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Thursday, April 12, 2012

July 4 display again raises controversy

Fishbein balks at town’s different treatment of fireworks and ‘Celebrate’

As published in the Record Journal Thursday April 12, 2012

By Russell Blair
Record-Journal staff
(203) 317-2225

Dickinson Fishbein Zandri

Photos courtesy of the Record Journal

WALLINGFORD — One of the town councilors who helped launch a fundraising effort to save the annual Fourth of July fireworks celebration claims the town doesn’t treat all nonprofit organizations it works with equally.

Republican Town Councilor Craig Fishbein said that the fireworks are being treated differently from events such as Wallingford Symphony Orchestra concerts and Celebrate Wallingford, which is put on by Wallingford Center Inc., the downtown business advocacy group. The town budget allocates $8,500 for an outdoor summer symphony concert that Fishbein said draws only hundreds of people, while the fireworks celebration draws more than 10,000 and receives no funding. For Celebrate Wallingford, Wallingford Center Inc. is able to contract with vendors, Fishbein said.

Fishbein and Democratic Town Councilor Jason Zandri founded the nonprofit Wallingford Fireworks Fund in 2010 after the town dropped funding for the show from its budget. They’ve butted heads with Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. during the planning for this year’s celebration. Zandri and Fishbein raised several issues during a council meeting Tuesday.

For the last two years, Zandri has negotiated with vendors. He said the arrangement allowed a certain flexibility on costs, through discounts from the vendor, and room to accommodate last-minute donations that could improve the show. But this year that process is being handled by the Parks and Recreation Department.

“The town doesn’t contribute one red cent, yet the mayor feels the (donors) should have no part in the coordination,” Fishbein said. “We don’t want total control ... we’re willing to work with them.”

Liz Landow, executive director of Wallingford Center Inc., said the events are treated differently because the town, not the fireworks fund, ultimately puts on the show, even if the fund provides the money. She said Wallingford Center Inc. wasn’t getting special treatment.

“It’s a Wallingford Center production,” she said of Celebrate Wallingford. “It’s put on by Wallingford Center; we hold the insurance. We have the freedom because of the way it was established.”

Dickinson, a Republican, has maintained that the town must handle the purchasing process for the fireworks, and said that comparisons to Celebrate Wallingford aren’t fair.

“The fireworks are clearly put on by the town,” he said. “For Celebrate Wallingford, Wallingford Center provides insurance; they are the hosts of that. They are a separate entity from the town that provides all the groundwork.”

Several members of the Wallingford Center board have Republican ties, including Republican councilors John Le-Tourneau and Rosemary Rascati and former Republican Councilor Stephen Knight. Landow is Rascati’s daughter. But Zandri said he doesn’t believe politics plays a role in the perceived different treatment of the fireworks and Celebrate Wallingford.

“I like to look above and beyond that ... I think it’s not politically motivated,” Zandri said.

Zandri said that he hasn’t thought about the fund taking total sponsorship of the event, but said that if he is continually denied input, it’s an option he may consider.

“I suppose there’s ways to do it,” he said. “But it’s a manpower issue. Right now it’s just me, my father and Craig (Fishbein). It’s hard to say it, but if I have to go that route someday, maybe I will.” Jason Zandri’s father, Geno Zandri, a former six-term Democratic councilor, helps organize fireworks fundraising.

The fund would have to get permission from the town to use the school grounds and pay directly for the cost of the town services including police, fire and public works, and the fireworks. Currently, the town makes the payments and arrangements after receiving a check from the nonprofit.

Democratic Town Councilor John Sullivan said that he thinks Fishbein, Zandri and Dickinson need to sort out their differences, and not at a council meeting.

“We have two sides working toward a common goal,” he said. “They need to sit down, communicate and work together.”