July 16, 2014

Democrats fire back on referendum issue

Democratic city Councilors Ellen Zoppo-Sassu, Calvin Brown and Mary Fortier issued this statement late Tuesday:

Democratic Response to the Republican Town Committee’s recent “Let the Public Decide” press release
Petty politics and overly dramatic phrases will do little to further this debate on downtown’s future. Our comments concerning the referendum were based in two facts: the City of Bristol has never governed by referendum and to date, we are not convinced that a non-binding referendum on a non-ordinance related item is proper.
The primary question is is it appropriate for the City of Bristol to invest public money to kick-start the initial phase of a private investment?
Following dozens of meetings and forums, and accumulating voluminous input since this downtown development project was first proposed almost 10 years ago, we have reached the point where hard decisions need to be made.

So the secondary question is, “should the question be put to referendum or should we rely on the experience and knowledge of our elected officials?”

These are two complex questions that invite thoughtful public policy debate. But not questions that require, or will be resolved, by the petty political bickering offered by the Republican Town Chairman Derek Cenzelewski..
It is our opinion that a call for a non-binding referendum is yet another move by the local Republicans to not make a decision. Mr. Cenzelzewski’s effort to twist our words showcases political opportunism at its worst.

There has been a glaringly obvious lack of reports from Republican Council members concerning items of importance at monthly City Council meetings and in fact, when Democrats give reports, they are accused of “grandstanding” or “talking too much.”

Councilman Martin serves as liaison to the Field Study Committee, the Board of Education, the Downtown Development Corporation and the city’s Marketing Task Force – 4 committees that have major budget and policy impact yet until last month, he has stayed silent during Committee reports. Ironically,

Councilman Martin has also neither fulfilled his role of communicating back to the Council on downtown issues nor has he endorsed the idea of a public referendum, yet Mr. Czezelewski ignores these facts. Again, a clear indication of his motivation: petty political bickering.

To recap some of Mr. Czenzelewski’s  outlandish allegations, here is what we believe:
    We know our role is to listen to our constituents and make ourselves available to them in a variety of ways including at public events, via social media, email, and open office hours. In fact, the Democratic council members are the only ones to have held office hours to hear from our constituents, this past year.

    Councilwoman Fortier does have an opinion. She is also a lawyer by profession and deals in facts. As the minority party, we are not included on the current talks with the Renaissance discussions. Some of these concerns were addressed by the mayor in executive session last week when the mayor realized we had not received certain information and promised the Council it would be circulated shortly.

    The city did not hold meetings in the “middle of the night” in 2005; nor do they do so now. That’s just a lie. But here’s a fact, many city meetings are held to accommodate key members of the Republican administration with disregard to the Democratic members’ schedules or the public, which typically can’t make meetings that are held when most people are still working.

    There was a large amount of public input and open meetings in 2005 concerning the fate of the 17 acre parcel. Ideas considered and discarded based on public reaction at that time included using the site for a field house and new Boys and Girls Club, a school to replace the O’Connell neighborhood school. Ironically, after 8 years with little to no progress, 2 of those years in which Mr. Czezelewski served on the City Council, there are many people who now look back on those proposals and wish that those ideas had come to fruition.

Democracy doesn’t stop at the ballot box. It requires constant conversation. Creating and recreating the image of what we as a community want our city to be is a work in progress. Bristol residents have contributed to the discussion on the future of downtown for years. That conversation is not over nor is it right for us, as city councilors now, to abdicate our responsibility. To do so would ignore what the voters sent us as their elected Councilors, to do.

Submitted By:
Calvin Brown, District 1
Mary Fortier, District 3
Ellen Zoppo-Sassu, District 3

In addition, Fortier sent this along:

I want to take this opportunity to clarify my recent comments about a possible referendum on Depot Square.  Steve Collins correctly quoted me saying that I am not privy to anything and I don’t know whether there should be a referendum.  First, neither the Charter of the City of Bristol nor its ordinances has any provision for a referendum on a spending or bonding issue.  And certainly not on matters of economic development. Unlike many New England towns and cities, we do not use the town meeting or referendum for the yearly general budget or bonding issues, instead we have a Finance Board and City Council.  And, the Finance Board has more members as a check to the City Council on financial matters.  I didn’t create our system of government but I am part of it and I work within that system. 
            The BDDC, Bristol Downtown Development Corporation, was created as a special quasi-public entity to oversee the development of the 17-acre parcel we call Depot Square.  They have a “preferred developer agreement”, or contract, with Renaissance Downtowns which sets out the steps for developing the property. To date, the only thing the BDDC has asked the Council to do was grant an extension for a revised financial plan to be submitted. That extension was granted unanimously in May. I didn’t create the process but I respect the process. The BDDC was added to give extra attention, consideration, and expertise to this important issue.
 I have attended several BDDC meetings and public comment sessions since I was elected. I was not at the last BDDC meeting where the “referendum idea got floated”.  The notice of that meeting was not on the city’s website and no email notification that it was happening was sent. As a result I am not privy to the context with which the idea of a referendum was raised.  No explanation has been provided as to what the basis or authority for a referendum question, much less what the actual question would be. Yet it’s been said that a referendum would be appropriate because the city was being asked for financial support to the project.    
   Since the Council granted the extension, the mayor and Republican controlled city council have not kept us informed on further discussions. Outside counsel hired by the Mayor and City Council have not been given formal opportunities to have conversations with myself and my fellow Democrats.  My fellow Council member Calvin Brown sent an email on June 25 asking for an update on those discussions and he still hasn’t received a reply to the email. I still have lots of questions.  There is no finalized proposal so I don’t think a referendum now would even be appropriate.  And, why have a non-binding referendum?  What is the point of that?   
 I support the overall plan for Depot Square: multiple buildings with mixed use residential units, retail offices, restaurants, and of course a piazza.  I came into office being presented this plan and want to do all I can to make it work.  I want a vibrant exciting downtown, but more importantly I want a strong stable tax base. The more value built on Depot Square the more taxes the city will collect leaving less tax increases for city residents.  The value of Bristol, our community, as a whole will increase.
I share a frustration that the April proposal by Renaissance Downtowns contains a request for bonding or public money from the city. It makes what is already a complicated project more complicated.  It makes decisions by the BDDC and the Council harder. But it is, according to the current process a question for the BDDC and Council. 
The city spends many millions of dollars each year and with that try to plan and build for our future.  We have spent millions on new schools, we are planning a multimillion dollar new firehouse, before the year is out we will probably authorize spending more than a million on our first synthetic athletic field, and in the near future we will be spending millions upgrading our police communications system. Hopes that development of Depot Square would be funded by private dollars is dictated by the realities we as city leaders face daily. That doesn’t exclude considering a portion be funded with public dollars.  Or that the Mayor and City Council ignore their role as representatives of the public interest.
My constituents ask me when something is going to happen in Depot Square.  When I ran for office I told voters I hoped for something sooner rather than later.  Many voters are not familiar with all components of the process or even what has been proposed, but want to see activity downtown again. My preferences for the priorities of the city whether Depot Square or a new turf or a new firehouse or a new field are just my opinions, they are all part of a bigger process. 

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at scollins@bristolpress.com

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