Observer: John, you seem like a nice guy. Why are you doing this to yourself?
Theriault: I am a nice guy and have a lot of respect from the community. I’ve been a lifelong resident of Waterbury and I’ve worked in the town for 32 years as a teacher and a principal. I want to give back to the town and the community what they gave to me. They gave me a good living all these years. As you develop your skills and hone your talents I think it’s time to give back. There are things going on in the city that I don’t like.
Observer: Like what? What’s the number one thing you don’t like?
Theriault: I see a mayor who is a full-time developer and a part-time mayor. I see some wheeling and dealing going on with NETCO/Synagro down in the sewer plant. I see the mayor building buildings outside the city and recruiting businesses out of Waterbury. This erodes our tax base.
I see people in Waterbury struggling with their taxes and unemployment and there is no economic development plan in place.
Observer: So you are frustrated?
Theriault. Yes. I want to be part of the solution to the problem, I don’t want to be the problem itself. I want to offer some initiatives. I want to expose the issues. I have no desire to ever attack the mayor on a personal or family basis. The mayor has a lot of issues regarding the operation of city government that have to be addressed.
Observer: If we can back up for a moment and address the sewage treatment plant you mentioned. What specifically are you referring too?
Theriault: NETCO turned into Snagrow and they take the waste from the sewage plant…
Observer: Isn’t the sewage treatment plant owned by Waterbury?
Theriault: Yes, but Sinagrow takes the waste and we pay Sinagrow to burn it. Synagrow also takes a lot of liquid waste from other places and charges to process outside waste through our facility. Then they take the waste from that and burn it. The little bit of money that we get from the outside waste, then we have to pay Sinagrow to burn it. It’s a wash, but we need this to be a profit engine for the city. We don’t need to outsource this, we need to use this as part of our economic development plan.
Observer: Is that an example of the mayor not paying attention to the process? From the way you brought the subject up a minute ago you were making it seem like there were some shennanigans going on there.
Theriault: Well, take a look at EWR, that has now turned into Phoenix Soil and the mayor has not addressed that situation for ten years. When the case finally got into court the judge admonished the mayor for not bringing the court case further, and then he gave Phoenix Soil an extension for three more years. It has been documented and proven that this is a source of a lot of pollution within the city and it’s no mistake that the incidence of cancer in Waterbury has increased 300%.
The people of Waterbury are suffering and the mayor has increased the profits in his company year after year. His company bought the old Health Department Building and sold it a year later for a million dollar profit.
Observer: During Q&A interviews with the mayor in the last eight years we have probed into the subject of his private development projects several times and he doesn’t seem to recognize or acknowledge that many people in Waterbury are troubled by his actions. It’s not that he is doing anything illegal, but people wonder who is he serving – the taxpayers, or his own bottom line?
Theriault: Right. This is a big problem for me. I think the mayor is involved in insider trading. He knows about the land that becomes available before anyone else does. Look at the property in the East End that Kohl’s is on. He knew about that before anyone else and he grabbed that quick with his LLCs. Mike Jarjura should have no involvement with any real estate development while he is the mayor.
Let’s talk about things that look unfair to the public. Take the proposed land deal between the city and Norman Drubner. The mayor is a millionaire. Norman Drubner is a millionaire. Would there be a temptation to sell it to the city and then flip it back to the mayor’s LLC. I’m not saying that is going to be done, but it is possible when you have a mayor actively involved in real estate development in Waterbury.
It’s all about perception.
Norman Drubner is a millionaire and he started this forest designation for his land 25 or 30 years ago. He is not doing anything illegal, but when someone who has ¼ of an acre and a two-bedroom house in Waterbury is paying $6000 in taxes, and they see Drubner paying $700 in taxes on 133 acres, it becomes an issue of fairness. Norm did absolutely nothing wrong. He took advantage of a tax break. He is a sharp businessman, but at what point do we say that it’s time to re-evaluate the property. Maybe it should be reclassified when you put a shovel in the ground, or cut a tree.
