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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Zandri plans debate-watching party

As published in the Record Journal, Thursday September 27, 2012

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

WALLINGFORD — Democratic Town Councilor Jason Zandri is inviting the public to a viewing party at Zandri’s Stillwood Inn for the first presidential debate on Wednesday, Oct. 3.

Zandri organized a similar event in 2008 that drew 50 to 60 people. He’s hoping for a bigger turnout this year.

“I wanted to see if we could do it more formally,” Zandri said. “I want it to be as nonpartisan as possible. The debate itself is always interesting. And when you get 100 people in a room you get to hear different perspectives, which are always refreshing.”

The event is scheduled from 7 to 11 p.m. at the banquet hall, at 1074 S. Colony Road.

The debate between Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney will take place with five weeks remaining before Election Day.

“Debating is a muscle that doesn’t get used very often,” said Alan Schroeder, a journalism professor at Northeastern University and the author of “Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV.”

“Mitt Romney is better toned because he came off 20plus primary debates,” Schroeder said. “President Obama has not been on a debate stage in four years.”

Zandri said he supports Obama, but he is still looking forward to hearing what both candidates say.

“There’s always more substance,” he said. “This gives more background and depth and helps you understand the candidate’s line of thinking. It divulges better what they are running on.”

Republican Town Councilor John LeTourneau, a Romney supporter, said the presidential debates are usually informative, “but it depends on how it’s done and what are the questions asked.”

“If there are hard questions and hard answers, you get to know the person a little better,” he said.

LeTourneau said he doesn’t want to see the candidates attack each other.

“I want to hear what you are going to do to fix the fix that we’re in,” he said.

Wednesday’s debate, to be held in Denver, will focus on domestic policy. A second debate, a town hall-style session, is scheduled for Oct. 16 in Hempstead, N.Y., and the final debate, on foreign policy, is slated for Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla.

Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, and Vice President Joe Biden have a debate on Oct. 11 in Danville, Ky.

Several national polls show Obama leading by three to six percentage points, but the president has a wider margin in Connecticut.

According to a Quinnipiac University poll last month, Obama leads Romney 52 percent to 45 percent among likely voters in Connecticut. Twelve percent of Obama voters and 12 percent of Romney backers said they might change their minds.

Information from the Associated Press is included in this report.

Wallingford will seek state grant for Simpson Court parking lot

As published in the Record Journal Wednesday September 26, 2012

By Laurie Rich Salerno
Record-Journal staff
(203) 317-2235

WALLINGFORD — After lengthy and often contentious periods of public comments at a regular meeting Tuesday, town councilors gave the green light for the town to seek a $500,000 state grant for upgrades to the Simpson Court parking lot.

“I’ve never seen so much energy expelled trying to kill a good project for … Wallingford,” Councilor John Le-Tourneau, a Republican, said of statements by opponents of the plan. “This is the front yard of our town, we have to fix it up. If we do nothing, we will have nothing.”

The council voted 6-2 to allow the town to apply for the grant and again for a separate resolution supporting improvements to the lot, with councilors Nicholas Economopoulos and Jason Zandri, both Democrats, casting the “no” votes. Republican Craig Fishbein, another opponent of the project, was absent. The grant would come from the newly created Main Street Investment Fund that’s administered by the Office of Policy and Management. Friday marks the deadline to submit the grant application. There is no guarantee the town would receive the grant. Projected upgrades include new lighting, a new retaining wall, drainage work, paving and other improvements.

Councilors said they’ve considered the proposal carefully since it was first presented at a Sept. 11 council meeting, with some saying they’ve taken time off from work to research the topic.

The vote followed a lengthy public comment period with both supporters and opponents of the project, and the specter of another referendum loomed large.

Last November, residents rejected a plan approved by the Town Council to use $500,000 in town funds to repair and up-grade the same lot, which is owned by Simpson Court property owners but was built by the town and has been leased year by year by the town since 1961 for public parking.

This year’s plan is similar in scope but differs in funding. Money would come from the state grant, and there would be a $25,000 contribution from each of the four Simpson Court property owners and $10,000 from Holy Trinity School. The Simpson Court owners would receive reimbursement for half the cost, but Holy Trinity would not. If the grant is approved by OPM, the lot would be leased by the town for 30 years.

Despite the difference in funding sources, some say the public still opposes the project.

Resident Robert Gross, who, along with Geno Zandri, led the petition drive to call a referendum last year, asked Town Attorney Gerald Farrell Sr. at the meeting to have paperwork for another referendum ready for residents who “are upset by this and want a referendum.” Last year Gross and Zandri collected more than 2,500 signatures from registered Wallingford voters to force the referendum.

Zandri said the community made its message on the project clear last year, and councilors should reject the new plan.

“Think about who you’re representing in this town — this referendum, the parking lot thing, was definitely overturned overwhelmingly. If you do, you’ll vote this thing down,” Zandri said.

Representatives of business development groups such as Wallingford Center Inc. and the town’s Economic Development Commission overwhelmingly supported the plan, along with several residents.

“This is a community resource, it is not a parking lot,” said EDC Chairman Joe Mirra. “When you take into consideration the amount of world headquarters this town has, Choate right down the block … that parking lot is giving a statement every day.”

Resident Shauna Simon-Glidden said that if the town does not try for the money, it will just go to another area.

“The money’s going to go somewhere. This is going to invest in our town,” Simon-Glidden said. “I think it’s really important to look at some of the surrounding areas where people have to pay for parking — which would be a detriment for Wallingford.”

Resident Richard Caplan said he thinks the town should apply for the grant, but use the funds for the town-owned lots — most notably the lots behind businesses farther down Center Street, where there are more business vacancies, rather than North Main Street properties that he said are doing well.

“This is a matter of priorities. The mayor has found those who need it the least to give the most to,” Caplan said, alleging cronyism among councilors and the mayor. “These are million-dollar properties … we’re going to spend half a million dollars when the town’s parking lots are in such crappy shape.”

“I kind of resent some of the statements that you made, Mr. Caplan,” said Council Chairman Robert Parisi, saying the councilors would vote their consciences — not because of any backroom deals or friendships.

Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. said that because the town had already done the planning, design and other preparatory work for the Simpson Court site, it was the only project far enough along to be submitted, considering the grant’s time constraints. Town officials say they heard about the grant in late June, but didn’t have details until an early August workshop held by the state.

“We have something that is already designed and there is no way we can put together our grant applications for other sites (in time),” Dickinson said. Upgrading the other parking lots farther down the hill on Center Street would also likely call for public-private partnerships, as the public lots are small and separated by private lots. “Otherwise we’ll be doing little small areas within private areas.”

Other residents asked what would occur if the town received the grants but had hidden costs, or wasn’t given the full amount. Dickinson said the project would not begin if there was not enough money for it — that he wouldn’t supplement with town funds.

Don Roe, of the town’s Program Planning staff, said he believed there was a contingency fund within the cost estimate.

In other business, the council approved a one-year agreement with Local 1183, representing 135 town clerical staff and employees in the Sewer, Engineering, and Public Works departments. The contract comes with a 1.75 percent pay increase, according to Personnel Director Terence Sullivan.

Councilors also approved a transfer that would allocate $100,000 to the town’s Workers’ Compensation reserve account from excess funds from the last fiscal year’s insurance funds for the town and the Board of Education.

Will there be another referendum over a Wallingford parking lot?

As published in the Record Journal Thursday September 27, 2012

By Laurie Rich Salerno
Record-Journal staff
(203) 317-2235

WALLINGFORDThe 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.