This year's race for the town's top elected job will be wide open with the announcement Wednesday by First Selectman Gordon Joseloff that he will not be a candidate for re-election.
Joseloff, a Democrat first elected in 2005 and re-elected in 2009, would be seeking a third four-year term had he decided to be a candidate in the November municipal election.
"As someone who grew up in Westport, it has been a special honor and privilege to serve my fellow citizens for two terms as the chief elected official," Joseloff said in a statement. "I am deeply indebted for the confidence shown in me. The challenges have been great, but the rewards have been even greater in the town I proudly call home."
He has served nearly 22 years in various elected offices in Westport, including 10 years as the moderator of the Representative Town Meeting.
"I look forward to spending more time with family, taking some time off, and pursuing other opportunities," said Joseloff, 67, who is also publisher of the local news website, Westport Now. He previously had been a correspondent for CBS News.
"While I might have differences of opinion with Gordon regarding various decisions and initiatives, I believe that they were always driven by his belief in what was in the best interests of Westport citizens," Marpe said in a statement Wednesday.
And several Democrats, including Board of Finance Vice Chairwoman Helen Garten and state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, have expressed interest in running, but none has so far officially declared his or her candidacy.
A number of town officials said they were not surprised that Joseloff had decided to step down after two terms as first selectman.
"I meet with Gordon every week and I know that it's a very demanding job," said RTM Moderator Hadley Rose. "You deal with a lot. You get a lot of complaints and little appreciation."
Joseloff succeeded another Democrat, Diane Farrell, as first selectman in 2005. At the beginning of his tenure, he presided over a town that, like much of the rest of the nation, was enjoying a booming economy powered by a thriving real estate market and bustling retail scene. When the global financial crisis hit in 2008, the town's public and private sectors reeled. The sinking economy led to town spending cuts, while the town's tax revenues were weighed down by an ailing real estate climate and a wave of store closings. By most measures, though, Westport weathered the "Great Recession" relatively well, avoiding the sharp economic downturn endured by many other parts of Connecticut and the rest of the country.
"Gordon effectively managed the town during very challenging economic times with dedicated leadership and a genuine concern for all of the residents of Westport," Democratic Town Committee Chairman Jim Ezzes said in a statement Wednesday. "As difficult as the economy was around the state and country, we were fortunate that we never experienced a noticeable reduction of town services or in the quality education that we want for all of the children of Westport."
Since the nadir of the last recession, Westport's economic prospects have improved substantially, buoyed by a nascent recovery in residential and commercial real estate markets, and a revival in the town's retail and restaurant sectors. The town's budget has also stabilized, with public spending increasing slightly during each of the last two years.
"I think he's handled it all very well, given the economic challenges that the town has faced during the last few years," Rose said.
Joseloff has also presided over an administration that has generally avoided the partisan rancor that has afflicted politics in both Hartford and Washington, D.C.
"Gordon's an all-around good guy," said John Izzo, who served as a Republican selectman from 2005 to 2009. "Do we disagree on certain issues? Absolutely. Do I hold that against him? No. I consider him a friend. I know he's a good human being. I wish him nothing but the very best, as he goes on in life."
Joseloff's goal to develop a mixed-income senior residential complex at the town-owned Baron's South property near the town center would arguably be the cornerstone project of his administration. It also represents his most contentious initiative.
While the project has garnered effusive support from many of the town's senior citizens, it has also faced a near-constant chorus of criticism from other quarters. Other town officials and residents have assailed the senior residential plan for being a potential financial drain on the town, possibly straining town services and infrastructure, ineffectively using the 23-acre Baron's South property and inadequately reflecting public input and oversight.
A new request for proposals for the project was issued last month. The previous RFP was jettisoned after Board of Finance members signaled their opposition in October to moving ahead with a bid endorsed by the Baron's South Committee, a panel appointed by Joseloff.
Review of the project by the finance board and other town bodies likely will not be completed by the time Joseloff leaves office. He has, nonetheless, expressed confidence that the senior housing initiative will progress under a new administration.
"The need has been proven repeatedly," Joseloff said of his senior housing proposal during an interview Wednesday with the Westport News. "We're trying to build consensus. We've changed the RFP and we've tried to be accommodating of many points of view. I hope it continues. In this town, it just takes time to get things done. But if we build consensus and support for it -- if it takes a few months longer, that's fine -- it just needs to be done."
Joseloff's administration has also faced criticism during the last two years over its fiscal management. Board of Finance members were angered by discovering in June 2011 that the town's then-actuarial firm, Pentegra, had miscalculated liability projections for retired town employees' health-care benefits known as Other Post-Employment Benefits, because it had omitted hundreds of town employees from its personnel counts. Many town Republicans faulted Joseloff's administration and the OPEB imbroglio likely helped the GOP to recapture control of the Board of Finance in the November 2011 election.
"I'm not pleased with what's been going on," Joseph Arcudi, a Republican who served as first selectman from 1993 to 1997, said of the town's finances. "I'd like more active supervision than we've had ... When I was first selectman, there was much more interaction between myself and department heads."
Following the OPEB miscount, town officials fired Pentegra and hired a new firm, Milliman. A shake-up in the town's finance department also followed the controversy, with the town's current finance director, Gary Conrad, taking over in early 2012 from John Kondub, who retired.
Since the hiring of Milliman and Conrad, Joseloff's relationship with Board of Finance members appears to have improved.
"While Gordon and I were both elected eight years ago, I have gotten to know him even better since the 2011 election," Board of Finance Chairman Avi Kaner, a Republican, said in an email Wednesday. "We have been meeting on a weekly basis since I became the chairman of the Board of Finance. Our regular dialogue has benefitted Westport in many ways. We have jointly reformed our pension plans, supported important projects, and nursed our finances to a better place."
Maintaining an agenda
In his remaining months in his office, Joseloff said he and Selectwoman Shelly Kassen intend to focus on the drive for senior housing at Baron's South, as well as other community initiatives such as construction of a new Westport Weston Family Y, the renovation of the Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts, plans for a new downtown movie theater and an expansion of the Westport Public Library.
"Shelly and I will continue to work vigorously to pursue these and other projects," Joseloff added. "An anticipated change in town leadership must not be an excuse to stop or slow down the progress we have made."
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