I really do think the city should buy that property and make it part of Western Hills and make it a park. Then we should protect it by making sure that it could only be sold by approval in a citywide referendum. That would ensure the sanctity of the place and protect open space.
People all over Waterbury should be concerned about this property. It is one of the last big open space properties that we have left. We need to look at this property from the standpoint of not increasing the burden on our system of services – the schools, the fire and the police. We need to keep this land at bay, just like we needed to keep the condo development out of Town Plot. We have resurgence in condominium proposals in Waterbury and there is a profit motive here.
Observer: Are there other perception problems?
Theriault: The mayor and his partners built an office building just over the line in Middlebury and recruited businesses out of Waterbury to fill its space. That’s taking away from our tax base and increasing the mayor’s profits. He is asking the tax payers of Waterbury to “Do as I say, not as I do.”
We are struggling here in Waterbury. Our tax base is eroding and our industrial base is gone. What we have is places like Target and Bernie’s, which do provide some jobs, but we need something more substantial, and not like First Light.
(Editor’s Note – First Light is a 96-megawatt electric generator built on a Brownfield site on Washington Avenue in the South End of Waterbury)
First Light really angered me. I went up to the capitol for five days to participate in the hearings, and when I finally got a chance to speak I was asked, “Are you an expert in pollution?” and I said, “No, I was a principal and a teacher and know the kids and the community.”
A lawyer for First Light asked me if I had written any books about pollution. I said no, that I was there because I felt passionate about the location of the proposed plant in the South End because of its proximity to 18 schools. I said I was concerned. They dismissed me as a nobody. They weren’t looking for the concerns of someone community oriented; they were looking for an expert witness.
I am not an expert witness but I have compassion and concern for the people living here in this community.
Observer: Why were you opposed to First Light?
Theriault: Because of the pollution. When you walk down there and you see how dangerously close the generator is to the sidewalk, and how dangerously close the electro magnetic waves are to Duggan School, Washington School and St. Francis School. There will also be large amounts of ammonium stored onsite, which I think is dangerous.
We did convince them to burn more natural gas than low-sulfur diesel fuel.
Observer: Let’s switch gears. In some of your marketing material you have listed “Jobs, jobs, jobs,” as one of your priorities. It’s easy to say jobs, jobs, jobs, but how do we specifically get jobs here?
Theriault: We need an economic development plan. This is a thing that the mayor has openly admitted he has not invested too much time and money into. He said during his Q & A with the Observer two years ago that he sent the resources into the Health Department and the Public Works Department. I will put some money into creating an economic development plan and use some muscle to getting it done.
What the Waterbury Development Corporation (WDC) is doing right now is not enough. We need to get the partners together at the table, the community leaders and the state organizations of economic development and sit down as a task force and come up with a specific plan.
Observer: In theory the task force is already in place. WDC already has the neighborhood groups and stakeholders sitting at the table.
Theriault: There is a disconnect between the mayor’s office and WDC. Economic development needs to be run out of the mayor’s office, not out of WDC. The people need to come to the mayor.
We have to clean the Brownfields up and make them available for economic development. If you walk around and have cancer in your body you have to get rid of it so you can be healthy. The Brownfields are like tumors in the city.
Observer: The Brownfield clean-up funds are exhausted and the state is broke. How do you do that?
Theriault: We need to do it. We need to find ways to do it, even if we do it piecemeal. We need a systematic plan to attack the Brownfields and we don’t have one now. We need a plan.
Once the Brownfields are cleaned up we have to make it easier for business to come to Waterbury and stay here and achieve their business plan.
We have to clean up the Brownfields without clobbering the taxpayers in Waterbury.
Observer: How? That becomes the rub. Cleaning the Brownfields up is like putting a big worm on a hook to try and catch industry, but how do we catch the worm?
Theriault: That’s part of it. We need to clean up the Brownfields but we have big clean industrial parks now that are only half full. We have no aggressive effort right now to go out and recruit new business here. We have no marketing in national trade magazines or trade shows. There is no initiative to go out and convince business to come to Waterbury. We are a megalopolis at a crossroads that is halfway between New York City and Boston. This has to be palatable to a lot of business and industry but we have to go convince them to take a look at us.
