Online activity prompts debate over council appointments in Wallingford

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WALLINGFORD — A Democrat whose Zoning Board of Appeals nomination was rejected by town councilors last week over concerns related to social media activity cited Facebook posts shared by the board’s Republican chairman and vice chairman which he said reflect a double standard. 

The posts, commonly referred to as memes, contained racially charged images, misinformation and profanity directed at Democrats. Democratic nominee Ed Storck provided the council with printouts of the posts shared by ZBA Chairman Joe Rusczek and Vice Chairman Raymond Rys on Facebook and held them up during the public comment portion of the March 8 Town Council meeting.

Storck drew a contrast between the posts and the unspecified comments and “harassment” of Facebook group administrators which Democratic councilor Jason Zandri cited in voting against Storck’s nomination for an open seat as a ZBA alternate. 

“I've never said anything as vile as what the current vice chair and chair have posted on their Facebook pages,” Storck said.

In one post shared by Rys, the Black Lives Matter logo appears above the words “Biden Loves Minors.” Another post Storck said was shared by Rusczek contains silhouetted figures of protesters holding up clenched fists in front of a burning building. It states “Thank you for providing us the best argument for gun ownership in 245 years.” Another post shared by Rys contains the discredited claim that Biden has Alzheimer’s disease.

Additional posts found on Rys’ public Facebook page contain discredited claims that Biden is a pedophile and that Vice President Kamala Harris is a prostitute. Several shared posts express transphobic views, while another contains images of swastikas superimposed over Democratic Party iconography, calling it the party’s new logo. Several posts flagged by Facebook filters as containing misinformation remained on his page this week. 

Reached by phone, Rys said he shared the Facebook posts because he considers them jokes, but added, “I’m looking at Facebook a little more critical now and I’m not playing around like I used to.” Rys said that none of the content he posted reflects how he treats those coming before the board nor those who came before the Town Council when he previously served on that body.

“I've got a proven record of being very conscious of individuals who come before us. I don’t make fun of them and I don’t pick on anyone … and I don’t attack anyone,” he said.

Rusczek did not respond to a call for comment.

Rys said those seeking appointments to bodies like the ZBA should be judged on how they’ve performed in their official role. He said that he didn’t know Storck well enough to say if he’d be a good fit for the board.

Past interactions

Responding to Storck during the March 8 meeting, Zandri said that he would now take such social media posts into account when considering appointments to town boards.

“With respect to all the other individuals that currently sit today on these boards and commissions that are taking up this type of behavior, they’re not here today,” Zandri said. “If they were here today for a vote for an appointment going forward … I would vote ‘no’ for them too.” 

Zandri said during the meeting that he was compelled to vote against the appointment due to past interactions with Storck on social media. Zandri, who is an administrator of social media pages centered on Wallingford, said that Storck had been removed from pages in town after those affiliated with the Democratic Town Committee had “harassed” members of the social media groups.

“If it’s behavior that is coming at me, that’s one thing,” Zandri said. “If it’s continued behavior towards other members of the public and they take the same action, to me that says this is a pattern of behavior that people don’t want to deal with. And I don't want anybody having to go to ZBA and have to deal with someone … that I believe can’t be objective and cannot make an unbiased decision.”

Storck said he believes that he was lumped in with other individuals affiliated with the Democratic Town Committee who were removed from social media groups in response to what Zandri felt was harassment directed at him.

“Unfortunately Mr. Zandri has a grudge against the DTC and I believe I was just the fallout of that,” Storck said.

Storck said he was unaware of why he had been removed from those social media groups and could not recall any incidents involving Zandri in that time period. He said there had been a case a few months earlier where he disagreed with a different administrator of a social media page regarding what Storck described as transphobic comments directed at a friend.

“After that happened I was not kicked out of the group or removed from the group, but months later out of nowhere I was removed from the group and I don't know why,” Storck said.

Concern over precedent

The March 8 vote marked the second time this year that the council has voted not to seat a nominee chosen by the Democratic Town Committee for an appointed position. On Jan. 18, the council voted against the appointment of Alexa Tomassi to the Town Council to fill a vacancy. Instead, the six-member Republican majority voted to seat Zandri.

Storck said he is worried it is becoming more difficult for Democrats to be appointed to town boards and commissions.

“I fear under this current administration — based upon also what happened when Zandri was appointed to the seat vacated by (former Councilor) Gina Morgenstein — that anyone that shares a minority view in this town will not have a fair opportunity if they want to serve,” he said.

During the March 8 meeting, Councilor Vincent Testa, a Democrat, said there’s a tradition of the council following recommendations of the town committees in making appointments that appears to be eroding. The bar for breaking with that, he said, should be higher, such as if one’s speech were violent in nature.

“To not respect or honor or agree with or approve those recommendations or requests from ourselves to one another, to not honor those requests, I think one needs to have a really strong, legitimate reason,” he said. “We should not be basing decisions on how people express themselves, the words they chose to express themselves with, unless they rise to the level of threat and danger.”

Personal vs. political

Joseph Marrone III, the sole Republican who voted for Storck’s appointment, said he did so because he didn’t want to be a part of “cancel culture” and create a precedent where the council is looking through nominees’ social media posts to determine if they’re fit for office.

“It’s tough, I think if you’re trying to set guidelines. It’s kind of like when the Supreme Court tries to define what violates the First Amendment,” he said. “I think no matter how you try to define it, what’s offensive for one person or appropriate will be different for someone else.”

Republican Councilor Autumn Allinson said Storck’s nomination was different in that the alleged behavior involved personal interactions rather than posts about political beliefs. She said social media posts made by Storck made her feel uncomfortable.

“I think this was kind of a unique situation in that we seem to have similar personal interactions with him,” she said. “So it’s one thing to make broad sweeps about … your likes or dislikes on what things are going on in the world, but it’s another thing to go after people personally.”

dleithyessian@record-journal.com203-317-2317Twitter: @leith_yessian


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