Canceled Public Comment Sparks Outcry at Sewer Meeting Teleconference in Old Lyme

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OLD LYME — Local residents expressed significant consternation at the close of the Water Pollution Control Authority meeting on Tuesday night when chair Richard Prendergast announced that public comment had not been included on the agenda, a decision that he said would remain until COVID-19 mandates for social distancing had been lifted and meetings could be held in person once again. 

“You notice that a lot of times we have public comment. We don’t have public comment on this agenda. We removed it. We are not required to [have it] and I’m not trying to stop people from commenting. I just thought it would be too difficult to figure out who’s talking,” said Prendergast shortly before adjournment, when the public has usually been allotted time to comment.

Prendergast said the public could submit comments through the authority’s web page on the town website to either the authority’s clerk, Jennifer Datum, or to Prendergast. 

“If you want to do that, I encourage you to do that. When this virus thing is over and we can meet face-to-face, we will reinstall the public comment, I just wanted to explain that,” he said. 

Approximately six members of the public waited an hour and ten minutes to speak, while committee members met in closed executive session. The nearly two-hour teleconferenced meeting was scheduled to discuss plans for sewer construction in Sound View Beach and Miscellaneous Town Area B. Much of the cost of that project would be shouldered by Sound View residents, some of whom attended Tuesday’s meeting.

One member of the public, who didn’t identify herself, said that Prendergast should have noted that public comment had been removed from the agenda before going into executive session.

“I think you should have mentioned that before we waited an hour for you to come back,” she said. 

“You’re probably right, I’m sorry, I should have mentioned it earlier and written it on the agenda, so I apologize,” said Prendergast, who called for a motion to adjourn. 

Mary Daley, of Sound View, who was among the residents listening on the line, responded that the public could have easily identified themselves. She added that the emails sent through the town site do not receive acknowledgement or responses.

“It’s shameful. It’s embarrassing. It’s just another excuse,” she said. “It’s just unbelievable. These are the people we are supposed to trust.” 

Dennis Melluzzo, of Sound View, called Prendergast’s decision a public disgrace. 

“He just went on record and said he will not have any public participation until the pandemic is over,” he said. “So if the pandemic is over in June, we cannot participate in town government [until then].”

In a text to CT Examiner after the meeting adjourned, Frank Pappalardo, chair of Old Lyme’s Sound View Commission, said the authority’s actions were “really not constitutional.” 

“I guess we the people that are governed cannot voice our opinions of how we are governed. Disgraceful!” he wrote. 

Members of the authority as well as residents noted the poor quality of the audio during the call, which included nearly continuous loud pops and squeaks as well as phone lines that cut in and out when speakers conveyed information. 

Moving forward

Earlier on April 6, the Board of Selectmen approved a Water Pollution Control Authority contract for $615,200 with Woodard and Curran, an engineering firm with offices in North Haven, for sewer design in Sound View Beach. 

By phone before Tuesday’s meeting, which he attended remotely, First Selectman Tim Griswold said that amount will be paid for by the $9.5 million sewer construction bond rather than town funds.

“It may be that the source of the funds would be the bonding that was approved at the town meeting,” he said. “There are a number of things that have to be paid from the bonding and that would be the common assets beyond just the consulting work, there would be collection, the pump station, the force main and ultimately the gravity sewers themselves.”

Griswold said that there may be a lag between securing the money from the bond and reimbursement from the Clean Water Funds.

At Tuesday’s meeting Prendergast enumerated a series of tasks that will need to be completed to secure Clean Water Funds, including requirements for sewer ordinances and the establishment of a benefit assessment policy. The closed executive session was convened to discuss a needed cost-sharing agreement with the three beach associations.

During the meeting, Doug Wilkinson, treasurer of the authority, said that the authority has money available through several budget lines. For this fiscal year, the authority has $29,000 remaining for legal work, $23,000 for consulting work and $16,000 for testing. The authority has an additional $62,000 that has been carried over from fiscal year 2018-19.

“I think we’re pretty much done with testing so we are in great shape. We’ve got a lot of legal money left over that we will start to use and we have a lot of consultant money left over, which at some point we may start to use,” he said.

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