OPINION: Wallingford’s Town Council takes on the EDC

By Stephen Knight

Summer is usually the time when local politics takes a breather, but not this year. This column will concern itself with two issues: the ARPA panel, and the “investigation” of the Economic Development Commission.

Let’s start with the ARPA panel just formed. A majority of town councilors seem determined to merely go through the motions of dispensing ARPA funds to businesses and nonprofits, and the rules by which this panel was set up and intends to govern certainly display their intentions clearly.

First of all, the mayor of the town only was allowed to appoint one member, just as each of the town councilors. This is meant to dilute the number of panelists that favor giving funds to the businesses and nonprofits. Secondly, a supermajority of seven members will be required to approve an application. Another thumb on the scale in favor of denying as many applications as possible. Third of all, the maximum grant to a business will be $25,000. Any business of any size (the limit is 60 employees) severely affected by the government lockdowns suffered far, far more financial damage than that. The ceiling of $25K was done not to help these businesses, but to make sure as little of the ARPA money is given to this sector, leaving the lion’s share to be spent on public projects. Lastly, Councilor Craig Fishbein nominated himself to be on this committee.

So this appears to be an elaborate charade. The deck is stacked against businesses and nonprofits from the get-go. Ultimately, the goal is to appear to be sincerely interested in helping people and businesses ravaged by Covid-19 by inviting applications and carefully scrutinizing each one on its merits. But the net result is that they have set the bar as high as they could so that they could justify turning down the majority of them. A cynical approach not worthy of Wallingford government.

Now let’s turn to the “investigation” of the Economic Development Commission spearheaded by the aforementioned Councilor Fishbein. If you watched this show trial at a recent Town Council meeting, you were treated to multiple bleating town councilors doing everything they could to find the EDC guilty of … of … something. Most of Fishbein’s interrogation had to do with attempting to discover some kind of skullduggery in the way that the commission filed minutes to their meetings. He finally gave up that line of questioning when it was easily proven that the minutes were accurate, published on a timely basis and in order.

The real beef was that the EDC had the temerity, the gall, the absolute chutzpah to criticize those town councilors who had shown little or no interest in helping businesses recover from Covid lockdowns and to encourage businesses to attend a Town Council meeting when the subject would be discussed. That is why the Economic Development Specialist and member of the EDC were called on the carpet. First the ARPA agenda item was canceled, and in its place was Fishbein’s demand for an investigation.

Another fumbling, bumbling embarrassment for the entire Town Council. The Economic Development Commission was spot-on in their criticism. They thought it was important to have business owners come to a Town Council meeting to convince their elected representatives of the damage Covid did to their businesses and how assisting them to recover from their losses would be a good and justified use of ARPA funds. Certain members of the Town Council apparently felt that their statements and actions cannot be scrutinized by the likes of members of the business community, so instead they substituted a substantive discussion with a cringeworthy display of thin-skinned innuendo.

As someone who prides himself on having been a Wallingford town councilor, I found it embarrassing to watch. Fortunately, and as expected, Economic Development Specialist Tim Ryan and EDC Commissioner Rob Fritz acquitted themselves admirably. By the end of the discussion, even the councilors who brought the agenda item forward knew that they should have never raised the issue. The discussion ended with a resounding “thud” and no “investigation” was initiated.

What this column has described is what happens to politicians when they stray from what their job description truly is and make decisions purely based on political calculus. The ARPA money and its disposition has degraded our local politics, as money so often does — especially money not taken from constituents honestly through local taxation. And as time marches on toward November 2023 and the next local election, you can expect it to continue. I urge voters to watch carefully and ask yourselves which of these nine town councilors are working for you and which ones are working to forward their political ambitions. It’s becoming easier to tell with every passing Town Council meeting.

Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford town councilor.


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