By Elio Gugliotti, Editor
PROSPECT — Democratic Town Council member Kevin O’Leary feels with his legal background he can provide a greater service to Prospect as mayor.
“I wouldn’t take this step if I didn’t think I could provide some help and assistance in the town,” said O’Leary, a 32-year-old family law attorney and partner at Dolan Divorce Lawyers in New Haven.
O’Leary is one of two candidates challenging longtime Mayor Robert Chatfield, a Republican. The three-way race also features Taryn Finley, a 36-year-old Independent write-in candidate.
O’Leary, who is married with a young daughter, is a relative newcomer to town and local politics. He served one year on the Inland Wetlands Commission before being appointed in February to fill a vacancy on the council.
O’Leary said he’s seen a lack of accountability and transparency in Town Hall since his appointment to the council, including with budget issues like how funds from police private duty work were being spent. He said he’s running because the town needs to modernize its practices and his skills as an attorney, like regulation compliance and interpreting charter provisions, can benefit the town.
If elected, he said he would leave his practice to run the town.
“I’m doing this because I think I can provide help to the community and I think I’m a resource that could be good use to the town,” he said.
The town is dealing with the aftermath of the theft of about $294,000 from a town payroll account from December 2017 to November 2018. The thefts, which went unnoticed by officials during that time, became public in January 2020, when state police announced an arrest in the case.
An independent risk assessment of the town’s internal financial controls concluded the town’s practices were lacking, including having no formal documented policies, and the town is at risk for fraud in several areas.
O’Leary said the assessment report provided blanket statements but no direction on how to address the issues. The council is reviewing quotes from The Bonadio Group, the firm that did the assessment, to assist with addressing issues.
O’Leary said a consulting firm needs to be hired to prioritize the issues raised in the assessment and assist with addressing them. He said a formal policy and procedures manual needs to be finished and put in place, and staff should go through training annually.
O’Leary said the town’s internet technology infrastructure needs upgrading and safeguards put in place. He said the upgrades will take money and he’d make IT security a budget priority, if elected.
“It costs money, we know it costs money to implement this stuff, and our budgets are crafted in a way that there’s not a lot of extra money,” he said. “But, if we do not spend the money now, allocate it now, we’re going to have these continued issues.”
Crime, like car thefts, break-ins and burglaries, was a focal point this summer at two public forums, where residents expressed their concerns with a recent rise in incidents and questioned how the town planned to attack the issue.
The town participates in the resident state trooper program. Under the program, Connecticut State Police provide troopers to help oversee police operations as well as services, such as dispatch and booking. The town has about 20 of its own officers, who are retired from other departments and work part time.
O’Leary, who has a master’s degree in criminal justice administration, said police need to be more visible in town and staffing levels, particularly on the overnight shift, need to be addressed. He said the town can reallocate federal COVID relief funds to address staffing.
O’Leary said the police department needs to be more transparent with information on crime in town and a public information officer is needed to provide residents with factual information. He added the department should focus on “hot spot patrolling” where crimes are occurring.
“I think the residents should know where police are policing and it’s not a determent to the town to provide that information to residents,” he said.
If elected, O’Leary said economic development and land conservation would be among his priorities.
O’Leary said he doesn’t favor more development in town. Rather, he said, the focus needs to be on filling vacant commercial space. He said the town should have a part-time economic development coordinator to help attract businesses, or use the Economic Development Commission, which hasn’t met in a few years.
O’Leary said the town also needs to do more to acquire open space, like land owned by water companies, to ensure it doesn’t get developed at some point in the future. He said he would seek grants to buy water company land when it’s available, then transfer it to the Prospect Land Trust to preserve it.
“If we continue to turn them (land purchases) down these plots are going to be sold to private developers. Maybe not next year, maybe not five years, but if we continue to act like this water company property is preserved land, we’re in for a rude awakening when that gets bought up because we passed it up,” he said.
O’Leary said he’s looking to embrace modernization and proactively adapt to issues in town. He said his family chose to move to Prospect for its small-town character and schools.
“I’m not trying to change the character in town, I’m trying to adapt it to the modern times to ensure that it stays the way it does,” he said.