As published in the Record Journal on Friday April 12, 2013
By Andrew Ragali
Photo by Christopher Zajac courtesy of the Record-Journal
Wallingford Town Councilor Craig Fishbein sits in the back of the Town Hall auditorium during a recent Town Council meeting.
WALLINGFORD - To the dismay of his fellow Republicans, Town Councilor Craig Fishbein refused to take his assigned seat during Wednesday’s Town Council budget hearing, opting instead to attend the meeting as a member of the public.
Fishbein sat by himself in the back row of Robert Earley Auditorium during the public hearing, protesting a decision made by Town Council Chairman Robert Parisi, also a Republican, a night earlier.
“My opposition to the chairman’s dictatorial rule is quite evident,” Fishbein said Thursday.
Fishbein’s opposition arose when Parisi would not allow him to make a comment during the public question and answer portion of Tuesday’s council meeting.
“I can see if the conduct was disruptive,” Fishbein said Thursday. “As a councilor, I was attempting to bring a condition to the attention of a body.”
Fishbein said there is no rule against councilors speaking during the public comment portion of meetings. In the past few meetings, Fishbein said, he has asked Parisi for permission to make comments during that part of the meeting and “got his graces to speak.”
On Tuesday, Fishbein said he did not approach Parisi before the meeting to ask him permission to speak, but during the public comment period he asked Republican Vice Chairman Vincent Cervoni to pass along his request to Parisi. Fishbein said he wanted to express his displeasure that booklets outlining the mayor’s budget were only made available on Tuesday, a day before the public hearing.
“That is not good government,” said Fishbein, adding that it gave the public only one day to examine the 92-page document and formulate questions. Wednesday’s public hearing was the only opportunity for residents to question the budget.
Parisi told Fishbein Tuesday night that he is an elected official and has no place speaking during the public comment portion of the meeting.
“I thought I told him (Tuesday) that I don’t care where he sits; he’s an elected official of this town, and as such he’s a town councilor,” Parisi said Thursday. “You might as well say he was absent (Wednesday) because he didn’t take part as he was supposed to and as all his colleagues did.”
Parisi has more than 20 years of experience as a town councilor, and several terms as chairman. He said he’s “never had a problem with councilors wanting to speak.”
“Most know when they’re supposed to speak and where,” he said. “If (Fishbein) has a problem with rules or precedent, I can’t help him. I take a lot of pride in my meetings. I’m not going to change. I’m not going to have people running roughshod, debating when it’s not time to debate.”
“I’m not going to be censored,” Fishbein responded Thursday. “I see the chairman employing rules only when he wants to.”
Parisi said he regretted departing from his usual approach by allowing councilors to speak during the public comment portion of meetings during the last few months.
“That’s my fault,” he said. “I broke precedent. When I was on the council and others were chairman, I didn’t speak.”
Parisi said that it’s an “unwritten rule” of the Town Council that councilors aren’t to speak during the public comment period of meetings. From now on, Parisi said, councilors won’t be allowed to comment during the public question-and-answer period whatsoever.
As for Wednesday’s meeting, Fishbein said he disagreed with Parisi’s assertion that he was “absent.”
“The duty of a councilor is to be in attendance and hear from the public,” Fishbein said. “Certainly I was in attendance and heard from the public.”
Cervoni said Thursday that he didn’t think Fishbein’s actions were appropriate. “I think there was a more constructive way to deal with his displeasure of Chairman Parisi,” he said. “I think historically the public question-and answer period is for the benefit of the public. They have a much more limited ability to get issues on the council agenda.”
If a councilor is to make a brief statement, it’s courtesy to tell the chairman before the council meeting, Cervoni said. As for Parisi’s decision to disallow Fishbein from speaking during the public comment period, Cervoni said “the chairman exercised his discretion.”
“I felt that as an elected official (Fishbein) should have been at the council bench,” Republican Town Councilor John Letourneau said Thursday. “He should have been with the rest of the councilors at the table. It’s our duty to be here, not in the audience.”
LeTourneau said, “It’s upsetting having a councilor stray from his duties.”
Town Councilor Tom Laffin, a Republican, said that for Fishbein to sit out the meeting while fellow Councilor John Sullivan is “apologizing profusely for missing meetings with cancer” is insulting.
I don’t have time for the games,” Laffin said. “I think it’s insulting to the public but it’s insulting to the rest of us up there.”
Sullivan, a Democrat, began a leave of absence after Tuesday’s meeting to undergo cancer treatment.
In response, Fishbein said his fellow councilors “can’t think for themselves.”
Parisi said he’s not sure whether disciplinary action against Fishbein is “appropriate, necessary or constructive.”
“My opinion and my feeling is that the public will discipline councilors when in fact they don’t uphold their duty,” Parisi said.
While Cervoni said he didn’t agree with Fishbein’s actions, he did agree with his fellow councilor on the availability of budget booklets, and said “it’s probably more beneficial to the public to have these books available in advance of the hearing.”
In the future, Cervoni said, he will look at “padding the time” between the release of the book and the public hearing.
On Wednesday night, a resident complained that the booklets weren’t available in time. Comptroller Jim Bowes said that the booklets were supposed to be in from the printer on Friday, but the company the town contracts with ran into an unexpected delay. Bowes said the company has been reliable for the last six years.
Looking back, Parisi said he should have scheduled the public hearing at a later date to give residents more time to inspect the budget, but he was “rushing to get it in.”