We need to make Waterbury friendly and affordable so business can meet their goals and we can expand our tax base. If we are successfull we could actually lower taxes here. There has not been a concerted effort by this mayor to recruit new business. As mayor, you have to try to expand the tax base and the only way to do this is to develop a good sound economic development plan.
At the moment we have WDC and John Rowland at the helm, and I’m sure John is trying. It must be frustrating for John in this economy, but it’s just not enough. We need to be more aggressive and take our message out to industry and to national trade shows.
We could have had Jay Lestorti making cabinets at the old Anamet site. But he was driven out for political reasons, and when he did go bankrupt the mayor swooped in and bought his business right up. And who knew about that closing first?
You can’t say there isn’t some inside trading going on because these are the sorts of deals that do take place in Waterbury with this mayor.
Observer: When John Rowland was hired to be the economic czar in Waterbury he had a lot of ideas and plans and was gaining some traction, but when the global economy crashed he had to shift gears from recruiting business to retaining business in Waterbury…
Theriault: It has been very difficult, but we can still do more. Businesses have a business plan, we don’t have a plan right now. Last year the mayor and John Rowland announced they would have a plan for downtown Waterbury within a month. It’s 18 months later and we still don’t have a plan. We need a focused plan to give us a road map of where we want to go and plan how to get there.
The location of Waterbury is ideal. Sure this is a difficult market right now, but we aren’t doing enough to reach out and make something happen.
Right now we are in reaction and there isn’t very much being done at all. That has to change.
Maybe John Rowland is doing a good job keeping business here, but the mayor hasn’t done a very good job of that because he moved his own business outside the city.
No more lip service and promises. We need to write down a plan on paper, get as many partners involved as possible and begin to move forward.
Observer: Okay, take me through this scenario. You are elected mayor in November and sworn into office in December. John Theriault is now mayor, what do you do?
Theriault: You’d start off by getting all the people who were on stage at the Economic Summit last year, add a few extra people and make them partners in a task force on economic development. The task force would attempt a united effort to attract business and look for money for Brownfield clean up. We need to address the problems that businesses face in relocating here, and what are the problems with the businesses that are currently here. We need to try and look at these issues in an equitable and just way and help businesses relocate here and help businesses stay here.
Then we go out and aggressively market the town. Marketing is key.
We can explore tax incentives but they don’t have to go out seven and eight years like they do now. First Light has a tax abatement for seven years.
I believe a highly specific economic development plan is necessary and achievable. We have a commodity here that is invaluable – water. We should be aggressively seeking out water-based industry whether it is bottled water, cosmetics or circuits. Industry needs water and we have lots of it.
Observer: Are you comfortable with the players that are here now at WDC and John Rowland as economic czar?
Theriault: This has to be a bi-partisan effort. John Rowland is not the issue and I don’t want to make him an issue. He is in there trying to do the job and help Waterbury move forward. We have a lot of good people in place right now but we need more people and a broader based initiative. We need more work on the grass roots level, the smaller guys need to be invited to the table, not just the influential.
Observer: That’s what was so fascinating to me about the Economic Summit last year. The people on the stage; WDC, the Chamber, Main Street and the Mayor, all have a guaranteed paycheck every Friday. The people in the audience were almost all small business entrepreneurs, risk takers, and none of them have any guarantee of a specific paycheck on Friday. The small business owner is edgy and aggressive and wants action right now. They are impatient and irritated with the people on the stage who get paid whether they create results or not. Small business owners in Waterbury are disillusioned with the promise of plans. They are disgusted. Do you have any ideas for downtown?
Theriault: There is way too much rhetoric that goes on about downtown. We need to form the task force, come up with ideas and move forward. We don’t need any more words or promises, we need a plan. After we get a plan then we need weekly and monthly progress reports to monitor how we are doing. We have none of that now. We have no accountability.
