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Monday, September 26, 2011

A lot is riding on Simpson Court parking

As Published in the Record Journal on Friday September 16, 2011

Jeffrey Kurz
General Assignment Editor
(203) 317-2213

It’s not a good idea to start a story with a quote. It’s some kind of journalism advice that sticks in my mind. But since I’ve said what I just said I can get on with the quote: “We did it once before and we’ll do it again.”

That was offered recently by Robert Gross, an organizer of the petition drive that will result in a Wallingford referendum, now scheduled for Nov. 14, in which voters will consider overturning a Town Council decision. That decision is the council’s vote to spend up to $500,000 in upgrades to a parking lot behind four buildings along Simpson Court in return for 30 years of free public parking.

Those vexed by the decision feel public money should not be spent on private property.

The referendum will take place not on the date of the general election, Nov. 8, but about a week afterward, and that leaves the question of whether people will feel inspired to go to the polls again, for a special issue.

At least 20 percent of registered voters are needed to participate in order for the referendum to count.

Gross told the Record-Journal recently he was confident of a successful turnout.

That’s part of what the “we did it once before...” comment was about. And he has reason for the confidence.

Gross was among the organizers who brought a referendum in 2006. That year, the vexation was over the council’s decision to sell the Wooding-Caplan property to a local developer, Joseph DiNatale, for $409,000. The town had purchased the 3.5acre parcel in 1992 for $1.5 million.

Residents repealed the council’s Wooding- Caplan decision by a wide margin, 6,659 to 413, even though the referendum took place in the middle of summer, when people have every right to have other things on their minds, including vacations.

A referendum in Wallingford, as was noted in 2006, is a rare event. So is overturning a council decision. In a referendum held in 1995 over whether the town should have purchased the 6 Fairfield Blvd. building for a recreation center at $1.4 million, residents voted 2,381 to 1,477 to reverse the council’s decision. But it was no good because turnout was 995 votes shy of the 20 percent needed.

You could argue that voters make their choice when they choose people to represent them on the council (and school board, etc.), but there’s value in a process that allows residents to overturn what enough of them consider a wrong-headed decision, particularly if that process is a tall order. Gross and others, including Town Councilor Nicholas Economopoulos, were able to collect far more than the 2,491 signatures needed to force the Simpson Court referendum, meaning 10 percent of the registered voters in town. One of the unpleasant aspects of the Wooding-Caplan referendum, a very heated issue, was what I consider to have been a cynical strategy employed by some that basically advised people to stay home and not vote, the idea being that the reversal could be defeated simply by not reaching the 20 percent of voter participation required. It probably does not take a journalist, or anyone else committed to defending Constitutional rights, to point out that urging people not to participate in the democratic process is a wrong-headed tactic.

I haven’t heard of anyone suggesting that strategy this time around, which is encouraging.

I don’t have any strong feelings about Simpson Court. I didn’t have any strong feelings about Wooding-Caplan. I also don’t live in Wallingford. If I did, though, I’d make up my mind and make sure I voted. I hope Wallingford residents will do just that.

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