MONROE, CT — Jerry Stevens, the Democratic Party’s candidate for first selectman, told a packed dining room at Jennie’s Pizzeria about the family history that shaped him and shared his vision for Monroe’s future during a campaign fundraiser Wednesday night.
He promised a transparent, responsive government with open communication with residents, to be fiscally responsible by growing the grand list, to promote a “business friendly” environment to attract and retain businesses, and to strive to understand education needs while attending Board of Education budget workshops.
Stevens, who is facing Town Councilman Terry Rooney, a former police officer vying to replace incumbent Ken Kellogg, a fellow Republican who will not seek another term as first selectman, is a retired teacher from Monroe’s school system and a current member of the Board of Education.
“They say, ‘education is all he cares about,'” Stevens said of his critics. “‘He will spend millions and millions.’ Why isn’t the selectman at the school board’s budget workshops? Jerry Stevens will be there.”
Stevens talked about the first selectman’s role in the budget process, often cutting the Board of Education’s proposal before it reaches the Board of Finance.
“I will cut,” he said. “I will lose sleep, but I will attend the budget workshops, so I know what I’m cutting.”
Stevens, a lifelong Monroe resident, said his grandmother, Grace Stevens, taught in Monroe’s one room schoolhouse before serving on the Board of Education for over 30 years. His grandfather, Lloyd Stevens, was a charter member of Monroe Fire Station No. 1 and the first, second selectman elected in the town of Monroe.
“I fell in love with my high school sweetheart at the age of 14,” Stevens said of his wife Kathy. “After college we got married, got teaching jobs and raised our two children, Amanda and Jared, here.”
During that time, Stevens filled many volunteer roles, coaching in the AYSO, Travel Soccer and Little League. He coached junior varsity and varsity soccer at Masuk, where he was also the Color Guard advisor.
“I have heard, ‘he is just a shop teacher,'” Stevens said.
He earned his undergraduate degree in industrial arts/technology education, Master’s in school counseling and Sixth degree in education leadership.
In his 34-year-career Stevens’ technology education lab received the Connecticut Technology Education Program of the Year Award in 2002, he was the Monroe Teacher of the Year in 2006, and won the Connecticut Technology Teacher of the Year Award, where he was recognized internationally in Ohio.
Stevens served on state and local committees, was on Monroe’s STEM Committee, the State STEM/Unified Arts Committee and the State Technology Education Committee for 30 years with the last 10 as president co-authoring the state standards.
“So what does any of this have to do with me being Monroe’s first selectman? This is not just campaign rhetoric,” Stevens said. “I’m an innovator, a problem solver, a critical thinker, collaborator and a life-long learner. I enjoy people and learn through our interactions. These are the qualities I bring to the office that our community needs.”
First selectman ‘coffee hour’
As first selectman, Stevens said he would strive to keep residents informed and would have an “open door policy” as well as hosting “coffee hours.”
“Your concerns are important,” he said. “I invite residents to talk to me about any issues — your concerns matter. As a teacher, I never shut a door on a parent.”
Rather than hosting a coffee hour on a set date, Stevens said he would invite people to sign up online to schedule time with him.
Stevens said he would maintain regular communication through the town’s website, phone calls, texts, emails and social media, as well as holding regular meetings with the chief of police and the superintendent of schools.
While towns often use the reverse 911 for useful information during emergencies, Stevens noted how Oxford also uses its system for anything town related, with information on plays, parades and fairs.
“I would have loved to call you with, ‘hey, Masuk Hockey just won the State Championship. Masuk Volleyball just won the State Championship. Masuk Softball just won the State Championship,'” Stevens said. “It’s a great way to spread the word.”
The first selectman must be fiscally responsible to keep taxes low for all residents, while still providing the services they need, according to Stevens.
“Just look at Pepper Street … what a fiasco,” he said of the road project marked by delays. “What disrespect for the people who have to drive that road every single day.”
Stevens said his administration would prioritize cost effective strategies, while crafting budgets. “Increasing the grand list is one way to lower taxes and I applaud it,” he said, “as long as we do our due diligence.”
For example, he recalled with skepticism a project to build 196 residential units on Main Street that a developer said would only produce 17 students.