Downtown has the potential to be a vibrant place. With UConn, the Palace and the Magnet Arts School we have a lot already in place. But the perception remains that downtown is not a safe place. That needs to be overcome right off the bat.
Observer: How do you do that?
Theriault: A police presence downtown. There are plenty of police when there is a show at the Palace Theater, but there needs to be a police presence like that all the time. We need to take vagrants and undesirable people of the streets. I’m not talking about people who have a right to be there, but the people that are walking around downtown after 11 pm doing shady things should be removed from downtown. We should be able to walk through any area of downtown without any fear of being mugged or jumped. People coming into Waterbury from Woodbury, Middlebury and Thomaston are always looking over their shoulder as they walk down the street. We need to eliminate that.
Observer: This goes back to the perception problem we have in Waterbury. The night the Palace opened five years ago Neil O’Leary had triple the number of necessary cops in and around the theater to make people feel safe. He said it was mostly show because downtown is safe. People’s fears are unjustified.
Theriault: But we need to address this through marketing and better lighting downtown. The whole downtown needs to be better lit. The area down by Diorio’s needs to be better lit and all the arteries leading off the Green. Lighting is a huge issue. And honestly we need to have cops on the beat again. Never mind the cops in the squad cars. We used to have cops walking from telephone pole to telephone pole checking in. Now they can do that by radio.
A lot of people have a negative feeling about a beat cop but they really are now just neighborhood cops. Friendly with the neighborhood, friendly with the community. Knows the neighborhood. Knows the kids. He’ll know when people are down on their luck, not arresting everybody for every little thing. He could get people off the street and get them the help they need. There is a connection and that’s where I think we need to go.
We should look into re-opening the precincts we had throughout the city and getting cops out on the beat. That’s what I would do.
Cops on bicycles is quite frankly an outmoded idea. We should put them on a small scooter, something motorized. I hate to see a cop over there on Long Hill pumping the bike up that steep incline. What kind of a waste is that? Give them a motorized scooter so they can get around the town faster. What would that really cost?
I’ve been at a few schools over the years as a principal where I was headed downtown and a bike cop asked if he could put their bike in my car and catch a ride downtown. They didn’t want to ride from Wallace Middle School.
The Waterbury Police Department has done a yeoman’s job keeping crime down.
Observer: What do you think of the firemen as first responders?
Theriault: At first I didn’t like the idea at all. Having big, huge firetrucks responding to every call seemed dangerous, but I spoke to a dispatcher who told me this is absolutely the best thing since night football. They get there right away. They are able to save lives. And now I think we should leave it alone. It’s a good thing.
Observer: The big question is whether the firemen need to take the big apparatus out on the road to respond to every call. Maybe if they had a few Ford Explorers it might make it safer.
Theriault: I agree. The Fire Department should still be the first responder, but maybe they should downsize the vehicle to something more manageable on the roads. The huge fire truck is many tons and we know what can happen going through busy intersections. At first I thought the firemen might be bogged down with a heart attack victim while someone’s house was on fire. I was wrong about that. It seems to be working well but we should tweak it a bit to get the firemen smaller vehicles.
Observer: Let’s switch gears to something near and dear to your heart – education. Can you briefly explain your background in education in Waterbury?
Theriault: I was educated as an industrial engineer. I worked for Pratt and Whitney a couple of years. Then I took the intensive program for college graduates, did my student teaching in New Haven. I started teaching in Washington School and was in eight schools over the course of my 32 years. I was kind of like Palladin going around doing problem solving.
I went from Washington School to Carrington, where I did my third, fourth and fifth year of teaching. Then I took the civil service test and became a teaching vice-principal, then I went down to Maloney and became the principal. The man who had been at Maloney, Jack Bergin, died of a brain tumor. He was a wonderful man and taught me a lot about compassion and working with kids from the inner city.
From Maloney I went to West Side Middle School where I filed a couple of court cases against the civil service system in Waterbury. It took eight years to resolve and then I went over to the Alternative School as acting principal. Then I went to Kennedy as a high school vice principal. Then I was principal at Hopeville for ten years, then to Gilmartin and then back to Washington.
