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Bumgardner, Hedrick face off in March 8 Democratic primary

Groton — In the City of Groton's first Democratic primary in decades, incumbent City Mayor Keith Hedrick and challenger Town Councilor Aundré Bumgardner are vying for the city's top post.

The winner of the March 8 primary will not face a Republican challenger in the May 3 general election; the City of Groton Republican Committee has not endorsed a slate after prospective candidates cited concerns over “a hostile and threatening environment” for Republicans and withdrew their names.

The Democratic candidates for city mayor, both former Republicans, each bring goals for the next term, but both said the city's response to the COVID-19 pandemic and getting people vaccinated are top priorities.

Hedrick said he has the managerial experience that will continue to move the city forward on a successful path, while Bumgardner said he brings the "proactive leadership" needed during these challenging times, especially the pandemic.

Hedrick, 61, said he served in the U.S Navy for more than 20 years, has a background in engineering and worked as an operations manager at URS/AECOM, and for the past four years as mayor, he has overseen day-to-day operations and the multimillion-dollar budgets of the city and Groton Utilities. He said he will build off of that experience and continue to make good decisions, for example, as he works to spur economic development in the city.

"I am energetic and enthusiastic about the City of Groton, and I have experience," Hedrick said.

Bumgardner, 26, said he has served in three forms of government. He is on the city's Planning and Zoning Commission and the Town Council and was state representative for the 41st District from 2015 to 2017, after being elected as the youngest representative in the Connecticut statehouse. He also worked as outreach coordinator for the state treasurer.

He said his experience includes building coalitions and "bringing together a diverse array of constituencies to enact policy reform that improves the lives for working families here in the city and for all of us."

Top priorities for the city

Hedrick said his first priority for the next term would be to continue the city's response to the pandemic and getting people tested and vaccinated. He said the vaccination of the minority population will be a particular challenge, based on the history of medical mistreatment, so the city wants to work with Ledge Light Health District to get the word out that vaccination is helpful. Ideas include sending out flyers, going door to door if needed, to make sure people are aware, and communicating with people in their native language.

Economic development in general, and on Thames Street in particular, is another top priority that Hedrick cited.

"We are working with individuals who own key properties to either change the purpose of those properties or to sell them so that someone else can invest in them and help renovate Thames Street," he said.

He added that the city is working with two developers on proposed mixed-used projects, with commercial on the first floor and apartments above. One would be across from the former Garbo Lobster property, and the other at Five Corners.

Hedrick said addressing the influx of employees and parking demands associated with the future expansion of Electric Boat is another priority. He said the city also should work with the education community and other entities to ensure Electric Boat has a pipeline of workers to hire and to encourage youths to learn a trade that will lead to employment at Electric Boat.

Bumgardner also said that COVID-19 vaccine distribution is an immediate priority. He said he would ensure that older and more vulnerable populations get vaccinated as soon as possible by partnering with Ledge Light to offer clinics in the city multiple times a week. He said the city should do that, even if it requires an additional appropriation, because if this measure is not taken, there is a risk of staying shut down for months.

"Our community has to be vaccinated, marginalized populations here in our city have to be vaccinated," he said. He added that he's heard from residents who are having a hard time signing up for appointments, so he will work with federal, state and local partners to expand distribution.

A longer-term priority is to partner with the federal delegation in seeking grants to expand Parks and Recreation programs. He said he would like to expand on the city's summer camp program for year-round programming and offer recreational and homework support to children on afternoons and evenings.

Tackling climate change is another priority for Bumgardner. He said he has committed the city to 100% renewable energy by 2030 by investing in solar panels on homes and businesses and establishing a composting facility to take city residents' organic materials and yard waste to create compost and biofuel. The biofuel would be used to power the city public works and utility fleet, which he said are aging and will require an investment in years to come.

Both candidates said they oppose consolidation of town and city government and support maintaining the city police department, but both expressed that it was important for the city and town to work together.

