WALLINGFORD — The Town Council changed significantly last week even if the Republicans’ 6-3 majority didn’t.
Democrat Nick Economopoulos lost his bid for re-election, receiving the second-fewest votes among 13 candidates, and Democrat Jason Zandri will not return after running unsuccessfully for mayor. The only Democrat re-elected was John Sullivan, who is joined in the minority by first-time candidate Larry Russo and Vinnie Testa, who has previously served on the council.
Economopoulos blamed his defeat on a lack of support from Sullivan over the issue of illegal dumping at a North Turnpike Road Public Works facility. Economopoulos and Zandri had publicly criticized Public Works Director Henry McCully for continuing that practice and criticized Republican Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. for a lack of oversight. Sullivan did not join the effort.
“I didn’t get beat by Republicans,” Economopoulos said. “I got ousted by John Sullivan and his lack of support for me.”
“There’s nothing that I’m aware of that John Sullivan did to interfere with Nick Economopoulos’ campaign,” responded Democratic Town Chairman Vinnie Avallone.
Avallone said his party put up an excellent slate of candidates who supported each other. There are a “number of factors” as to why someone might not be re-elected, Avallone said.
Sullivan said he was reluctant to address criticism from a fellow Democrat last week, but called Economopoulos’ accusations “absolutely not true.”
“There’s nothing to his claims,” Sullivan said. “I’m sorry Nick feels that way. The people have spoke, not John Sullivan.”
At the council meeting before the election, Economopoulos made a presentation laying out the activities at 91 N. Turnpike Road since 1993, accusing McCully and Dickinson of violating cease-and-desist orders. The presentation was not well-received by McCully, Dickinson or Republican councilors.
Economopoulos took up many contentious issues during his council tenure. He was involved in forcing a referendum and galvanizing residents to vote against spending town money to make improvements to the privately owned parking lot behind buildings at Simpson Court. He initiated an investigation into the Housing Authority that led to commissioners and staff resigning in late 2011 and early 2012.
Other inquiries appeared to fizzle. He accused the town of mishandling wood collected after the October 2011 snowstorm, but a report by Personnel Director Terence Sullivan found no evidence of illegal activity and the council decided not to proceed further. In the report it came to light that Economopoulos and those helping him did not provide evidence they had promised to the state’s attorney’s office, something other councilors castigated him for.
Due to the wood investigation, Economopoulos was also named in a defamation lawsuit filed by Randy Mangino, the Public Works employee who the councilor had intimated was part of an effort to sell the wood. The suit is still in its initial phases, according to the state Judicial Branch website.
Councilor-elect Testa said he admires the passion and commitment Economopoulos has shown when he feels an issue needs to be pursued. Testa served with Economopoulos from 2008 to 2012.
“When he sees something that he thinks is improper and unfair, he fights for it,” Testa said. “He brought up a lot of things over the years that needed to be discussed.
“He served the town well,” Testa added.“This was just one of those elections where changes happen. Who’s to say the reason?”
Mayor Dickinson has proved his popularity with voters, “so perhaps Nick paid the price for being someone who was trying to keep the mayor’s feet to the fire about certain issues,” Testa said.
Even if Economopoulos knew his actions on the council would make him unpopular, “he would not have changed the way he does his job,” Testa said. “He never served to be re-elected; he served to do the job the people elected him for.”
But Republican Councilor John LeTourneau said Economopoulos’ reluctance to answer questions posed by Republican Councilor Craig Fishbein during the Oct. 22 meeting when he made his presentation about 91 N. Turnpike Road is an indicator of a defensive attitude.
“By (Economopoulos) aligning himself with certain members of the public, I believe that hurt him,” LeTourneau said.
LeTourneau disagreed with Economopoulos’ comments accusing Sullivan of ousting him.
“That is the most ridiculous thing that anyone can ever think of,” he said. “If anything, (John) Sullivan has tried to help him over time.”
Fishbein first joined the council in 2009. At the time, he said he and Economopoulos “had a very good relationship.” But through his second term, Fishbein said, he saw changes in his fellow councilor’s approach.
“I was disappointed in that last council meeting in that I’m attempting to ask questions about his presentation and he’s refusing to answer questions,” he said.
Fishbein said he and Economopoulos have a maverick attitude in common, and “you have to respect that to a certain extent. But when you make decisions based on rumor and not fact, that is irresponsible.”
People are legitimately concerned about the issues Economopoulos has brought before the council, said Zandri. But when you bring something forward in which an employee of the town is involved, who has friends and family who live in town as well, “you end up losing votes from the people that are somewhat or directly impacted,” Zandri said.
Economopoulos acted on his beliefs, and “I’m disappointed to see the last real watchdog on the council leave,” Zandri said. Economopoulos “was the type of guy who would go after it.”
There should always be one person on the council who questions decisions that are unanimous among other councilors, Zandri said. On the new council, “the dynamic of a watchdog will be missed, but maybe I’ll be wrong.”
Regarding Economopoulos’ accusations against Sullivan, Zandri said, “I don’t think anyone undermined anyone else.”
Economopoulos said he doesn’t plan on changing his life too much. “I’m still going to work for the people,” he said. In the coming weeks, Economopoulos will begin his new job in Middlefield as varsity head coach of the Coginchaug High School girls basketball team. Economopoulos formerly coached the Lyman Hall High School girls varsity basketball squad in Wallingford, but took the past three years off.
“I’d like to get back into it,” he said of coaching.