GROTON – Local residents voiced their frustration with the Town Council, calling the council’s inability to work together embarrassing, and criticized the council for ignoring the recommendations of a committee meant to address concerns for how town-owned properties are handled.
Residents criticized the council for pushing aside a draft policy for dealing with developers interested in town-owned properties, which they said gave the public more input than the one the council ended up approving in a 5-4 vote.
But their comments reflected longer-running tensions, accusing some members of the council of abusing parliamentary procedures to stifle dissent or discussion, and for appearing to quiet debate on the contentious issue by scheduling a meeting on the night of July 3.
Residents also criticized the council for holding long, combative meetings that Property Re-Use Committee member Lauren Gauthier called embarrassing. She said it was embarrassing for the council to structure a vote to stop debate and “weaponizing decorum” to stifle debate.
“But this is not surprising from this group of councilors,” Gauthier said. “We’ve seen it time and time again, this council focuses on its petty clique squabbles as the budget explodes, as the grand list stagnates, as taxpayers pay tens of thousands of dollars on lawsuits from the exact kind of property development deals the [committee’s policy] would have prevented.”
In a tense meeting last week, the Council Committee of the Whole voted 5-3 to move forward with a draft policy drawn up in 2021, rather than a revised draft that the Property Re-use Committee had been crafting for more than a year in response to public outrage at Respler Homes’ failed attempt to redevelop Mystic Oral School.
Larry Dunn, a member of the committee, said he had fielded criticism that the new draft amounted to too much red tape for developers. Both drafts would set up a Town Owned Property Evaluation Committee that would recommend solutions for each town-owned property, but Dunn said the committee made a handful of key changes that weren’t just red tape.
The committee’s draft would have required public hearings throughout the process – requiring the “TOPE” Committee to reach out to neighbors when they begin examining a property. The draft also would require a formal report to the Town Council and a public meeting.
“That ain’t red tape,” Dunn said. “That’s just basic governance.”
Councilors Portia Bordelon and Scott Westervelt – who both voted against the 2021 draft and tried to bring the committee’s draft for a vote – said they thought the council was going to discuss and revise the committee’s draft, not just dismiss it.
Bordelon said the 2021 draft lacks crucial public engagement provisions contained in the committee’s draft. She said she couldn’t understand how the Council could prefer a document from 2021 that hadn’t been reviewed or changed since.
“You don’t have one amendment that you want to put on?” Bordelon said. “Not a punctuation, not a capitalization, not an omission, not a move around, not an addition? It just baffles me, it’s such disrespect to people who’ve worked so hard. There’s ways in which this could have went forward by adding one line of compromise.”
Councilor Rachel Franco, who voted for the 2021 draft, said she appreciated that the committee worked on a recommendation for the council, but that it was only a recommendation and the earlier draft was better for the town.
Franco said she always wanted the Town Council alone to resolve the issue. And she said she opposed one of the proposed goals from the committee’s draft – that the process for town-owned properties should “seek to satisfy the needs for housing; market rate, affordable, low and moderate income.”
Franco said not every property should necessarily be for housing, and the town should be open to broader possibilities.
“I’m good with passing the 2021 with the possibility to make some amendments in the future,” Franco said. “There are things in the 2023 [draft] that personally, I am not in favor of.”
Bordelon said the tension in the council comes from the perception that she is “too aggressive, too loud, too outspoken.”
“If it’s truly about policy, and not just [who] it comes from, there would have been some phone calls to councilors like there used to be in the past,” Bordelon said. “Phone calls, they used to be ringing off the hook after meetings. ‘Councilor Bordelon, where do you stand on this? What do you want to do with that? How do we move forward?”
Franco said she has received “many phone calls” about how painful it is to sit through and watch Groton Town Council meetings that go late into the night. She said residents complain that it’s “one counselor speaking the majority of the meeting.”