Observer: You were really around the block.
Theriault: Yeah. Actually when I went to the Alternative School it was Ron Brodeur who recruited me. Ron was on the board and he approached me and I said “Why me?”
He told me that I had three things they were looking for. He said “you’re firm, you’re fair and you’re consistent.”
And that’s what kids need in terms of discipline and academics.
Observer: You were inside the Education Department for 32 years and for the past six years you’ve been on the Board of Education. How would you assess what is going on in the Waterbury school system right now?
Theriault: I really think we are really, really trying. Our central office administrators – Dr. Snead, Dr. Sequira, Ann Marie Cullinan, our department heads, our teachers and our administrators are working really hard developing initiatives that not only deal with No Child Left Behind, but with our own goals.
The demographics of the city is changing. We have a large minority population in our school system and a large population of poor. The socio-economic brackets that many students fall in, with the breakdown of the family, has led to very difficult problems.
People ask me all the time what is the #1 problem in education is. While many people might think the answer is test scores, I think it is family values. Family values are the fertilizer of what the plant is growing in. If you can achieve family values and encourage kids to stay in school, to go to school, to tell them that school is a medium and education will serve you well in your adult life, this is an important message to give to your kids.
Parents need to tell their kids that getting an education is one of the most important things they will ever do in their life. Parents need to tell kids that they will help them achieve that goal, that they will be there to support them.
I tell kids to go to their parents and ask them what one thing would they do differently if they had their lives to do over again. 99% of the kids come back and say that their mother or father would go back to school and get a trade or a college education.
Without a trade or a college education you are dead in the water. What happens is that if these kids don’t get the right education they look for the short way out and look to drugs and crime and end up in jail. Many of them will get addicted to alcohol or drugs and end up dying a premature death in prison. That is the reality.
On the other hand if you get a trade or a college education you have a key or a fishing pole and you can lose everything and you’ll be able to start all over again because you have an education. With an education you can go on vacations and have a nice style of living. You can have a house and you can take care of your family and you’ll be respected within your community.
Observer: The number one issue that Paul Vance banged on in the Democrat Primary was Mayor Jarjura’s lack of engagement with Education Department and the Board of Education. You’ve sat on the board these past six years. What’s your take on the mayor’s involvement?
Theriault: You have to remember that the mayor is the ex-officio member of the board of education. He comes and he breaks ties. This mayor hardly ever comes to our meetings. He’s not engaged in the educational process of what’s going on. When I am mayor I plan to attend as many board of education meetings as I can. I will participate. I will give direction.
I come from the perspective of a grass roots guy who has written with chalk dust on the board. I’ve been involved with kids in the classroom and in the lunchroom and with the bus duty.
Observer: You’ve lived the issue.
Theriault: I have. You used to see me out there all the time at Hopeville standing side by side with the crossing guard. I would go out there with my heavy jacket and gloves and my umbrella. I would occasionally pull up my car and let the crossing guard sit in it and warm up until a kid came. I would relieve the crossing guard in the rain so he could go inside and get a cup of coffee.
I did that because I respected the guy, but more so because I wanted to get out to that bus stop and I wanted to try and solve the problems before they came into the school. If there were problems on the bus I wanted to talk to the bus driver and the kids.
I wanted the kids to see me. I wanted to be visible, and I was.
Observer: Can the mayor and the board of education reach into a home and affect family values? How far can we reach and is this realistic?
Theriault: Definitely. We need to offer more programs that not only educate and encourage our kids, but also help parents with parenting skills. We have to get parents involved and motivated to come to the school.
First we need to make the school a friendly place, an inviting place where people can come and not feel threatened. If they speak a foreign language, if they speak Spanish, or Lithuanian or Albanian we need to have people in the school that are friendly and can translate for them.
PTAs need to be a place not for complaining but for building the school and strengthening the structure of the school. If you have a complaint about your child you should be able to go to the principal or the teacher and have a parent/teacher conference. When you go to the PTA you need to go there with a mission and a positive aim in mind.
