As published in the Record Journal Thursday September 27, 2012
By Laurie Rich Salerno
WALLINGFORD – The Simpson Court parking lot could be the subject of another referendum, after the Town Council gave town staff the go ahead to apply for a state grant that could provide $500,000 for repairs and upgrades to the site.
Several residents vocally opposed the town’s plans for the lot at Tuesday night’s meeting, and resident Robert Gross requested during public comment that Town Attorney Gerald Farrell Sr. provide him the paperwork to start the referendum procedures.
Gross, along with Geno Zandri, led last year’s fight against the town’s plan to make $500,000 in repairs, using town money, to the privately owned but publicly used Simpson Court lot. The two led a group that gathered more than 2,500 signatures of registered voters on a petition to force a November 2011 referendum. Residents voted down the plan, 4,120-2,768.
In this year’s plan, the repairs would be the same, but the funding source would differ. In a 6-2 vote Tuesday night, the council gave the town the green light to apply for a grant from the state’s Main Street Improvement Fund, administered by the Office of Policy and Management. The town built the lot in 1961 on the land of Simpson Court property owners and has since been leasing it year to year for public parking.
Each of the four Simpson Court property owners would contribute $25,000 toward repairs under the current proposal, with half of that to be reimbursed by money from the grant. Holy Trinity School — which would as part of the project get repairs to a retaining wall on its property — would put in $10,000, without any reimbursement. If improvements are made, the owners would grant the town a 30 year lease.
Gross could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but Geno Zandri said that the group was discussing whether to petition for a referendum now, or wait to see if the town received the money or not. The public would have another chance to oppose the lot improvements if the money came in and the council made a resolution to accept it for use on the lot, Farrell said Tuesday night.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that if they get the grant, there will be a referendum,” Geno Zandri said. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s identical to what we had before. It’s taxpayers’ money no matter where it comes from.”
If residents decide to petition for a referendum on the resolution, they will have 30 days from Wednesday to obtain about 2,460 signatures, or 10 percent of those registered to vote, according to Town Clerk Barbara Thompson.
From there, the names need to be authenticated by the clerk’s office, Corporation Counsel Janis Small said. Then, councilors would have another meeting in which they would be given the opportunity to repeal their vote. If they choose not to, an election must be held within 60 days, Small said.
The last referendum cost the town about $30,000 to pay for ballots, installation of phones, poll workers, costs of renting special trucks for deliveries and other costs, Republican Registrar of Voters Chet Miller said.
It would be “a couple of months at least,” before a vote would be held, according to Small.
At the meeting, some councilors said they felt some residents who signed last year’s petition and some who voted had been provided misinformation or partial information by people working to overturn the decision.
John Sullivan, a Democrat, said Wednesday that he had seen this first hand at last year’s Celebrate Wallingford.
“What I have a problem with is when people don’t tell residents, voters, the facts. I’m sure that the greater majority of those soliciting told the truth and answered questions honestly,” Sullivan said. “However, I witnessed several instances where the solicitor was not telling the truth.”
He said he heard a solicitor embellish the plan in speaking to residents, saying there were connections between councilors and the mayor and the business owners at the site, and that he shouldn’t trust Sullivan when he came up to talk to him.
Geno Zandri denied Sullivan’s claim. “We were above board on everything we did,” he said. Zandri did say some voters may have been confused when voting because people had to vote yes to say that they didn’t want the project.
Though confusing to some, the wording was done by statute, Small said. Residents were voting to repeal a resolution, not voting in favor of something, she said. So residents were voting “Yes” to repeal the council’s decision to repair the lot, not “yes” for repairs on the lot.
Town Councilor Jason Zandri, a Democrat, who was one of two “no” votes on the mayor’s proposal on Tuesday, said he thinks it would be logical for those interested in holding a referendum to wait to see if the town receives the money or not. Jason Zandri is Geno Zandri’s son, and was heavily involved in the last referendum, before he was elected a town councilor.
Jason Zandri said he figured the Tuesday vote would go as it did. “I think everybody up there voted their conscience,” Zandri said.
He said he thinks the approval sets a bad precedent for future public-private parking lot repair projects.
Tom Laffin, a Republican, said it all comes down to the perception of the Simpson Court parking lot, saying these projects should not be portrayed as spending public money on private land.
“We’re going to lease it — in a sense we legally own it for 30 years,” Laffin said. “You can’t make the argument that it’s private property.”
The town clerk’s office and the Law Department each said no one had been by to pick up the paperwork for a petition as of late afternoon Wednesday.