Wallingford Town Council set to vote on filling vacancy

reporter photo

WALLINGFORD — The Town Council is slated to fill a vacant council seat at Tuesday night’s meeting, but the Democratic Town Committee chairperson expressed concerns Monday that the Republican majority may not accept the Democratic-endorsed candidate.

Former Town Councilor Gina Morgenstein, one of the council’s three Democrats, won re-election in November but announced her intent to resign for personal reasons during the last week of December.

The remaining eight members of the nine-member council were sworn in Jan. 3. Morgenstein turned in her resignation letter Jan. 7.

The Town Charter requires that the Town Council fill the vacancy by appointing someone of the same party affiliation, in this case a Democrat.

The Wallingford Democratic Town Committee nominated Alexa Tomassi to fill the vacancy during a special meeting Dec. 29. Tomassi ran for council in November, coming in ninth place after Morgenstein and newcomer Republican Autumn Allinson tied for eighth place.

Tomassi works as an associate communications officer in the Yale School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics. Previously, she worked for Sandy Hook Promise in Newtown, where she helped craft and pass state and federal gun safety, mental health and school safety policy, according to a statement from the Democratic Town Committee.

She also is active on issues surrounding voting rights, including organizing voter registration drives and outreach in September on National Voter Registration Day. Tomassi has been on the DTC since 2018, and has served as a District 8 co-leader since 2020.

Tomassi said via email Monday that she is "prepared to serve now, just as I was had I won in November. "

"I am hopeful they will consider me fairly for the position," she said, "and believe that throughout the campaign and in my communications with them since, I have established that I am qualified and capable."

She added that "precedent set in past situations has generally reflected a good-faith appointment based on the party’s recommendation or endorsement.

"I understand that per the charter, the council is not obligated to appoint me based on my 5,854 votes, but would hope they’d be taken into great consideration,” she said.

Alida Cella, Democratic Town Committee chairperson, said via email Monday she believes the Republicans are considering appointing someone other than Tomassi, “and I hope they rethink that position.”

“There is absolutely no reason not to seat Alexa Tomassi, for all the reasons that have been stated before,” Cella said. “She is well qualified, comes with a wealth of relevant experience and civic participation, was runner up in the last election and was endorsed by the DTC. If all these reasons are not good enough, there had better be a really good reason to decide to the contrary. To that, none of the councilors have spoken.”

Chris DiGenova, Republican Town Committee chair, and Vincent Cervoni, Town Council chairman, did not return requests for comment Monday.

Cella added that for the Republicans to repudiate a long-standing reciprocal tradition, they must have some deep underlying concern.

“I can only imagine that they are upset that Democrats came so close in the last election,” she said, “and that they are very nervous about the fact that we have picked up an exponential number of voters over the last two years, compared to the two years before I was chair — 15 percent growth compared to 2 percent growth the two years before that.”

Zandri, Sullivan

Though Cella didn’t say who she believed the Republicans might choose over Tomassi, she said they might “quite possibly pick someone who quit the Democratic party” and “could not get enough signatures to qualify to be on the ballot.”

Former Democratic Town Councilor John Sullivan, who served on the council from 2010 to 2018, attempted to petition onto November’s ballot to run for council as a Democrat, but did not gather enough petition signatures by the deadline. Sullivan had previously switched to unaffiliated in 2015 following a dispute with Democratic party leaders.

Democratic Councilor Jason Zandri had served on the council since 2014, but didn’t run in November’s election after resigning from the DTC in June and not receiving the Democratic endorsement.

Zandri intended to petition to get on the Democratic line and run for re-election, but a sudden illness prevented him from gathering enough petition signatures by the deadline. He did not return calls for comment Monday.

Sullivan said Monday that no one has reached out to him about being appointed to the vacant seat, but that if the opportunity arose to serve the town again as a council member, he would probably do it.

“I’m sure they’ll make a decision that’s in the best interest of the town of Wallingford,” he said, adding that he would be “shocked if they did not accept the Democrats’ appointment.”

Zandri said in June that he felt the Democrats should run a slate of nine candidates for Town Council while the executive board wanted to run six candidates for Town Council and six for school board. Six is the maximum number of seats that any one party could hold on those elected bodies.

Zandri said at the time that he felt the electorate of Wallingford should be allowed to choose from all candidates that want to run, “not just the best, as far as some committee is concerned.”

“I have always maintained that no one is above the collective will of the electorate and this situation isn't any different,” he said at the time. “The people should decide. Period.”

Zandri did not return calls for comment Monday.

Cella said Monday she was concerned that a choice other than the Democratic nominee would “owe the Republicans favors and vote with them to keep Wallingford in a state of steady decline.”

Historical precedents

There are precedents for appointing a party-endorsed candidate to fill a vacancy.

In January 2015, Republican Chet Miller resigned from the Board of Education. The RTC nominated Jean Pierre Bolat and the Republican-majority council appointed Bolat.

In June 1997, Democrat David J. Doherty died while in office. The DTC nominated Peter Gouveia to finish the term and the Republican-majority council appointed Gouveia.

There is at least one example of the majority party on the Town Council not accepting a party’s nominee.

During Democratic Mayor Rocco Vumbaco’s administration, the Democratic-majority council did not accept the RTC’s nominee to replace a Republican.

In August 1980, Republican Willard Burghoff was appointed over RTC-endorsed candidate Noma Beaumont to replace Vic Viarengo, who had moved out of state.

Beaumont, like Tomassi, had run for Town Council in the previous election but did not win a seat. Burghoff had previously served on the council.

The reason Burghoff gave at the time for accepting the Democrats’ offer was that Democrats “did not feel Mrs. Beaumont was acceptable,” according to Record-Journal archives.

Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr., then the Republican Town Committee chairman, said at the time that the Democrats had behaved like “an autocratic party,” according to Record-Journal archives.

“Why does a party have to act like a spoiled brat?” Dickinson said in 1980. “Noma (Beaumont) has the backing of the general public, having lost a seat last year by only seven votes. What it comes down to is a blatant example of the arrogance of power. The Democrats acted last night like a 3-year-old who can’t see beyond its own fingers’ grasp.”

David Gessert, then a Republican Town Council member, said at the time that Wallingford has a drawback in its “all-powerful single-party system.”

“They had already met in secret session and decided to stick it to the Republicans,” he said, according to Record-Journal archives.

He added at the time that he planned to go before the Charter Revision Commission and seek a change of rules for filling vacated positions of elected and appointed boards, saying that “the last candidate with the most votes” should be approved for election position, according to Record-Journal archives.

LTakores@record-journal.com203-317-2212Twitter: @LCTakores


More From This Section