As published in the Record Journal, Tuesday September 27, 2011
By Robert Cyr
WALLINGFORD — A political action committee has been formed to support the Town Council’s Simpson Court decision, which voters will be asked to decide on in a referendum Nov. 14.
The group, “Support Our Downtown,” was started by Republican Town Committee Vice Chairman Christopher Diorio to draw support for the council’s decision to enter a 30-year lease agreement with local property owners to repair and maintain a parking lot in return for free public parking.
Diorio, a 40-year-old father of three, said the deal is good for downtown businesses and the community.
Opponents say it is inappropriate to invest town money in private land. Last month a group opposing the lease agreement, headed by Robert Gross, collected enough signatures to force a referendum.
Diorio, who works in the Hartford public affairs office of the state Senate Republicans, said people from both parties support the lease agreement.
“I’m not trying to make this into a political football here,” he said. “Without an agreement, the owners may very well decide to restrict access to the property. Where can you go in the state of Connecticut where the property owners have a parking lot and are willing to go into a business merger with municipal government? It’s the town, not the owners, who will control the parking lot. Thirty years is a long time.”
Both Republican and Democratic councilors voted in favor of the lease agreement. Republican Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. is also a supporter.
One property owner, John McGuire, has said that if the referendum fails he will pull out of the current annual lease agreement with the town and restrict access, possibly charging for parking. It is not the first time Diorio has been involved in a referendum. A political action committee he started, Save Our Charter, made more than 5,000 phone calls to local residents in 2009, urging them to vote against seven proposed amendments, one of which would have reduced the number of council votes needed to override a mayoral veto. Each proposed amendment was voted down by a margin of more than 1,500 votes.
Diorio’s committee faces the group against the lease, Citizens Against Private Parking Deal. Gross, who headed the petition drive to hold the referendum, is the PAC treasurer and has also successfully campaigned against council decisions in the past. He helped defeat a referendum five years ago that kept the town from selling its Wooding-Caplan property to a local developer.
Gross, a Democrat, said Monday that he had not heard of Diorio’s PAC and was busy collecting money and creating flyers and signs.
“This is not a party issue, this is about the town spending funds on private property,” he said. “We have no political affiliation with either party.”
The lease allows the town to spend up to $500,000 for capital improvements and mandates that the town repave the 130-space lot, install lighting and make other repairs as needed.
The town and some building owners along Simpson Court, off North Main Street, have been in a year-to-year lease agreement since 1961 for free parking in return for lot maintenance. Decades later, at least one property owner tried to make a longer arrangement and said the town wasn’t properly maintaining the lot.
Under the lease, private property owners will be given 90 passes for unlimited parking and 40 parking spaces will be available to the public with a four-hour limit.