OPINION: The will of the voters in Wallingford



 

By Riley O'Connell

The specific question on the agenda of the recent Wallingford Town Council meeting was whom would the council choose to fill the recent vacancy left by Town Councilor Gina Morgenstein’s resignation. The underlying question, perhaps far more wide reaching in its implications, was has our local politics truly devolved to where partisanship supersedes precedent, procedure, and the demonstrated will of the electorate. 

The Democratic Town Committee unanimously endorsed Alexa Tomassi, the next highest vote getter in the election with 5,854 votes, to fill this vacancy. All six Republicans on the Council voted down her nomination, instead voting for the appointment of former councilor Jason Zandri. With this outcome, there now sits a Democratic councilor who received no Democratic support.

The Town Charter is clear and simple in regards to this scenario. It only stipulates that a vacancy, voted on by the Council, must be filled “by a person of the same political party or affiliation as that of the person who just vacated the office.” As Councilor Vinny Testa appropriately pointed out with his nomination of Ms. Tomassi, it was never in question that the Council had the authority to pick any registered Democrat they wanted. The real issue is that the Republican councilors appear to conflate power with righteousness, a dangerous model of ignorance; just because you can do something does not always mean you should.

Traditionally, regardless of the political makeup of the Town Council, nominations made by the respective town committees have been honored and accepted, with similar appointments in 2015 and 1997 serving as the most recent examples. Instead of relying on this precedent, however, Republican councilors decided to roll the clock all the way back to 1980, referencing when the then Democratic majority Town Council rejected the Republican Town Committee’s nominee. 

Setting aside the fact that it is beyond petty to seek retribution for a decision that occurred 42 years ago, a decade before Ms. Tomassi was even born, there is no denying that the situations were remarkably similar. Mayor Dickinson, then RTC chair, went on record saying their nominee had demonstrated the “the backing of the general public” as the next highest vote getter in the preceding election, and, “what it comes down to is a blatant example of the arrogance of power.” Surely if it was wrong then, it is wrong now. 

It’s also important to note, this 1980 decision came with enormous consequences. Not dissimilar to the Republican Party today, the Democrats at that time had a decades long stronghold on Wallingford politics, a reign that came to an abrupt end the very next election. History tends to rhyme, and I predict last week's decision will have far reaching consequences as well.

Despite these clear comparisons, the mayor and the Republican councilors were eerily silent on Tomassi’s nomination, something I had never seen before in all my years observing these meetings. If there is one thing these councilors have in common, it’s that they love the sound of their own voices, so their silence in many ways spoke louder than words ever could have. There was no legitimate reason for denying Tomassi’s nomination outside of blatant partisanship, so rather than state their intentions before the public could speak, they held their tongues until the public could no longer respond. Now what transpired during public comment time almost deserves its own discussion. 

While I do not necessarily condone the impassioned reaction from the crowd in response to the Council’s decision, it was entirely predictable. This was the largest attendance I’ve ever seen in those chambers, all coming out to speak on this issue, and Chairman Vinny Cervoni’s response to this was to prematurely cut off public comment time. In doing so, he hid behind an arbitrarily enforced limit of 20 minutes for public comment, a rule that the chairman himself has routinely waived in the past, sometimes for hours.

You figuratively silence constituents by telling them their votes do not matter, followed up with literally silencing them by taking away their opportunity to speak, and now you want to play victim? When the mere words of constituents are perceived as a threat by elected officials, that should tell you all you need to know about the current state of our democracy. It’s only fitting that on the day after remembering MLK, we would do well to also remember that the greatest obstacle to freedom has often been those who are more devoted to “order” than to justice.

In conclusion, the council meeting was perhaps most aptly summarized by Councilor Fisbein’s posture throughout the evening; seemingly disinterested when it was time to listen to the public, but nearly jumping out of his seat to announce his nominee. Look no further for the perfect embodiment of the will of nearly 6,000 voters falling on deaf ears.

Riley O'Connell was the Wallingford Democratic mayoral candidate in November.



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