If these kids don’t get an education and basic skills they are doomed.
Unfortunately we have many, many single parent families, but that in and of itself is not a death sentence. I’ve known many parents who have done an absolutely phenomenal job raising their kids by themselves. I did that myself. I got divorced and I was a single parent and so was my ex-wife. We did a great job raising our kids up and they are all college educated, Thank God.
Theriault: Thank you. It is important that we reach out and help parents and educate them what school is all about.
During the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Truancy commissioner Stango and myself were named co-chairmen and through hard work by the group we were able to decrease the truancy rate by almost 30% in three years.
We did this by adding more truant officers, attendance counselors and social workers. We were able to get these people into the streets, into the homes, knocking on doors, being facilitators and being helpers of parents. We didn’t say we were going to put the parents in jail if they didn’t send their kids to school, we wanted to identify the pathology of the problem and see how we could help the parents.
We also initiated a program of parent liaisons in the schools. That’s one more helping hand at the school to help the parents.
One of our principals over at Walsh School has reached out to involve the neighborhood and community and that needs to be done all over the city.
We have a lot of ideas in place and we just need to intensify our efforts. I know parents know how important school is. I know that many of the parents did not have the opportunity, or luxury, of getting educated.
My parents never owned their own home. My mother had seven children. We struggled. When I went to college I paid my own way, getting four hours of sleep a night and commuted back and forth to New Haven. It was a struggle but it was something that I really wanted to do.
I was not a good student in grammar school or high school. I only woke up in my senior year because I had some teachers who patted me on the back and encouraged me. They told me I could do it. They told me I was smart. Then I looked around one day and decided that I was smart, and that I could do it.
Observer: Someone stepped in and encouraged you.
Theriault: Yes. It was very important. Mr. Picaro, Mr. Damien, and other great educators took a liking to me. But by the time I woke up and I was really behind and I had to struggle through college. It was very hard, but I did manage to get four college degrees and took advanced studies in urban education.
Once the importance of education kicks in you never really stop learning. The more I learn the more I realize how little I know. Education is a process and you learn something every day.
Observer: A few years ago I was involved in helping create a youth newspaper and we had twenty inner city kids explore the problem of truancy from their perspective. I was surprised to hear horror stories from the kids about the dress code. They were being suspended for wearing certain colored hair ties and principals were taking out rulers and measuring skirt length. The kids said the dress code was breaking the spirit of many marginal students who would get suspended, and then give up on school. What’s your take on the dress code?
Theriault: I think the dress code is totally ridiculous. We are spinning our wheels over an issue that is inconsequential. Every kid should have to come to the school neat and clean. They shouldn’t come to school with torn or revealing clothing, but we need to use common sense here. They should come to school the way they would dress as a teenager going to work. There shouldn’t be t-shirts, or anything written on a t-shirt, and I can see insisting on a shirt with a collar. But I wouldn’t care if the shirt was black, purple or orange. I don’t really care about the color as long as it doesn’t have any writing on it.
For instance we outlawed jeans, but we only outlawed blue jeans. So if you wore black jeans that was okay? That is ridiculous.
Most of the teachers follow the dress code, but some do not. When the kids see that it’s a bad reflection on the teacher and then the kids can say ”look at what you’re wearing”.
It’s a mixed message so we have sent out letters to our professional staff, our secretaries and our teachers, to obey a professional dress code.
But getting back to the students; as long as the clothing is neat and clean I don’t really have any problem with what color the shirt and pants are. If you want to have a uniform code, okay, tell the kids they have to wear a blue dress or blue pair of pants and a white shirt. That’s a uniform code.
Doing what they are doing now does cause frustration, and if we lose one student to that issue, if one student drops out, that’s one student too many.
If the dress code is that much of an issue with the students I suggest we entertain the thought of having a student representative or two attend the board meetings. They won’t be a voting member, but let them come and let them participate. Let the students have a say in the way government is run.
Observer: There is a huge disconnect between the city leaders and our youth right now. We need to get the kids involved.
