Wallingford recreation commission members resign out of frustration

WALLINGFORD — Saying they have been "ignored, uninformed and categorically neutered as a functional commission," the last two members of the town Recreation Commission resigned this week, leaving all five commission seats empty.

"It is with a heavy heart that we submit our resignations as the sitting chairman and vice-chairman of the Parks and Recreation Commission," Chairman Jason Michael and Vice-Chairman Michael Savenelli wrote Monday in a letter to town officials. "Frustration and a complete and thorough neutering of this commission over the past few years has caused some very good people, very committed and passionate people, to vacate its ranks."

The day before, commissioner and former Chairman David Gelo submitted his letter of resignation effective Friday.

"I have spent well over 16 years on the Parks and Recreation Commission and was the chairman for 10 of those years," Gelo wrote. "I feel I have served with pride on the commission and we as proud commissioners took on many projects that were mostly accomplished with the blessings of the past director."

But now, he said, he finds "it is time to step down from the commission and let new and younger people with fresh ideas try to accomplish things that I feel can't be accomplished under the current system. 

"This is no reflection on the town administration or the Parks and Recreation administration," he added.

Michael too did not lay the blame on anyone in particular. "I don't blame one person, it's more systemic on both the execution and design of the commission in the charter," he said. 

The pandemic took its toll on the commission, Savenelli and Michel said in their resignation letter. "The past few years represent the antithesis of the work and production we had all been happy to do. Whether it be on the governmental side or the departmental side, and a great resistance from the commission as a whole, we have been ignored, uninformed and categorically neutered as a functional commission. Requests ranging from simple signage to major safety issues are constantly going by the wayside at one level or another. This has become a systematic failure that's been building for years."

In fact, four of the five commission members were ready to resign a year ago, they said, before they were talked out of it by the fifth member, who convinced them to stay on for another year.

"More than 12 months have come and gone and the situation has only eroded further," they said. "Projects have not moved an inch, safety issues continue to be ignored and in the meantime other park activity and changes have commenced without our knowledge or input. This is dysfunction."

Last June Michael became the commission chairman and agreed to serve at least one more year. "If I couldn't turn the ship around being at the wheel for 12 months, I could leave with a clear conscience," he said.

For years, the commission functioned well and commissioners were pleased with the results they were able to realize, they said.

"After being asked to apply for vacant commission seats over a decade ago, of which we were both excited and honored to fill, we were able to spend many years beside the finest of people who were able to propose, shape, improve and complete projects while also forming policies that would fill needs both big and small," they said. "This is no longer the case."

“It is unfortunate to lose these great people from the commission," said Town Councilor Sam Carmody. "They have all given so much of their time and energy to our community. Their expertise and experience with regard to our town’s parks and recreational programs will be sorely missed and hard to replace. 

"However, I do not blame any of them for stepping down," Carmody said. "Their advice and recommendations for improvements to our community have continuously been ignored by the administration.”

The commission's two other members, Don Crouch and Steve Rossacci, resigned earlier this year, leaving only Michael, Savenelli and Gelo as sitting members. Crouch resigned in April and Rossacci in May.

Community Pool, ARPA

Much frustration has been over the town's Community Pool replacement project. In April the commission suspended the subcommittee charged with the project after it became clear that there would be no funding forthcoming for the work. Mayor William Dickinson Jr. vetoed the Town Council-approved $7.2 funding request in May 2020 as the Covid-19 pandemic set in, and also did not act on a request from the commission to rebid the project this spring. He previously said restarting the project would be financially prohibitive in light of the increase in costs since the pandemic has become more controllable.

He could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The project plans went far beyond just replacing the pool, Michael said, and included a new sand volleyball amphitheater, exercise space, a splash pad and green space for picnicking. "It became a destination project," he said.

There had been talk of using American Rescue Plan Act funding to pay for it, but attachments to the minutes of the June 8 commission meeting include a table of how much ARPA funds were allocated to Parks and Recreation departments in surrounding municipalities. In Wallingford, that number was zero, while surrounding town allocations ranged from $55,000 in Newington to $2.85 million in Meriden. Oxford was the only other town not to award any ARPA funds to its Parks and Recreation Department.

Michael said they felt this was an appropriate time to resign because as winter approaches, the commission's business slows down, which will give it a chance to reform with new members. He said he believes there are at least two people being considered for seats, and one may have already been appointed.

"I'd like to see it become functional again no matter who is steering it," he said. "I'd like to see it make a difference, which we were unable to do."



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