East Lyme – The first outgoing Republican coach Mark Nickerson on the eve of his departure described himself as a non-politician in a political role.
âThis job, you get involved because you want to serve,â he said. “But at the end of the day, it’s political work. And you meet with criticism.”
After the three terms, Nickerson did not stand for election. Republican First Vice President Kevin Seery, who defeated Democratic challenger Camille Alberti by more than 500 votes, will be sworn in on Monday.
Nickerson, appointed in 2015 to complete the term of State Senator Paul Formica, has several public safety improvements topped his team’s list of accomplishments. Among them was the controversial renovation of a 30-year-old building near the Interstate 95 Rocky Neck connector in the city’s public safety center.
Three years, two referendums and $ 7.4 million later, the building will be ready “hopefully by the end of the year,” according to Nickerson. It will house the dispatch center and the office of the fire marshal in addition to the police.
The first selectman noted that in order to escape criticism, as the saying goes, one must âdo nothing, say nothing and be nothingâ. It’s a quote he printed for his office wall with the reminder to dream big and “dare to fail”.
“You can stay under the radar and not do enough, not show your head and do things that are controversial or that have failed in the past,” he said. “Or you can do the right thing and try.”
The judgment was not lacking on the public security project. Critics have questioned the building’s location, its age, the rushed purchasing process and escalating costs. Supporters said a change was needed as city officers had worked in appalling conditions for decades.
Nickerson said building a new public safety building would have been easier, but gaining community buy-in just 18 months after voters approved a $ 37.5 million elementary school renovation project. of dollars would have been impossible. So a renovation seemed like the right thing to do, he said.
âThe perfect solution? No. Building a new one would have been great, âhe said. “But it is. It is a good building and it will serve our city very well for a few generations to come.”
The renovation follows two unsuccessful attempts to establish a public safety complex. In 2004, the Finance Council rejected a $ 6.5 million proposal to build a facility at Camp Niantic, and in 2007, a $ 14 million complex was rejected by voters in a referendum.
Nickerson said his success where two other selectmen had failed – “not failed, but their ideas did not materialize,” he covered – underscored the importance of continuing to strive.
In what Nickerson has called the proudest achievement of his tenure, the Board of Selectmen in 2016 authorized an independent police force after participating in the Connecticut State Police Resident Soldier Program for several decades. The department was established in 2017 under the leadership of Chief Mike Finkelstein.
Nickerson said East Lyme, which the 2020 census put at 18,693, had moved beyond its reliance on state police and needed the continuity of a leader whose loyalty is only to the city.
According to Nickerson, it is now essential to give the city’s 26 full-time officers, one part-time and one chef “the proper facilities to operate and the proper tools in their toolboxes.”
Finkelstein credited Nickerson on Friday with championing “what may not have been the most popular cause” with regard to the public safety building.
âHe’s always been incredibly supportive of law enforcement in our city,â Finkelstein said. “He was always someone we could count on to help us when needed.”
Seery, the first elected official and retired member of the Connecticut State Police, called the public safety construction project “a hot topic in the city for decades.” He said management to completion, combined with the formation of an independent police force, is Nickerson’s greatest contribution to the city.
âThese are two big challenges that no one else has tackled and that have been resolved,â Seery said.
More to do
The first outgoing and incoming selectmen agree that there is still a lot of work to be done.
âEvery time you complete a project, there is more of a wait,â Seery said.
In the area of ââfire services, Nickerson said improvements initiated under his administration will continue to evolve in the years to come. He highlighted the decision taken in 2019 to add two full-time and night firefighters. A five-year agreement between the independent East Lyme Ambulance association and the city was signed in 2019 to hire and share costs for the two professionals.
âNow we have people working 24/7 who can get in an ambulance and save a life,â he said. “We didn’t have that.”
East Lyme’s two independent fire companies operate separately from the city, and their volunteer leaders do not report to elected officials. Both departments include a mix of paid and volunteer firefighters.
Nickerson offered in June to hire a fire administrator to help provide “oversight and accountability” for the city’s two volunteer fire departments. A subcommittee of elected officials continues to review the structure of the city’s fire departments.
A $ 15,000, 272-page JLN Associates of Old Lyme Fire Department study published in 2017 recommended hiring a “full-time career fire chief” who would oversee both fire departments. fire, emergency medical services, the office of the fire marshal and emergency management.
He said many of the study’s recommendations have been implemented and resulted in a more streamlined relationship between the two departments and the city. But big questions about the leadership structure and the possibility of adding more paid firefighters remain.
âAll of this comes at a huge cost,â he said. “And this transition will continue to evolve.”
Get out of the way
Nickerson and his wife, Marlene, who recently moved from the Flemish section of town to a condominium in the Spinnaker 55+ community in Niantic, have two grown sons. Nickerson said he was focusing again on his decades-long career as a Geico insurance agent with offices in Connecticut and Rhode Island.
He said he plans to continue his service as a board member of community or regional organizations. He did not rule out a candidacy for a higher post.
“I have no plans to run for the state legislature at this time,” he said. “But you never know.”
Nickerson reiterated that he had “never been motivated by political considerations”, while admitting with a laugh that he was the city’s highest elected official.
âI very much appreciated this opportunity to serve,â he said. “But it was about service. It was not about a political seat and a stepping stone to other political seats, power or position.”
Asked about his legacy, he said he had “stepped aside” so that members of his staff, local boards and commissions and the community could get things done together.
âI have my expertise. I can motivate people. I can coach and mentor. I can recognize greatness and then put people in a position to do good things,â he said.
He said his leaving gift to the city’s chief financial officer, Anna Johnson, was a Wonder Woman figure and a Superman figure for Public Works Director Joe Bragaw.
On a whiteboard in his office, under the heading âTeam Nickerson’s Achievements,â is a list that has evolved over the years to include projects of all sizes. They range from big items like an elementary school renovation project to smaller initiatives like a new park at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue and a regionalized animal shelter in New London.
âAll of these little things add up to a big city. All these things add up to a quality of life, a quality of services and a quality of leisure, âhe said. “A sense of belonging.”
He said he plans to clear the board in time for Seery’s swearing-in ceremony on Monday afternoon, leaving a blank slate.
âIt was already a wonderful city, but we left it better than we found it,â he said. “And Kevin will do the same.”