WALLINGFORD — Democrat Jason Zandri was appointed to the Town Council to fill a vacancy over the Democratic-endorsed candidate, returning to the council with a renewed sense of mission.
“I'm looking for the best balance between getting the services delivered that need to be done, and to also be as smart with the spending as possible,” Zandri said Wednesday. “I want to look forward to developing the downtown, getting that Wallace Avenue parking, finding a way to restore Community Pool. These are going to be the same things that I've been working on right straight through.”
Zandri was sworn in Tuesday night immediately after being appointed by the six Republicans on the council — the Democratic councilors abstained — to fill the seat recently vacated by Democrat Gina Morgenstein.
Zandri, a former councilor, didn’t run for re-election in November — he quit the Democratic Town Committee without an endorsement but then fell severely ill, which prevented him from attempting to petition onto the Democratic line.
The Republicans voted down the Democrats’ choice, Alexa Tomassi, who ran for council in the fall but fell short in the vote totals, finishing as the 10th person. The council has nine seats.
The Town Charter requires that the Town Council fill the vacancy by appointing someone of the same party affiliation, in this case a Democrat. There’s no requirement that the council accept a party nominee or the next highest vote-getter in an election.
Morgenstein said Tuesday night that “Tomassi deserved better, the voters of Wallingford deserve better.”
“It is shameful how a little power and ego can distort character and integrity,” she said. “This decision and appointment is the absolute wrong message to send in this highly partisan and divisive time.”
Zandri said Wednesday that before Tomassi came out as the Democratic nominee, he hadn’t heard anything about who the Republicans were considering appointing.
The Republicans approached Zandri and asked if he would be amenable to taking the seat, he said, but he didn’t accept right away.
While he “would have really rather gone in with unanimous support from my own party,” he said, he approached the two Democrats on the council, Vincent Testa and Sam Carmody, about supporting him as a nominee, but they indicated they would be supporting the DTC’s nominee.
Republican Councilor Joe Marrone said Wednesday that when he found out there was going to be an opening on the council and that the only requirement was that the person needed to be a Democrat, Zandri was “the first person that came to my mind.”
“When I brought up his name, other people had had the same thought,” he said. “Some of the issues, the big issues, that I think we’re going to face in the future, I think he already has a handle on. We already have two brand new councilors this year. That means a third of the council is brand new, which I think is a challenge.”
The two newcomers are Carmody and Republican Autumn Allinson.What happened in 1980
The meeting grew contentious after Tomassi was voted down. Councilor Craig Fishbein was jeered throughout his speech nominating Zandri, and Zandri yelled back at people who were yelling at him.
Fishbein said he made the nomination because Zandri wants to continue to serve and was “unreasonably denied the ability to run for the seat that he would have won.”
“The precedent set by the Democrats back in 1980 provides that flexibility,” he said. “There’s really no other person in this town that should be selected instead.”
In August 1980, the then-Democratic majority on the Town Council appointed Republican Willard Burghoff over the RTC-endorsed candidate, Noma Beaumont, to replace a Republican council member who moved out of state.
Republican leaders strongly denounced the decision at the time, even calling for a Town Charter revision to change the rules for filling vacated positions guranteeing the last candidate with the most votes be appointed for an elected position.
Recent Democratic mayoral candidate Riley O’Connell also mentioned this event in his remarks, saying that the arrogance of power had consequences for the Democrats of 40 years ago.
“It’s true, there was a precedent in 1980 when then Democrats wrongly rejected a Republican nominee,” he said. “It’s important to also note, that decision had consequences — a decades-long Democratic stronghold on Wallingford politics came to an abrupt end the very next election. This decision will also have consequences.”
Marrone said that although Tomassi was the next top vote-getter, it wasn’t a persuasive argument because he didn’t look at it as first through ninth, but as winners or losers — “people that made it, and people that didn’t make it.”
“At this point, what they’re asking us to do is just reverse the results of the election,” he said. “The public picked Gina (Morgenstein), and Gina had every right to that seat, but if Gina can’t serve, she doesn’t pick a replacement. It goes back to the council. That’s the process, and the precedent on that topic is mixed. I guess, ideally, I think that a runoff election would probably be a better process, especially if you have the full term to serve, but that’s not the rule.”
The DTC had its regular meeting scheduled for Wednesday night. DTC Chairperson Alida Cella said that the committee will be “back to regular business.”
“I am sure that people will want to talk about what happened at the Town Council,” she said, “but our focus is continuing to grow and organize our voter base, and get legitimate Democrats voted into office. The Republicans just added fuel to the tank.
“Obviously, I am disappointed,” she added. “As disappointed as the now mayor, then RTC Chair was 40 years ago. I did ask people privately not to shout, but fully understood their outrage. There was no integrity to what the Republican councilors did. People in that room felt disrespected. Many weren’t DTC members, just voters. Quite a few I did not know. Some weren’t even Democrats.”Police presence
A comment on the Record-Journal’s Facebook page from the DTC stated that “someone on the Republican-controlled council” had called the police to the meeting, saying that “free speech is the ultimate danger to authoritarians.”
No officers entered council chambers during the meeting, though cruisers were observed outside in the Town Hall parking lot and in surrounding business lots. Council Chairman Vincent Cervoni said Wednesday that none of the Republicans he knows called the police Tuesday night.
Police Sgt. Joseph Cafasso said Tuesday night that while there were officers in cruisers outside Town Hall, police watch the meeting agendas and often go out without a call from the public in case something happens.