“We have to do our due diligence when we bring something in,” Stevens said of finding the impact on schools, police, fire and EMS coverage, traffic and other town services.
Stevens vowed to hold numerous public meetings to gain residents’ input during the budget process.
“I’m not going to vote on a capital budget with eight people in the audience,” he said. “That’s embarrassing. I believe an actively engaged community should contribute to shaping how we spend our hard-earned taxpayer funds.”
Like his opponent, Terry Rooney, Stevens said he would leverage all state and federal resources through grants, but rather than hiring a part-time grant writer — something Rooney said he would consider — Stevens said he would use existing town staff.
Stevens said he would conduct an audit of the town’s reserve fund, while understanding the importance of maintaining Monroe’s AAA bond rating and questioned why the fund has significantly more money in it than what is recommended.
Stevens noted the high turnover at Monroe Town Hall with a loss of around 28 employees over the past three years. He said he would meet with department heads on what they truly need from a staffing standpoint and ensure employees have the resources they need to succeed.
Stevens spoke of cultivating a “business friendly” environment across all Town Hall departments, including land use and Planning and Zoning.
He said he would conduct an operational audit of all Town Hall offices to identify areas requiring improvement for residential and commercial land use, and to survey Monroe residents and businesses for feedback on permitting processes, while exploring improvements.
Stevens said permits can be applied for online in Monroe, Oxford and Trumbull, for example, but claims Monroe’s process is not as easy to navigate and is not consistent with other towns.
“The office of Economic Development will be instrumental in attracting and retaining businesses in Monroe and will work closely with me, other appropriate departments and community resources to promote growth,” Stevens said.
“I am committed to making Monroe a successful business community that serves the needs of our residents, while fostering economic growth,” he added.
Republicans have dominated Monroe politics for over a decade, routinely winning majorities on town boards and commissions, and has held the first selectman seat since Steve Vavrek was elected in 2009.
But there was an energy among Democrats gathered inside the dining room at Jennie’s Wednesday evening, as Monroe prepares for its first race without an incumbent first selectman running since 2017.
James Martinez, a former Board of Education member, emceed the fundraiser.
“It’s not about party lines,” he said. “It’s what we can contribute to make this community the best, not only for our children but for the world.”
His wife, Chrissy Fensore Martinez, is serving as Stevens’ campaign manager.
“When I think of Monroe, Connecticut, I think of Jerry Stevens,” she said. “His family is part of the foundation of our community. I just can’t think of a better person to lead our community than Jerry Stevens, who has basically raised our children.”
Fensore Martinez said families trusted Stevens with their children as a teacher and “now I’m ready to trust him with our whole town, because his heart is here for us, his mind, everything about him.”
Stevens said former students have been reaching out to him via social media to share their enthusiasm and support for his campaign.
“The support has been wonderful,” said Kathy Stevens, Jerry’s wife, “and Jerry’s so excited to participate in this election and to be first selectman for his beloved town.”
Among his supporters Wednesday night were Susan Koneff and Patricia Shea, two retired teachers who both serve on the Library Board in town.
“I’m supporting Jerry, because he has the best interests of the town,” Koneff said. “He’s lived here his whole life and his family goes way back in Monroe. He was an organized teacher and he will bring his managerial skills as a teacher to the town. He’s very much for well planned growth, not growth for the sake of growth.”
“I’m supporting Jerry, because I think new leadership is needed,” Shea said. “I want a first selectman who will give the Library Board one penny for every tax dollar to support the library.”
“They say in Monroe you need to be a little lucky to win elections as a Democrat,” said Fred Martin, who was nominated to serve as the Monroe Democratic Town Committee’s next chairman, “and it’s also said that luck is a combination of preparation meeting opportunity.”
Martin said he believes this is the sixth election since the town charter, in which no incumbent is running. “And in the five previous ones the Democrats won three times,” he said.
He said Wednesday was a night to celebrate volunteers’ hard work organizing Stevens’ campaign over the past six months.
Martin praised Stevens as “a Monroe guy”, an educator, a counselor, a coach, and as someone who raised his family here who is a leader.
“Let’s let preparation meet this opportunity,” Martin said, “and let’s elect Jerry as our next first selectman.”
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