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Council Doesn't Buy It -Effort To Alter Fairfield Hills Authority Falls Flat



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Council Doesn’t Buy It —

Effort To Alter Fairfield Hills Authority Falls Flat

By Kendra Bobowick

The idea died in deliberations.

As midnight approached on October 1, two Legislative Council members met a prevailing resistance to entertain their proposed amendments to the Fairfield Hills Authority ordinance. A show of hands made clear that the topic would not reach a subcommittee for discussion.

As the small faction of the Legislative Council pushed ideas to revisit the Fairfield Hills Authority’s structure, ensuing discussions before the full council contradicted their arguments.

Before the council even reached item 3, “Discussion concerning the Fairfield Hills Authority Ordinance,” authority Chairman Robert Geckle defended his once ad-hoc committee that became an authority under state legislation.

Citing “false premises” and “rogue notions,” Mr Geckle argued against the proposed changes as submitted by junior council members Po Murray and Gary Davis — two newly elected Independent Party of Newtown representatives. The proposal’s two main pitches suggested: “All activities at Fairfield Hills should be undertaken per requirements of the town charter and current town processes…the Fairfield Hills Authority members should be elected…” The proposal asserts, “The current appointment process for the authority discourages anyone who does not share the view of the authority and the Board of Selectmen from being appointed…”

Mr Geckle was angry. “[To say] the authority dismisses people who don’t agree with the authority is erroneous,” he said. Defending the members of the authority, he described those who comprised the group charged to carry out the master plan of development for the town’s purchase of the more than 186 acres of land on the site of the former state psychiatric hospital. Beginning his list, he stated, “We have a CPA with extremely strong financial skills, a professional engineer, a power generation expert, and architect,” he said.

He defended their appointments. “There are a lot of talented people,” he said, noting it was the reason for their appointments by the selectmen. “None of these individuals want to be elected.” Very clearly, he explained why. “They’re not politicians, they don’t want the election process.” Mr Geckle cast doubt on the election process. “It’s highly unlikely you’ll get such diversity with elections.” Frustration straining his words, he said, “It’s a false premise that we’ll get more support if we’re elected.”

Addressing the proposal’s first point to push the authority’s activities under the town charter, he again defended what the members of his board have been doing since the town voted to appropriate roughly $21 million to purchase and revive the sprawling campus into a hub of business and public activity.

Directly to the point, he said, “We are executing the master plan.” Making a distinction that he felt placed the scrutiny of the authority where it ought to be, he said, “Any controversy is over the master plan; it has nothing to do with the authority.”

He argued points of real estate, points of power over a budget, and eventually criticized the proposal saying, “There are so many problems it would make it impossible to operate the campus.”

Also adding his remarks to the record during the public comment period was resident and Independent Party member Bruce Walczak who insisted, “What’s the harm in reviewing” the authority and the ordinance establishing the body? He said, “Let the subcommittee take a look and see if they recommend changes and not be afraid of that process.”

Soon, council members’ arguments wore out any appeals to send Ms Murray’s and Mr Davis’s proposals to the subcommittee.

Getting to The Point

Beginning what would be more than an hour of deliberation over Fairfield Hills, council members first debated whether to initially send the proposal to subcommittee or seek the council’s consensus, proving a “general interest by council members,” Mr Rodgers said. An eventual council vote would follow to refer the topic to subcommittee. Mr Davis, and soon member Chris Lyddy believed that the subcommittee should have the first crack.

Volleying on that point, member Joseph DiCandido changed the conversation abruptly.

“Why are we looking to change the Fairfield Hills Authority itself and not the master plan?” He then made his own accusations, challenging the reasons behind Mr Davis’s and Ms Murray’s proposal. He noted “underlying currents,” asking, “Isn’t the real beef with the master plan?”

Mr Davis then stressed that money was being spent in ways not detailed in the plan, and that the Board of Selectmen “had the power to do that” beyond what had been specified in the $21 bond issue. Underlining this concern, he said, “We’re moving forward with a number of costs…” His bottom line? “I think the public needs to see we’re taking the property seriously.”

Making her case for ordinance revision, Ms Murray noted a problem for her, saying, “We’re taking the people out of the equation.” She also is concerned with funds recently appropriated by selectmen to resolve parking problems and include the Newtown Youth Academy in the parking project. At that point, she said, again, the appropriation “took the people out of the process.”

Mr DiCandido quickly asserted that the public had not been left out of the process. “Are you aware the public voted for the $21 million? You don’t seem to believe those people had the intelligence to make that decision at that time.”

“The whole point is the process,” Mr Davis replied.

Ms Murray insisted that as it is now, the ordinance gives the selectmen the right to appropriate money “without going through a town process.”

After hearing the debate, council members eventually distilled their thoughts into a decision. Pat Llodra was not convinced by the proposal. She said, “Unless I can weigh the arguments I’d not be inclined to send this to subcommittee…I see no compelling evidence.”

Joe Hemingway agreed. “I’m not convinced either…” he said. Jeff Capeci was also not swayed that the ordinance establishing the authority is circumventing the charter. In short, “They’re just executing the master plan.”

Casting back to the November elections where Fairfield Hills was a divisive topic, Mr Capeci said, “I think you guys have issues about where the money is going and there are ways to address that. It has nothing to do with the authority. I won’t support this going to subcommittee.”

John Aurelia weighed in. “By making this an elected body, we’re creating partisanship,” he said. Currently the authority acts without obligation to a party, the Independent Party included. Right now the authority is picked by the selectmen he said, “Not political people with a political agenda.”

Chris Lyddy supported sending the topic to the subcommittee, asking, “Let them be the litmus test…I have faith in the subcommittee.”

Jan Brookes also could find no compelling reason to support Mr Davis’s and Ms Murray’s proposal. She referred to the parking problems that prompted the selectmen to appropriate roughly $3 million in funds, noting, “I don’t see that one example as evidence of a problem.” Are there underlying issues? “I see this as a sticking point for a minority in town,” she said.

Mr DiCandido aired doubts, saying, “I get the sense that we’re trying to tie the hands of the authority for reasons that are not clear.” He said he hears “an underlying tone to take money from Fairfield Hills and put it toward something else and when I see something like this [proposal] I feel an underlying motive.”

Mr Rodgers questioned the integrity of potentially altering the ordinance establishing the authority, saying, “The Legislature did this specifically so the authority could work outside our charter. We would be undoing that.”

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