Theriault: Years ago the Jaycees used to do a Youth Day in government and we had people from all over the city participate. Kids would be aldermen, the mayor, a sheriff, on the board of ed and so forth. We did this thing over the course of two or three days and at the end of the process one Holy Cross student came up to me and told me he loved the process and he had developed an interest in municipal government. He then told me he would be mayor of Waterbury one day. I said “Good luck, Joe.”
And he did become mayor of Waterbury. His name was Joe Santopietro.
These are some of the things we need to do. We need to get parents involved and we need to get the students involved. What’s the matter with having free spaghetti dinner once in a while? Inviting the whole family down for a free dinner. I used to do that at Hopeville using PTA money. It was never so crowded. It’s not a bribe, it creates an atmosphere where people can network and feel comfortable.
At Hopeville I used to do a picnic every year. Myself and the crossing guard and some of the parents would cook 800 hotdogs. They had potato chips, watermelon and ice cream. They sat on blankets, they picked up after themselves, and the parents loved it.
Observer: Where did you get the money for that?
Theriault: PTA funds. We used to sell wrapping paper and things like that. What little money I got in the principal’s advisory fund was used too. It was a huge success. We did a school dance at the end of every year. We used to have 200 kids come and a parent chaperone. Those kids were impeccably dressed. No sneakers, no jeans. We took a picture of each chaperone and their student. Sometime it was a grandmother, or a father, or a mother.
These are the things we need to go back to. The old-fashioned grass roots initiatives involving the community and having people feel like the school is a neighborhood place. Parents should see positive reasons to go to the school, not just because they have to go down because their son is suspended. My mother was standing in front of the principal three or four times a year because of something I did as a kid. I used to tell the kids sitting across from me that I know what it feels like, because I was there many times.
Until I was a senior in high school I saw no value in school. Nobody ever told me how important an education was, so every chance I get I tell the kids how important school is. Over and over and over. (Theriault pounded his fist on the table as he repeated) Over, and over and over.
Now I have the opportunity as a board of education member to tweak the direction that the board is going to go in.
Observer: If you are elected mayor are you going to be the “Education Mayor”?
Theriault: Certainly education is something I would focus on. I am compassionate and passionate about the issue. Education is 55% of the city budget and I believe there is still some fat to cut. The mayor recently cut the education budget by $3 million and we went into a backroom and we moved some things around and we found $3 million like that (Theriault snapped his fingers).
We didn’t cut a job and we didn’t cut a program. That tells me there is some fat in the education budget. We need to surgically remove the programs that are not working, and fiscally support the ones that are. Surplus money should be put back into the General Fund so taxpayers can get some relief.
We need to do a forensic audit of the board of education.
Observer: What do you mean by that?
Theriault: A forensic audit goes into much greater detail than a regular audit. It looks at who is spending the money and how they are spending the money. It goes way beyond the electronic audit of sums and balances. It gets into the nitty gritty about the way money is spent. It’s like what we did in the grants department when millions and millions of dollars were missing. Unbeknownst to the public much of those records were just recently reconstructed and the results were fluffed over.
We need a forensic audit every five years in every department in Waterbury. We need to look at Public Works, the fire, the police and everyone else. That’s the way it needs to be to give the taxpayers some relief. We need more accountability.
Observer: Talking about fiscal responsibility, you were the lone dissenting vote against the Duggan School project several years ago. You forewarned that trying to save the existing structure would lead to huge cost overruns. You were right, but what do we do now? Knock it down and build new?
Theriault: I wasn’t the only one. Dr. Snead (Superintendent of Schools, David Snead) had extensive experience in Detroit and he cautioned and warned the board not to go ahead with the renovation but to build new. But some people were enamored with the old clock tower, and with the charter oak, and there were even some members of the Independent Party that were enamored with that.
But all in all the independent Party stance was that we want a new school, whether it was renovated or new, we didn’t care as long as it was structurally safe.
