Mansfield Republicans have not had the majority on the town council since the 1960s, but conservative leaders in the town are working on a long-term plan to change that.
The GOP will only run three candidates in November’s town council election as part of a concerted effort to rebuild the party’s infrastructure and image, according to Mansfield Republican Town Committee chairman Tony Lent. He said the process started during the 2013 elections, when the party ran six town council candidates to show the party’s reemerging strength.
“There were more changes made in the last two or three years in the demeanor of the town toward the Republican Party, toward the minority party, than have taken place in over 10 years,” Lent said. “We’re not being dismissed. We actually have ideas that work.”
The party decided to run just three candidates in 2015 after much deliberation, Lent said.
Each party can win up to six seats on the nine-member town council, with the minority party being guaranteed a minimum of three seats. In 2013, Mansfield Republicans ran six candidates, all of whom fell at least 150 votes behind the lowest vote-getting Democrat, according to the state election result archives.
Lent said he believes Republicans either had to run three or six candidates this fall. The Republican town committee ultimately decided on three candidates to ensure outside interference would not keep who Lent and the party believed to be the right candidates off the town council.
Specifically, Lent said he was concerned the opposition would use bullet voting, which would involve bolstering some Republicans candidates’ vote totals to keep certain other candidates from being in the top three. He said it could keep 22-year-old UConn graduate Mark Sargent or one of the other candidates from winning a seat.
“It’s happened before (my time as chairman),” Lent said. “I was warned about this before. The Democrats have a list of people that they can call to vote for the Republicans … I guess it’s legal now, but I don’t think it’s right. We didn’t want to lose anybody.”
Mansfield Republicans have been trying to build a platform around the idea of “good governance,” according to Lent. This includes improving the town’s roads, repairing existing government facilities, making town council issues more accessible to the public and spending taxpayer money wisely.
Lent said one of the most significant achievements of the party in the last two years was uncovering that the Mansfield school superintendent, Fred Baruzzi, had been falsely reporting mileage expenses from 2009 to 2014. A November 2014 audit by CohnReznick LLP found Baruzzi received nearly $11,000 in falsified reimbursements as a result. Baruzzi announced his resignation at a Jan. 22 board of education meeting.
Republicans discovered the discrepancy in his mileage reports “strictly on accident,” Lent said. Democratic councilman Alex Marcellino requested to see the town vendor report, which lists what goods and services the town purchases, during a Mansfield financial committee meeting in 2014, according to Lent. Having heard complaints about the town not spending enough locally, Lent and the Republicans decided to parse through the hundreds of pages in the documents.
“We get the local vendor report, and a bunch of us were looking through the thing,” Lent said. “We get to the ‘B’ for Baruzzi, and we start seeing all these disbursements of $1,200, $1,500, $1,800 every two weeks. So, we go, ‘What the hell is this?’”
Initial shock at the amount Baruzzi was reimbursed led to questions from Republican town council members. These questions produced the audit in 2014 and, eventually, Baruzzi’s resignation in January.
Lent emphasized that an element of good governance is willingness to ask questions. However, he conceded that “corruption will always be there,” but firmly stated Republicans are doing more to watch out for taxpayers in the town than the Democrats.
The Mansfield Republican Town Committee has two incumbent council members – Virginia Raymond and Steve Kegler – who are running for re-election along with first-time candidate Sargent, who was the president of UConn’s Undergraduate Student Government in the 2014-15 academic year. Incumbent councilwoman Betty Wassmundt is not seeking re-election for “personal reasons,” according to Lent.
Lent said each of the three candidates bring particular strengths to the party. Both Raymond and Kegler are serving in their first terms, and Lent said they have played a major role in reshaping the Republican image in the town. Raymond is “extremely diligent,” especially when dealing with the town’s finances, while Kegler is “a great communicator” with the Democratic Party’s council members, Lent said.
Sargent brings even more to the table. As a recent UConn graduate, Lent said he becomes a fresh face to the Republican Party in Mansfield and has connections with leaders at the university. Lent also said his knowledge of Robert’s Rules of Order and parliamentary procedure are also an asset.
Despite leaving the town council election uncontested, Mansfield Republicans still have their sights set on gaining ground in the town government. Two seats on the board of education are up for re-election, and the GOP has candidates running for both seats. Incumbent board member Katherine Paulhus is running for another term while former Tolland Board of Education member Al Fratoni is hoping to be just what the Republicans need to pick up the second seat.
Lent said he would call the 2015 election a success if voter turnout is high without running a full slate for town council and if the party picks up another seat on the board of education.
“The reason we’re out campaigning … is to get the Republican name out,” Lent said. “What you’re doing at that point is you’re building up the morale of the Republican voters, so they think their vote is actually worth something, and that it was worth something before.”
CORRECTION (Oct. 27) — The paragraph containing the amount of money that a Mansfield resident said former school superintendent Fred Baruzzi had allegedly stolen after misreporting mileage reimbursements was actually $11,000, not $50,000.