Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Residents upset with council members who left November meeting

By Suzanne Carlson
Journal Inquirer
Published: Wednesday, December 8, 2010 1:32 PM EST

VERNON -- The three Town Council members who walked out of the Nov. 16 meeting got an earful Tuesday from residents angry about the lack of decorum and civility displayed by the public officials.

“I was embarrassed,” Pineview Drive resident Jennifer Roggi said during public comment at the council meeting.

Roggi said she had attended the Nov. 16 meeting in support of a $5,000 budget transfer to the Northern Connecticut Land Trust for the acquisition of the 20-acre Talcottville Gorge property from private landowner John G. Talcott Jr., and was shocked at the exchange that took place.

During discussion of the transfer, Republican council member William Campbell criticized land trust representatives Gail P. Faherty and Jim Gage as unprepared and argued against giving taxpayer funds to what he called an “anti-hunting” group.

“You can’t just waltz in here and say, ‘Give me $5,000,’” Campbell said.

A certified firearms safety instructor and member of the Rockville Fish and Game Club, he also dismissed concerns about the safety of hunting on a parcel crisscrossed with hiking trails as “nonsense” borne out of ignorance about hunting regulations.

Fellow Republican Daniel Anderson sided with Campbell, saying that a vote for the budget transfer was a statement against hunting rights because some taxpayers are hunters.

When Anderson’s amendment to allow hunting on the private property was voted down, Campbell and Anderson walked out.

After the meeting, Roggi said she approached the land trust representatives, who appeared shell shocked by the drawn-out proceedings.

“I felt like I had to apologize for my own elected officials,” Roggi said. “Votes are not always going to go your way. … You’re shortchanging the taxpayers of this town.”

Longtime land use volunteer Ann Letendre, who heads the Hockanum River Linear Park Committee, also attended the meeting in support of the budget transfer, and said the unique parcel has been a top priority for open space preservation since 1998.

She criticized council members for failing to thank both the Talcott family and the land trust for their efforts to conserve the property, which has been used unofficially by residents for hiking, fishing, and bird watching for years.

Instead, Letendre said, council members turned what should have been a positive thing for the town into an opportunity to grind personal political axes.

“I was appalled at the proceedings,” Letendre said. She said that for some in the audience, it was their first time at a council meeting and, “they were dumbfounded. It was embarrassing.”

To those who walked out, Letendre urged them to not take the issues so personally.

“You hang in there, you try compromise, and you accept the majority,” Letendre said.

After Campbell and Anderson left the November meeting, Republican Mark Etre also walked out to protest a discussion about the legality of town Public Works Director Robert Kleinhans’ parallel employment by the Board of Education as maintenance director for the schools.

Unaffiliated council member James Krupienski had just begun speaking when Etre walked out, eliminating the quorum and effectively ending the discussion because the council no longer could conduct business.

Etre said afterward that he is frustrated that the council has been wasting time discussing Kleinhans, particularly when he is not present to defend himself.

Kleinhans, a former Republican council member, has consistently refused to comment on his employment arrangement.

On Tuesday, Bolton Road resident Mary Ellen Beck urged the council to move past the contentious issue and work together.

“There’s always a middle road, there’s somewhere you can meet in the middle to benefit everybody, and that’s all I’m asking … just respect each other,” Beck said.

‘I don’t vote, ma’am:” McCoy

The public’s criticism was not limited to the three council members, however.

Mayor Jason L. McCoy also was admonished for leaving the meeting early to go to another appointment. Despite repeated inquiries, McCoy refused to say with whom he was meeting during council time, and said he has left council meetings in the past and it’s not unusual.

“If your schedule doesn’t allow you to attend the meetings then you shouldn’t have made the commitment,” Lake Street resident Bill Graugard told McCoy. “I expect a little more representation than just walking out on me.”

Phoenix Street resident Jean Merz also took McCoy to task for his absence and said she was “terrified” that such behavior as displayed at the meeting would become the norm for the council.

“I as a voter am tired of the political posturing that goes on at these Town Council meetings,” Merz said, adding that it’s important for the mayor to be present and take a leadership role.

McCoy shot back, telling Merz that, “I don’t vote, ma’am,” therefore his absence didn’t affect the council’s ability to conduct business.

“I don’t care if you vote,” Merz responded. “You set the tone for the civility of the meeting. You need to do that.”

Campbell said today that in regard to residents’ complaints about a lack of civility during council meetings, “They were probably right about that … It has been a problem with the council lately.”

From his perspective, however, Campbell said the bigger issue he was trying to address, which got conflated with the debate about hunting rights, was whether the council should give away taxpayer money with no apparent financial benefit to the town.

“Basically, it was more of an economic issue of giving away the townspeople’s treasury to a private organization. It is not uncommon, but I don’t think we have a right to do it,” Campbell said.

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