WALLINGFORD — The Town Council this week approved bonding more than $34 million to turn the former 3M office building into the town’s new police station, though several council members again expressed concerns about the issue of meeting minutes indicating the recommendation to make an environmental report “disappear.”
The council voted 8-1 to approve amending the ordinance previously approved that bonded $3.3 million for the purchase of 100 Barnes Road to add $31,548,000 for the renovations to building, bringing the total to $34,848,000.
But hanging over the vote was the issue of the Police Station Steering Committee minutes of its Oct. 13, 2022 meeting, where architect Brian Humes made a comment that he would recommend a report that mentioned the issue of PCBs “disappear.” Republican Councilor Craig Fishbein brought up the minutes of that meeting during the council’s Jan. 10 meeting.
Fishbein said that night that he found the comment troubling, and on Tuesday said one reason he did was because of the situation in Fairfield where four town officials are facing charges regarding the illegal disposal of PCBs. When he read the steering committee meeting minutes, that raised a red flag for him, he said.
“If the report wasn’t that bad, why make it disappear? Why did no one at meeting question that statement? Is that statement of practice so common that OK, it’s just another one we’re going to make disappear?” he asked. “That’s the takeaway from the recording, and because there was no rebuke one could assume that that overture was acceptable and that the action was undertaken, and that’s troubling. I totally agree we need a new police station, but I’m just really concerned about whether I can vote on this with the veil of what is going on.”
“I would assume Mr. Humes would agree that he expressed his opinion, on the matter of testing for PCBs, in an unsuitable way and that he unintentionally misspoke,” Democratic Councilor Sam Carmody said. “What I have an issue with is that Mayor Dickinson intentionally held a press conference to deny that such statements, referenced in the meeting minutes were ever said, and a draft report mentioning PCBs ever even existed. The mayor’s press conference not only emphasized wrong information, but it also left a bad taste in the mouths of many because of its inaccuracy and because of its poor tone. I think this whole debacle has been stirred up mainly because of the erroneous information that was shared by our mayor at his press conference last week.”
Carmody said that while he often disagrees with the mayor’s policy positions, he feels he “can always be trusted, that your words are always truthful and that your intentions and devotion to our town are noble.
“While I think your intentions and devotion to our town remains unchanged, I am disappointed, and I have to question the trustworthiness of this administration after witnessing last week’s press conference. You got it all wrong,” Carmody said.
Councilior Joseph Marrone also said the press conference was a misstep on the mayor’s part.
“At the press conference the comment was made that someone was trying to impugn the integrity of the committee. The act of impugning the integrity of the committee was reading the committee’s minutes, and that was the item that was so offensive it required a press conference,” he said. “I am rather embarrassed that we had to have a press conference and the facts were misstated. I don’t understand how at this level of government these kinds of things happen. I think the reason these things are happening is because we are in a crisis. We have kicked the can so many times down the road that now we need a police station or bust. The building is on fire and we’re in an emergency now.”
Councilor Christina Tatta, who was the only member to vote against the bonding, said she too was disturbed by the press conference, especially the light it cast on the steering committee’s recording secretary, Cheryl-Ann Tubby.
“Several times in the meeting it was said that the integrity of the steering committee was impugned because of the questioning of the minutes. It was also said the minutes were inaccurate. However, after comparing the audio and the minutes, the minutes were a direct quote, and I feel Ms. Cheryl Ann Tubby, the recording secretary, deserves an apology for her competency being impugned by those statements,” Tatta said. “I’ve known Ms. Tubby to be outstanding at her job, and seeing her name on the minutes, I was sure that they were accurate because she always does a very good job. So to see her job be publicly brought into question, and wrongfully so as it turns out, that affects her career.”
Tatta asked that a public apology be made to Tubby and be included in her personnel file so it is not an issue for her going forward. But Dickinson said he has not read the minutes and did not say they were wrong.
“I indicated that the minutes are a summary — they always have been. I don’t believe I ever said they were incorrect,” he said. But to rely solely on the minutes as proof of guilt over the suggestion of making a report disappear is wrong, he said.
“To take minutes and from that deduce that people are intentionally committing an unlawful act I find highly irresponsible,” he said. “If you’re going to accuse people of a very serious act of hiding or destroying public records, then you need to look at more than minutes in your collection of evidence. That, to me, is impugning the character and intentions of people who are serving the community.
“I haven’t read the minutes. I didn’t characterize the minutes as incorrect or correct,” he said. “My concern is that if there is a belief or deduction of that kind, more evidence has to be collected than to read minutes of a meeting.”New building needed
Ultimately everyone on the council agreed the town needs a new police station. Plans for one have been in the works for years, with acknowledgments that the department has outgrown its current home at 135 North Main St., which got serious in 2021 when the town bought the Barnes Road property.
In 2007, former police chief Douglas Dortenzio submitted a report to the council on why the town needed a new police station, current Chief John Ventura told the council. Those plans were then estimated to cost $22 million, “but because of the economic downturn that happened, that was a nonstarter,” Ventura said, referring to the recession of 2008-09.
In the intervening years, “the problems at 135 North Main St. did not stop,” Ventura said. The town bought that building, the former Armory, in 1983 and renovated it into a new police department that officers moved into three years later.
But by 1992, only six years later, it was clear that the department had already outgrown that building, Ventura said. The design of that building is poor, he said, with “cavernous” hallways leading to small cramped offices.Multiple chiefs, same plea
Dortenzio came to the council in 2009 to plead for its support for a new station, and in 2020 former chief William Wright did the same.
“There is no thermostats in the building — it’s either hot/very hot or cold/very cold. You can’t set the temperature in the building,” Ventura said. Last August, when they tried to fire up the boilers, they wouldn’t turn on so they had to have a company come in, he said. “They did get them started, but it’s a constant struggle to keep them running.”
The air conditioning system, too, is very old and when in use the department must have the company come in at least once a month to keep it running, Ventura said. “It’s not an easy system and my training officer has been converted to almost building maintenance unfortunately because he’s on top of all the contractors that need to come in,” he said.
Other features in the old building are downright dangerous, Ventura said, calling the cell block system “archaic.” The security system monitoring the cells is located outside of the cells, rather than in them as is the case with modern stations, so being able to see what is going on in the cells is difficult, he said.
“That cell block is a lawsuit waiting to happen,” Ventura said. “I personally had to run down there and cut someone down from the bars who was trying to injure themselves. It’s a huge liability.”
It also can turn into a crisis when a prisoner decides to flood a cell block, Ventura said. “What we need to do — and I’m not exaggerating when I say this — is we need to find the smallest officer that’s working and put them through a door to manually crawl into the space behind the cell blocks to turn the water off.”
Modern systems have controls in the cell or outside of it so it is much easier to contain such a situation, he said.
There’s no temporary holding area to isolate a prisoner being booked so have to have another officer there for safety when booking someone, Ventura said. And space for officers is also limited, especially in the locker area.
“We have locker space for one female officer,” Ventura said. “I have six female officers and if we fill vacancies with female officers, I don’t have room for them.”
Such is also the case in the men’s locker room, he said. The male locker rooms are at capacity and are not large enough to accommodate equipment such as bullet proof vests and helmets, so those are often stored outside the lockers. There are no electrical outlets in the locker room so officers have to charge equipment at home or find a place in the building, he said. There are two showers that offer no privacy whatsoever, he said, and when a prospective employee sees these conditions, they are often turned off.
“For a female officer to walk in and see that, it’s not appealing,” he said, “and there’s a lot of other departments that they can go to with newer buildings and equipment.”