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Who wants to help run Preston? All three selectmen not seeking re-election

March 23, 2019

Preston — Municipal elections have been fairly boring for the past two election cycles, with the entire Board of Selectmen running unopposed, and First Selectman Robert Congdon was forced to postpone his planned retirement in 2017 when no other candidate sought the post.

This year, not only does Congdon, 70, promise to retire for real — “not just try,” he said — but the other two members of the Board of Selectmen plan to join him: Michael Sinko, 59, who ran as a Republican in the past and recently switched to an unaffiliated voter, and Democrat Lynwood Crary, 52. Both were unopposed in 2015 and 2017. Both this month confirmed they will not seek re-election.

Along with its leadership, Preston itself is on the cusp of major changes, with Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment preparing to take ownership of the 393-acre former Norwich Hospital property for a proposed major development once environmental cleanup is completed. The town plans to join the Uncas Health District this year and is considering contracting with either Ledyard or Norwich police departments for full-time police coverage.

Congdon said he is concerned about the sudden total turnover of the town’s top governing body, which has been discussing long-range planning in recent weeks. He has been trying to persuade Sinko to seek a sixth term to help acclimate new selectmen to their roles. But Sinko hasn’t budged.

“It’s been a 10-year commitment,” Sinko said after a recent selectmen meeting. “I’m done with it.”

Sinko declined to discuss his change in party affiliation, calling it a personal decision, but the Board of Selectmen rarely makes references to partisan politics during meetings, and almost never has split votes.

Crary, completing his third term this year, said with his three children moving away to attend college, he expects to be busier at home and on his farm, while also working at Electric Boat and being active in the Preston City Congregational Church.

“It’s time to slow down a little bit,” he said.

All three selectmen said they don’t plan to disappear from town politics, though. Prior to being elected first selectman nearly 24 years ago, Congdon served for four years on the Planning and Zoning Commission and six years on the Board of Finance. He said he is considering running for a position on one of those boards again this year.

Sinko serves on the Planning and Zoning Commission and plans to run for re-election on the commission this fall, perhaps as an unaffiliated candidate. Crary, who had served for 12 years on the commission, serves on the Conservation and Agriculture Commission, an agency appointed by the Board of Selectmen. He plans to seek reappointment to the commission.

The pending simultaneous departure of all three selectmen will mean a busy spring for the two chairmen of the political town committees. In a show of bipartisanship, Republican Town Committee Chairman Norman Gauthier and Democratic Town Committee Chairman Nick Vegliante co-wrote a page-long article in the recent “Preston Pipeline” newsletter explaining the roles of the town committees and asking potential candidates to contact them to express interest in running for positions on town boards and commissions.

“In the news, we often read about the actions and decisions of Town boards and commissioners,” the party chairmen wrote. “You can be part of that decision-making process by taking part in town government, and you will help make Preston a better place to live.”

Party caucuses will be held in July to endorse candidates for the November election.

“We have work to do,” Gauthier said. “Spring is here. People think November is eons away, but the caucuses are in July, and we need to get things lined up.”

Congdon’s concerns about lack of experience in an incoming trio of selectmen might not materialize. While no one has yet declared candidacy for first selectman — one Democratic candidate is said to be close to making an announcement — candidates are emerging for the two selectman seats.

And they are no strangers to town government.

Former Democratic Selectman and current Board of Finance member Gerald Grabarek said he told the Democratic Town Committee he would run for one term as a selectman this year — “not for first selectman,” he said. Grabarek, 67, who runs the dairy farm Preston Farms on Route 2 retired from the Board of Selectmen in 2009 after serving for 14 years.

“There’s going to be a new first selectman,” Grabarek said. “Even if I just do it for two years, it would help provide experience. I’m just doing it one term.”

Another veteran Board of Finance member, Republican Kenneth Zachem, said he, too, expressed interest in running for a selectman seat but not for first selectman. Zachem, who owns Lu Mac’s Package Store on Route 2, said he heard that Grabarek is considering running and knows the potential Democratic first selectman candidate, and said, “I could get along with either of them.”

Zachem has served 18 years on the Board of Finance, and his current term on that board is up this year, “so might run for that again” instead of seeking a selectmen seat, he said.

c.bessette@theday.com