easton citizens.

In recent weeks there have been many on-line comments and mailings from partisan groups and individuals. Some have been criticized for their uncivil tone and questionable content. Though the debate settled some concerns and left other claims and counterclaims unanswered, there was unanimity among the participants that the extreme ideological views expressed in meetings, mailers and on social media platforms were key impediments to unity, progress and the idea that they are all neighbors.

The in-person audience was permitted to submit three questions and, after a short break, Hancock posed them. One submitted question touched on the importance of character and integrity in elections, and got one of the most energetic responses of the evening. All agreed that character and trustworthiness were essential for effective leadership.

Bindelglass began by saying: “I think integrity is critical. I want to say to you Jeff that I worked with you for four years, I think you have done a wonderful job on the Board of Education. I think you admitted that the emails, to quote the board of finance chairman, were not your finest moment,” said Bindelglass. “But the two things that do bother me are one of the things we’ve talked about, is building a consensus in town and that leads me to ask the question: you’re clearly trying to go around building a consensus on the Board of Ed and that is a little bit disturbing to me. The second thing was the comment about having to stay above the fray, and I can tell you that as the first selectman, you live smack in the middle of the fray,” he said.

Parker said, “I think ultimately the voters are going to decide if the person who has been nominated and is on the ballot and is worthy of their consideration. Do people make mistakes? Well, of course they do. Do they own them? Some do, some don’t. But at the end of the day it has to be up to the voters to decide: yes this is someone that I think can lead this town or lead this particular commission or they can’t. So the short answer is that it will be decided at the voting booth.”

Video of the entire debate can be accessed on Facebook live or on the town’s Vimeo account here. You can read about the first debate, Trio of Candidate Debates Lead off with Region 9 School Board and the second debate, Tax Collector and Finance Board Candidates Debate.

Kaitlin Katzenback contributed reporting for this article.

Photos by John C. Kane and Dalia Jennings.

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