I had my suspicions about the school and I looked at it. I’m not a structural engineer, but we did pay $50,000 to a structural engineering company to do a feasibility study on Duggan. They did the study and they found out the foundation wasn’t deep enough, the retaining walls in the back were shot and falling down, the bricks on the clock tower were so worn and deteriorated that a third of the clock tower might have to be torn down and custom made bricks made for it – custom made.
They came back a few weeks ago and said it was going to cost $6.5 million more to shore up the building, that it is no longer structurally sound. Well of course when you take the roof off and take the floors off and take the actual ribs off the building and the only thing standing is the walls, well, yeah, of course it’s not structurally sound.
There was nothing so bad that we couldn’t have used the oak beams, but the real travesty is that most of the damage to that building happened in the past 20 years. Many of the problems within the building are huge. We were led to believe the base of the building was concrete, but it’s made out of fieldstone and mortar and it’s chalking and cracking and is not sound. The whole underpinning of the building has to be replaced four feet at a time.
That is unconscionable to me. How could we be led down this rosy path that the building is structurally sound and capable of being renovated, when now they want an additional $6.5 million and they aren’t even telling us that is the bottom line. It could be more.
Observer: This isn’t George Washington’s birthplace. We can be emotional and sentimental about Duggan School, but at what cost, and what do we do now?
Theriault: You mentioned before about the mayor’s role in the board of education and maybe if he had attended a few more building committee and board of education meetings he would have been on top of this situation, because I certainly was.
If I were the mayor right now and this were happening right now I would take responsibility. The buck stops at my door and I’m responsible for it. This mayor won’t do that. He just wants to open up the city checkbook and go to the state and ask for $10 million more. This is not leadership.
Right now I don’t know what’s going to happen to Duggan – is it going to be a parking lot, are we going to tear it down and start over, are we going to get more money from the state to renovate it? I just don’t know.
Observer: Have you been inside the building?
Theriault: Yes, I went in and videotaped and documented the conditions inside Duggan. It was deplorable. We had things fallen down all around us. I did it not to say look at me, I’m inside Duggan, but to share the information with the citizens of Waterbury. I videotaped Duggan just like I did all the building committee meetings. Occasionally I’ll have a committee member ask me to shut the camera off so they can speak freely. I tell them no, the people have the right to know what we are saying and doing in their name. I’ve filmed 450 board of education meetings, special meetings, committee meetings in the past six years. I’ve saved the city almost $200,000 by filming these meetings for free and putting them on cable access TV. I do this because I think the board should be out in the open. When anyone asks me to shut the camera off I take personal offense at that because I am the watchdog for the taxpayer.
Observer: I have one final question for you…..
Theriault: Before you get to that I want to address the issue of the mayor and his statements that he has balanced the city budget eight years in a row. He brags about these eight balanced budgets but it’s the State Oversight Board that balanced the first five, and I would say that the mayor has balanced none.
Theriault: None. It’s really the taxpayers in Waterbury that have balanced the budget, not the mayor. The mayor just puts in the numbers and balances the budget on the backs of the taxpayers. But it is the mayor who was instrumental in increasing the taxes on people by 200% to 300% during the last eight years.
And while the people of Waterbury have been struggling to pay their taxes, struggling to keep their jobs and their property, the mayor has continued to increase his business and hasn’t suffered in any of the business ventures he’s been involved in.
The people of Waterbury are suffering tremendously under this administration.
Observer: You have one minute with the voter before they go into the booth to tell them why they should vote for John Theriault for mayor. What would you say?
Theriault: You should vote for me because I have the talent, the ability, the education and the tenacity to make change happen.
I have the expertise and the business background. I have run my own small photography and video businesses for the past 22 years. I know the struggle of the businessman. I know the struggle of the educator. I know the struggle of the common man; growing up poor, striving for an education.
Why me? Because I’m going to be your full-time mayor ,not your full-time real estate developer and part-time mayor.
Why me? Because I’m as honest as the day is long. I’m not saying the mayor isn’t honest, but I’m saying I have a better way, a better vision for the city of Waterbury to rebuild its economic and educational structure, making it a better place.