GROTON — In 2019, Portia Bordelon was the second highest incumbent vote-getter in the race for town council, but on July 21 she failed to win an endorsement for re-election from the local Democratic Town Committee. Bordelon has instead petitioned her way on to September’s primary ballot.
It’s unusual for a town committee not to endorse its incumbent candidates, the Democratic chair Conrad Heede agrees, but why exactly Bordelon was left off the Democratic slate remains a matter of disagreement.
“I ran on transparency, accountability and openness, being willing to speak my mind and advocate for the constituents in the town,” explained Bordelon in one of a number of phone calls with CT Examiner.
Bordelon was chosen by local Democrats in 2019 to fill David Atwater’s seat on the council after he resigned his seat in mid-September, less than two months before the fall elections. A lifelong resident of Groton, she won her race handily with a door-to-door campaign while recovering from breast cancer.
“The one thing that they recruited me on was my ability to be passionate, open, and speak openly about things now is the thing that they’re saying they don’t want,” says Bordelon.
That style may have lost her the support of some local Democratic leaders. According to Bordelon, she’s been told that she is “too loud and too aggressive” during town council meetings.
Bordelon said she spoke out about the town’s vetting process of the Mystic Education Center project after she learned that the developer, Jeff Respler of Respler Homes LLC, had been convicted of bribery and had left previous development projects unfinished.
The town council —including Bordelon — voted unanimously in February 2020 to authorize the town manager to engage Respler Homes LLC to redevelop the vacant Mystic Education Center property. At the June 1, 2021 town council meeting, Bordelon withdrew her support.
“When I first joined the council, this project and the process that brought it forward was already in progress,” explained Bordelon in a text to CT Examiner. “While I had my reservations and expressed those feelings to the town staff and fellow councilors, I did go along with it initially out of a sense of team spirit and taking the assurances of town staff, the town attorney and my fellow councilors. However, once the revelations about the developer and the problems in the process came to light, I lost faith in the town staff, the town attorney and my fellow councilors who were still so emphatically in favor of the project moving forward.”
In a press release, Bordelon said she believed the town committee’s vote did not “accurately or equitably represent the actual will and desire of the Groton Democratic voters.”
This year, with 9 endorsements available and 10 Democrats running for town council, Bordelon found herself left off of the local party’s slate of candidates.
Heede, who is not only chair of the local party, but also a member of the nominating committee and the town council, told CT Examiner in a call that “normally the best practice is to re-nominate people who are current incumbents.” But he says that this year the endorsement process worked out differently.
“The majority of the nominations committee voted for other candidates. We took this to the floor of the DTC [and the majority voted with] that recommendation to go with the other nine candidates. She did get support — out of 62 votes I believe she got about 30, but that wasn’t enough to be endorsed for the Town Council,” said Heede.
Heede acknowledged that Bordelon was the second-highest incumbent vote-getter in the 2019 election but said the town committee does not nominate a candidate because he or she is “popular.”
“We nominate people who we think will work well together, and will do a good job as councilors — you know, follow the rules, follow the advice from our town attorney, work with the town staff, but most importantly, work together with the councilors who are serving,” he said.
Heede said the committee put together a slate that they thought would represent all of Groton.
“We think the nine endorsed candidates will do a really good job working well together. They won’t agree on everything, but this is not about electing people who agree. It’s about electing people who are going to work together to come up with solutions.”
Heede said that over the last two years, Bordelon has “contributed a lot to the council” and that he enjoyed working with her, but he said that her interactions with other councilors had not always been smooth.
“There are problems with the way that she relates to other councilors and clearly that probably played into how people voted. If you watch our meetings, they’re not always very smooth. It’s not about disagreeing over issues, I think it’s about inter-relationships. Again, she’s a friend of mine, I think she’s a great person, but you know there have been issues on the council. So I think those inter-relationships and how we conduct ourselves individually as counselors play a role.”
Heede emphasized that the decision did not stem from any disagreement over policy or with the Mystic Oral School. “It has nothing to do with disagreeing, it’s how we conduct ourselves,” he said.
Heede said the State of Connecticut, which owns the Mystic Oral School property, identified Respler as the preferred developer and the town agreed to support the selection, recognizing that any site plans would need approvals from Planning and Zoning, Inland Wetlands and “all of our normal processes.”
But more importantly, said Heede, Bordelon’s decision to publicly withdraw her support for the Oral School project, went against the advice of the town attorney.
“Our town attorney specifically said do not comment either positively or negatively — it can jeopardize the town and puts us in significant legal jeopardy to comment publicly. We can talk individually, but not to publicly comment,” he said.
Heede said the disagreement with Bordelon was not whether the council supports the project or has concerns about the developer.
“The disagreement is do we follow the legal advice of our town attorney and work behind the scenes, listen to our residents, work with the town staff, work with our town attorney, do what we can do without putting the town at financial risk because you get sued and that will cost us several million dollars. And so that’s the disagreement — she went public, and she wasn’t supposed to and the other eight counselors did not,” he said.
“Speaking out, I just want to say, in my opinion, is reckless. It’s reckless and it puts us in significant legal jeopardy,” Heede said.
Asked about that legal advice, Town Manager John Burt said councilors may speak positively about the Respler project, because the town has agreed to the project.
“As long as the agreement is in place, individually outside of council meetings, as a citizen, you can say what you want. However, a councilor speaks through the town council, so the attorney’s advice was at town council meetings or as a town council member to not speak negatively of the project as long as that development agreement is in place. To do otherwise can put the town in legal jeopardy.”
Burt said the language was fairly standard for a public-private partnership. He said the town can still “push” a developer, and Burt said that town has done that by sending Respeler a letter explaining where the project has fallen out of compliance with the agreed timeline.
Bordelon said it was more important to speak up and represent her constituents than to follow the advice of the town attorney.
“Given the overall context of the situation, I had little reason to abide by any opinion or advice given by the town attorney as it was the very same attorney that crafted these faulty documents and failed to do proper vetting or any sort of rigorous background check. I was elected to represent the interests of the citizens in the town, not the interests of the attorney, my fellow councilors or their ‘preferred developer.’”
She said her discovery of Respler’s criminal past and the town’s lack of vetting changed her attitude toward the proceedings.
“Once I lost faith in the process by which this project and developer were chosen, I also lost faith in the validity of the document drafted to create the deal and I lost faith in the validity of that attorney’s opinion. It seemed to be more about them trying to squelch the conversation and critical lines of questioning coming from the community at large – the community I was elected to represent and for whom I serve as a voice.”
Dane Stevenson, who was the secretary of the Democratic Town Committee, resigned after Bordelon’s name was not placed on the ballot.
“I threatened to resign in solidarity, saying I didn’t want to be a part of a party where we treat someone so unfairly as Portia. [She] has put in more effort to getting Democrats elected than anyone else, she’s always campaigning… I’ve been in the party for 3 years and never seen this before.”
Stevenson said that on the night of the nominations, about 20 people spoke in support of Bordelon, about 3 spoke against her and about 30 people were outside holding signs in support of her.
“She has the support in the party at large in Groton, but the way that these things work is that there were enough people toeing the line that she did not receive the nomination. That’s why I think she is going to win this primary and push someone else off because she’s very popular,” he said.
Editor’s note: This story has been clarified to reflect that Bordelon was the second highest incumbent vote getter in the 2019 race.