Hedrick said that while the city and town long had a tense relationship, he has worked for four years to establish positive relationships with the town manager, and the two talked almost daily at the beginning of the pandemic to ensure uniformity in policies. The city and town's Parks and Recreation departments have shared equipment, and city police talked to the town police before joining the state radio system.

Bumgardner said the town and city have a symbiotic relationship, and moving forward the largest issue confronting both is climate change, with the city projected to experience 20 inches of sea level rise by 2050.

"Storms are intensifying," he said. "Extreme weather is real, and we need leaders at the town and city (levels) who will band together and tackle issues of coastal resiliency."

The candidates have in common that they both used to be Republicans. Hedrick split with the Republican Party about eight years ago because he said town Republicans were trying to infiltrate the city Republicans and force consolidation of the city with the town. Bumgardner split with the party in 2017 following President Donald Trump's comments after the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

Bumgardner posted on social media in October that “Trump says, 'Proud boys, stand back and stand by.' He fails to condemn white supremacists. He is a racist, and he doesn’t even care to hide it. If you vote for him, so are you.” Bumgardner said he "will always speak truth to power."

Hedrick said he thinks that Trump is a racist, but disagreed with lumping all Trump voters together.

To address equity, Hedrick said the city is creating a database of services available to people and looking at the best ways to get the word out, including email blasts and mass mailings.

He said the city has long been involved in community policing and in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, the city and police created Police and Community Together, a committee that meets monthly to help determine how to strengthen relationships between the police and the community. He said the database was the committee's idea, and committee also gave away more than 300 backpacks to children.

He said the police had additional de-escalation training as a result of the police accountability bill.

"Our focus has always been on de-escalation training based on the autism awareness programs that we have in the city," Hedrick said.

Hedrick said since 2017, the city has increased the number of people of color working for the city and Groton Utilities by nearly 5% and has policies in place to continue that.

Bumgardner said he walked with residents to stand up against racism in support of Black lives.

He said the city police department shows care and compassion because of specialized Autism & Law Enforcement Education Coalition training. He said he would like to expand the strides the city has taken to hire a diverse pool of applicants for the police department.

"We need to have officers that walk the beat, that patrol on their bicycles throughout our neighborhoods to develop relationships with our community members and I have no doubt that the police department will embrace those reforms as they are most motivated by maintaining good will and strong relationships with all community members here," he said.

He added that he supports the police accountability bill.

"Had I stood in the state legislature and represented the 41st District, I would have voted for that bill, and as a man of color it is not lost on me that I have a duty and obligation to listen to the needs of our Black and brown residents in hardship and in the future," he said.

He said he will look to diversify leadership at City Hall to ensure that it reflects the diversity of the community.

When asked about how he would approach the renewal of Thames Street, Bumgardner said the city and economic development team should look toward solutions such as permitting and zoning changes, while partnering with the business community and identifying solutions. He said he would like to establish a Thames Street promenade.

Hedrick said a challenge facing the renewal of Thames Street is that a property owner has 14 primarily residential properties, and the city is working with him to either release those properties or make them mixed-use. He said people are ready to establish businesses in the city but storefronts are needed and right now that's lacking. He suggested an approach of starting renewal efforts on the north and south ends of Thames Street and then working toward the middle.

For the expansion of Electric Boat, Hedrick said there is a Joint Land Use Study for a parking management plan for the city, and the city is also looking at improving walkability and bike-ability. He also said that if more small businesses come to the city, it can leverage off Electric Boat employees to drive economic development.

Bumgardner said the big question is how to leverage the growth from Electric Boat. He said the city needs to invest in mixed-use development in the Five Corners area and on Thames Street and work with the town and state to ensure the city gets the money needed to fund infrastructure improvement projects to make the area more friendly to cyclists and pedestrians. He also said the city should continue to partner with Southeastern CT Enterprise Region and the congressional delegation for workforce development programs and apprenticeship opportunities.

k.drelich@theday.com

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