As posted online at MyRecordJournal.com and as published in the Record Journal, Tuesday August 16, 2011
WALLINGFORD - Town Councilor Nicholas Economopoulos was out on a rainy Monday afternoon, talking to voters in front of Stop & Shop on Route 5, but he wasn't campaigning to retain his seat on the council.
Economopoulos was collecting signatures, as were others circulating the petition to force a referendum on a council decision last week that entered the town into a 30-year, $500,000 agreement with four North Main Street businesses to pave and maintain their collective parking lot in return for free municipal use.
The intent is to create a safer, more attractive municipal parking lot that will continue to provide an alternative to the often crowded parking area in front of the Simpson Court businesses. Economopoulos, a Democrat, voted against it, saying the town should not pay to upgrade private property.
Robert Gross, a local man who has run for council, started the petition drive Wednesday and has until Sept. 8 to collect 2,491 signatures, or 10 percent of the town's registered voters. That's the amount needed, by town law, to force the council to reverse its decision within 30 days or go to a town-wide vote on the matter.
Economopoulos was in good spirits and said he's gotten a positive response so far. A small group of people had collected about 900 signatures over the weekend. In his hand were three full pages of official signature pages, with 50 signatures on each page.
"People have been great and they really want to find out what's going on," he said.
Holding more pages at the store's other entrance, local resident Robert Hogan said he was confident the signatures would come and a referendum would take place.
"Everyone I talk to has been unbelievably responsive to what we're doing," he said. "When we tell them what has happened, they are awestruck - they can't believe it."
Petition supporters, who have called it an example of "democracy in action," included 24-year-old Troy Livingston. While he works in New Haven, he was born and lives in town, he said.
"I don't think it's really necessary for the town's money to go to something like a parking lot," he said. "We could be using that money for something more important in town."
Scott McLean, professor of political science at Quinnipiac University, said Wallingford's case of petitioning for referendum has a rich tradition in American history and is an example of a government process that once astounded foreign visitors who were accustomed to turmoil in Europe.
Among visiting dignitaries was 19th century French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, whose book "Democracy in America" is still read today.
"He thought it was remarkable that Americans were so involved in their municipalities," McLean said. "It was very different in Europe at the time, when revolutions were sweeping across Europe, but Americans put their political interests very close to home."
Whenever a community petitions for a referendum to overturn a government decision, they are evoking the spirit of early America, he said.
"Of course the right to petition the government is in the First Amendment and it's a very fundamental idea, a right that goes back to Colonial days," he said. "There's a long tradition of seeing petitions as vital to the health of democracy in America."