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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Parking question too late for vote on Nov. 8

As published in the Record Journal, Thursday September 15, 2011

By Robert Cyr
Record-Journal staff
(203) 317-2224

WALLINGFORD — Nov. 14 is the date a town-wide referendum will take place on the Town Council’s controversial decision to upgrade a private parking lot in return for public parking.

The council set the date late into its regular meeting Tuesday night. The referendum vote will likely cost more than $30,000.

Putting the referendum on Nov. 8 election ballot was not an option. The secretary of the state’s office would have needed to be contacted by Sept. 8, which was also the petition drive’s deadline, said Town Clerk Barbara Thompson.

“That was impossible from the start,” she said. “It’s not something we’ve ever done — we’re not familiar with how to do that.”

Voters will be asked to consider overturning the council’s Aug. 9 decision to make up to $500,000 in upgrades to a group lot behind four buildings along Simpson Court in return for 30 years of free public parking. Those opposing the council’s decision say town money should not be invested in private property.

Robert Gross, organizer of the petition drive to hold the referendum, said the Nov. 14 date likely won’t affect voter turnout.

Gross was also instrumental in a referendum on the town owned Wooding-Caplan property five years ago, a vote that was held during the summer, when most people were on vacation.

The town bought the 3.5acre Wooding-Caplan parcel in May 1992 for $1.5 million. In April 2006, the council voted to sell the property to local developer Joseph DiNatale for $409,000. Four months later, voters rejected the council’s decision 6,659-413.

“We wouldn’t have done it if we weren’t confident we’d get a good turnout,” Gross said Tuesday night. “We did it once before, and we’ll do it again.”

For the Simpson Court referendum, Gross and other volunteers, including Town Councilor Nicholas Economopoulos, collected far more than the 2,491 signatures needed, or 10 percent of registered voters in town. Thompson certified 2,634 names and had not counted about another 600 signatures.

At least 20 percent of registered voters must participate for the referendum to count.

The Nov. 14 vote will be held from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. at polling places in Lyman Hall’s Vo-Ag center, the Senior Center, and a third polling place at either Moran Middle School or Sheehan High School. Registrar of Voters Chester Miller said a decision on the school will be made in the coming days.

The cost of the referendum will likely exceed $30,000, he said.

“Things are more expensive than they were for the Wooding- Caplan vote,” he said. “We have to pay for things we didn’t have to before.”

Due to changes in election rules, the town now has to pick up the bill for paper ballots, and the 8,000 ballots Miller will probably order for the referendum could cost as much as $1 per ballot, he said. Add to that about $16,000 for staff to work the polls and custodial staff to keep the buildings open, and about $1,300 for memory cards for electronic voting machines, he said.

The town owns 20 electronic ballot-scanning machines, and nine are required for elections. A referendum vote on the same night as the general election would require another nine machines with staff for each unit and both personnel and back-up machines mandated by the state would be lacking, Miller said.

Other costs include setting up dedicated phone lines between election officials and making sure the different machines and polling booths are outside proscribed distances from each other, in separate rooms.

Each voting station requires separate tables for the ballot clerk, moderator, assistant registrar and official ballot checker, with a minimum of 36 square feet around each voting machine and 25 square feet around each voting booth, Miller said.

“Everybody thinks it’s clear cut, but it’s not,” he said.

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