As published in the Record Journal, Monday September 19, 2011
By Robert Cyr
WALLINGFORD — The leader of a recent petition drive that will force a town-wide referendum on whether to overturn a Town Council decision on a parking lot agreement is no stranger to politics or rallying support for public causes in town.
Robert Gross, 51, has lived in town his whole life and is the son of Wallingford attorney Leon Gross. He is a Quinnipiac University graduate, holding a bachelor’s degree in history and a Master of Business Administration degree. He works in insurance and has been married for 26 years.
Gross is one of four local residents who attend every meeting of the Town Council and take notes. The group is not shy about challenging the council on issues relating to public money and the environment, two topics that never fail to pique his interest, Gross said.
“There needs to be more open government, a breakdown of the wall between the two parties,” he said. “Everything should be done for the good of the community, and that isn’t done on certain issues.”
It wasn’t until the Town Council tried to sell the Wooding-Caplan parcel uptown to a private developer that the normally reserved Gross felt compelled to get involved, he said. He and a small group organized a petition drive, gathered enough signatures for a referendum, and overturned the vote to sell the land.
“I always paid attention to what was going on and voted, but when I saw what was going on (with Wooding-Caplan) I wanted to get involved — and I did, in a big way, I guess,” he said. “We did a lot then as a group, and I kept at it ever since.”
Since the Wooding-Caplan referendum in 2006, he has petitioned to create a Charter Revision Committee, and most recently, helped organize a referendum to reverse the council’s decision to enter into a 30year agreement with property owners on Simpson Court to maintain and upgrade the parking lot in return for free public parking.
In 2009, Gross made his first foray into politics when he ran for a seat on the council. A Democrat since 1978, Gross lost the race and has not run for any office since.
“I never say never — but at this point, no, it’s not the time to run,” he said.
But while Gross says he likes to stay out of the limelight, his criticism and questions on the environmental impact of a trash-to-energy plant in town, Covanta Energy, drew overseas attention this summer.
Previously owned by Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority, the plant was cited for emissions violations two times in three years while managed by New Jersey-based Covanta, which recently paid a $400,000 fine to the state. Gross grilled Covanta representatives at town meetings over the violations and demanded to know whether the plant on South Cherry Street had impacted the health of the community.
After reading Gross’s comments in local newspapers, producers from the British Broadcasting Corp. contacted him and flew to the U.S. to interview him at his Long Hill Road house on his thoughts about Covanta, which is trying to open a plant in Wales and is drawing opposition there.
Town Council Chairman Robert Parisi said Gross’s input is always valued by the council, but his widely varying areas of concern in town politics are often unfocused. During the public question segment of council meetings, local political watchdogs, sometimes including Gross, take an opportunity to expound on personal beliefs rather than pose a series of questions.
“I think sometimes people forget it’s a question-and-answer session. If we get too far off the subject matter, it borders on opinion,” he said. “I would prefer we stick a little closer to what the question is and allow the answer to come forward. He exercises his right to speak publicly and I put in my time to make sure he has that right. I say fine if you’re doing what the law says you can do, and what a lot of us gave up a part of our lives to do.”
Gross said he’s seen many changes in his hometown over the years and has watched the population grow, opening the doors to many of the problems — like drug use — that larger towns and small cities face.
“I’m born and raised here and I’m very committed to my town,” he said. “I feel like I have a civic duty for more transparency.”