OLD LYME — The atmosphere of a Special Town Meeting erupted into shouting and chaos Monday night after a recount on a vote concerning bridge funding took several turns that some residents said were unfair. The contested vote feeds into broader tensions in the community concerning the fairness of the upcoming sewer referendum.
First on the meeting agenda was the $9.5 million sewer referendum, slated for Aug. 13, which will authorize the town to issue bonds, notes and other obligations, to finance the appropriation for Sound View Beach and Miscellaneous Town Area B. Second was the question of appropriating $328,500 for the engineering and repair of Mile Creek Road Bridge. Third was adjournment.
Thomas McGarry, an attorney who served as moderator of the meeting, explained that the meeting did not allow for discussion of the sewer referendum. Nevertheless, a number of Sound View residents and property owners commented on the project, questioning the fairness of charging users for almost the entire cost.
First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder said there had been at least two recent public information sessions where similar questions had been answered already.
Answering questions during the period before the referendum could also be misconstrued as advocacy for or against the project, she said.
“One of the reasons we’re very careful about answering questions is that as town officials we cannot use town resources to advocate for or against a project and the discussion can make us appear that we are advocating one way or another, so we are using an abundance of caution in allowing comments tonight but not questions because it’s inappropriate,” she said.
Addressing Frank Papalardo, chair of the Sound View Commission, who asked for a detailed explanation of the $9.5 million cost estimate, Reemsnyder said a coastal wastewater plan available in town hall held some answers but not all.
“It is quite a document and some of those questions can’t be answered until the project is actually done,” she said.
Considering the town’s 2015 administrative order from the Department of Energy and Environment Protection, Sebastian Mangiafico, a Sound View resident, asked why select residents had to pay for a “public works project” rather than dividing the cost among the tax base of Old Lyme.
Other Sound View residents asked questions about environmental testing versus density as justification for the project, the formula for the $6,000 hookup fee and how much Hawk’s Nest Beach will pay if it joins the project later.
Sound View residents vocalized their frustrations with the limited answers about the sewer project, but Reemsnyder said the issues were “all discussed at public information sessions” and repeated that the purpose of the meeting was not discussion or dialogue.
“We are not going to have give and take tonight, we are not responding to comments. Out of an abundance of caution, on the town side we need to make sure this is done properly and there is a referendum on August 13 and once that referendum date was set, we are told we have to be very careful about advocating for or against project.”
Concerning the $328,500 appropriation for Mile Creek bridge, Reemsnyder said the town was approved for a 50 percent grant for the design, engineering and repairs, thought to cost about $600,00, but the bid came in at $863,000. The appropriation will cover the difference and the state still might reimburse the total amount at 50 percent, she said.
Pappalardo asked whether the residents of Mile Creek Road will be charged for the bridge, adding that he does not use the road or bridge, drawing an analogy with the sewer project.
When another Sound View resident asked about the difference between the projects for a sewer at Sound View and the bridge on Mile Creek Road, Reemsnyder said she wasn’t going to respond to the question except that “the town takes care of the roads.”
A First Vote
When McGarry brought the Mile Creek appropriation to a vote, procedural rules came into question.
“All those in favor, please raise your hand,” said McGarry, and a number of hands went up.
Next, he said, “Opposed, nay?” Audience members responded with a loud and resounding “Nay.”
Then McGarry said, “We’ll have to have a count. We’ll have to have another show of hands.”
McGarry asked Selectman Christopher Kerr to count one side of the room and Selectwoman Mary Jo Nosal to take the other side.
But, Jack Collins, town attorney, who was sitting in the front row, called a point of order.
“There’s no explanation that in order to vote on this issue, individuals have to either be electorate as registered voters in Old Lyme and/or own property assessed for more than $1,000 and since there has been no verification of same before the meeting started, the registrars should have to verify same before formal votes takes place,” Collins said.
McGarry said citizens qualified to vote at the meeting would need verification from the town registrars of voters.
At that point, Registrars of Voters Catherine Carter and Marylin Clarke, who later said they were “expecting this,” moved into the lobby outside of the meeting room and set up at a table and began checking IDs against rosters of property owners and residents, giving those who qualified a green ticket.
As the audience members waited in line to be verified, at least five people entered town hall from Lyme Street at the side door closest to the large meeting room. The people who entered the building joined the lines, received verification and walked into the main room to find seats.
In the large meeting room, Leo Skrzpek, of Swan Ave., asked McGarry to disallow the people who had entered the building while the vote was held open.
“People were walking in and getting a ticket, how did they know about the green tickets?” Skrzpek asked.
With increasing volume, audience members who objected to the addition of voters who had not voted in the original count, shouted at McGarry.
Speaking into the microphone, Reemsnyder sternly told one female audience member who raised objections to take her seat with the reminder, “This is a town meeting.”
Addressing the same audience member, McGarry said, “I am the moderator and if you don’t take your seat I’m going to have someone take you out until you can control yourself.”
A Second Vote
After a few moments, waiting for the audience to settle, McGarry asked for another vote on the bridge appropriation. “All those in favor, raise your hands.”
Dave Roberge, Fire Marshall of Old Lyme, counted the raised hands, but some audience members began to shout again, asking how people who were not part of the original vote could vote in the recount.
“It’s a public meeting and anybody has the right to arrive at a public meeting whenever they want,” McGarry responded. “That’s it.”
Roberge, who said he counted 42 people in the room before the vote, now counted 31 raised hands for the appropriation and 19 against, for a total of 50.
“The motion is carried,” McGarry said and asked for a motion to adjourn the meeting.
By phone after the meeting, Heidi Dinino-Fields, who owns property on Hartford Ave., said holding the vote open and allowing more voters to join in reflected governmental voter fraud.
“It was definitely a no vote, [Reemsnyder] knew we were all residents,” said Dinino-Fields, who said the Board of Selectmen and others texted their friends to come in during voter verification. “And you can’t do a do-over vote. She should be investigated thoroughly, it was disgusting and disgraceful. Do our votes really matter?”