By Combined Staff
As we wind down 2013, we think back on some of the top stories from the previous year.
An era ended in Southington with the passing of former town manager John Weichsel. The Smoron controversy seems as if it has reached its end. Republicans remained in control of the town following November’s municipal elections and two out of three potential charter changes failed at the polls.
Renovations at the two middle schools continue and full-day kindergarten was implemented district wide with the start of a new school year. Town officials are wondering what to do with the Beecher Street property and the SCCA is well into fundraising efforts to turn the Gura Building into an arts center.
Without further ado, here are some of the top stories from 2013.
Passing of an icon
John Weichsel, Southington’s first town manager, passed away on Friday, March 29. He was 80. Weichsel was first appointed town manager in 1966 and served until early 2011.
He was succeeded by current Town Manager Garry Brumback.
When the governance system was worked out in 1966, it was decided that the town manager would serve at the will of the Town Council, without any formal contract. Weichsel served without a contract for his entire tenure. Before Southington, Weichsel worked in Michigan and New York.
During his tenure, the population of Southington grew from 27,000 to approximately 42,000, all in the 44 years of his leadership.
At his retirement announcement in the spring of 2010, Weichsel credited his staff and the numerous Planning & Zoning Commissions he worked with over the years for helping to successfully managing the town’s rapid growth.
In his role as administrator, he also dealt with tough labor relations, difficult mandates from the state, and the perennial problem of garbage. In the 1980s, Weichsel took a lead role in creating the trash disposal plant in Bristol. He coordinated the efforts of several area towns and the plant still operates successfully to this day.
Weichsel was known for his concise, often blunt, manner of speaking. Several former and current town councilors said they appreciated this quality, even if it occasionally frustrated the public. His wealth of knowledge on municipal government was asset for numerous local officials who were elected during his career.
Following his retirement in Southington, Weichsel served briefly as town manager in East Hampton.
Smoron controversy comes to an end
A Hartford Superior Court Judge ruled in March that longtime caretaker Samuel Manzo is the rightful heir to the Smoron estate.
Valley Spring Farm was owned by the Smoron family for decades and ownership has been in dispute since the death of Josephine Smoron in 2009.
In the 1990s, Josephine Smoron had a dispute with her brother, Stanley Smoron, about the future of the farm. He intended to will the land to local churches, but Josephine Smoron intended it to remain as farmland. She prevailed in the dispute and would go on to change her will to designate Manzo, a longtime farm caretaker, “absolutely and forever” as heir to the land.
More trouble started when local attorney John Nugent, a court appointed conservator, created two trusts, claiming that the land was “relinquished” to three churches – The Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church in Southington, the Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church in New Britain, and the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church, also in New Britain. There was a plan to sell the land to developer Carl Verderame Jr. for the construction of a hockey rink, with the proceeds going to the churches.
The trusts were approved by former Southington probate judge Bryan Meccariello. Meccariello was censured for the handling of the estate in 2010.
Last June, the Statewide Grievance Committee ruled that Nugent violated ethic laws in his handling of the Josephine Smoron estate. The committee oversees the conduct of state lawyers.
Republicans keep control
Southington Republicans retained control of the town, keeping majorities on the various town boards, including the Town Council and Board of Education following November’s municipal election.
Though the faces may have changed somewhat, the Republicans kept a supermajority on the Town Council, with all six Republican candidates being elected. The three Democrats running for re-election round out the council.
The Republicans on the Town Council are led by Chairman Michael Riccio, Victoria Triano, Thomas Lombardi, Paul Champagne, Stephanie Urillo and Cheryl Lounsbury. Democrats Chris Palmieri, Dawn Miceli and John Barry round out the Council.
The Republicans also continued to outnumber the Democrats on the Board of Education, as the makeup of the board stayed the same, with all incumbents winning re-election. Republican Brian Goralski remains as chairman.
According to the Town Clerk’s office, 33.8 percent of the town’s 25,824 registered voters made their way out to the polls this past November.
Voters also had the opportunity to weight in on three proposed changes to the town charter.
Possible charter changes voted down
Voters had the final say on three proposed charter revisions in November. Only one of the proposals, the question dealing with contracts for public works and transfers of appropriations, passed.
Both the proposal to turn the Board of Police and Fire Commissioners into advisory boards and the question dealing with the division of purchases did not pass.
The proposed charter changes were spearheaded by the Republican majority on the Town Council. The Republicans pushed through a Charter Revision Commission and placed the proposed changes on November’s ballot, against constant opposition by Council Democrats.
Looking at the future of Beecher Street property
In October, in response to public outcry, the Town Council created a subcommittee to investigate how best to move forward with the town property on Beecher Street, the former home of the school system’s administrative offices.
The Town Council has not yet named anyone to the subcommittee.
The subcommittee is tasked with recommending and analyzing all issues of 49 Beecher St., including remediation, additions, demolition and sale of the property.
A few weeks prior to the creation of the subcommittee nearly a dozen residents voiced displeasure of a proposal to sell the property for $220,000 to Beecher Street, LLC.
Under this proposal, members of Beecher Street, LLC, Ralph Monti of Wolcott and William Martin of Watertown, would turn the property into 30 units of affordable housing for senior citizens. Their agent was Louis Martocchio, a Republican member of the Town Council at the time of the proposal. Martocchio recused himself from any Council discussion on the proposal.
According to town records, the appraised value of the property is more than $800,000 while its assessed value is $561,750. The Beecher Street property opened up when the Board of Education’s administrative offices moved to the Municipal Center building on North Main Street.
Butterflies mark Because of 26
Lisa Wrubleski and Erin Furniss created “Because of 26” in response to last year’s tragedy at Sandy Hook. The two mothers have stated that they wanted to raise their children in a community that exhibits kindness and generosity.
The two women organized a special ceremony on June 15 that was highlighted by a mural featuring 26 metal butterflies that hangs on the back of Ragazino’s Garage on Summer Street. The two women still use the group’s Facebook page to highlight acts of kindness in the community.
Earlier this year the two women were honored with the Reaching Out Award, presented by the Southington YMCA.
SCCA hopes to arts up the Gura Building
The Southington Community Cultural Arts (SCCA) group is a little more than halfway through its 18-month capital campaign to turn the Gura Building into an arts center and the money keeps rolling in.
The Gura Building, which formerly housed several town offices, became abandoned when the Municipal Center opened. The town allowed SCCA the year and a half fundraising period to make 80 percent of the renovation costs, thereby leaving the SCCA with a goal to raise about $1.4 million.
With the Town Council’s blessing the SCCA recently accepted a DECD grant worth $500,000. Last month, artist Mary DeCroce, who has taken the lead on the project, told the Town Council that the SCCA has raised a large sum of money from a combination of donations, grants and funds. Besides receiving a $500,000 grant from the State Bond Commission, the SCCA has raised $17,000 through a sponsorship from the bike parade as well as $25,000 committed from the Calvanese Foundation and $10,000 in pledges from the DePaolo Family Foundation. The SCCA also received other donations and more donor pledges worth $15,000.
The SCCA still has a host of other fundraisers in the works.
Besides holding art classes and exhibiting artwork, the potential new arts center would include rental art studios and an art supply store. The center would also feature a pottery studio and a gallery.
Education amongst renovations
The first phase of the middle school renovations was completed shortly before school opened for the year. Past environmental tests found traces of asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) at both DePaolo and Kennedy Middle Schools. The remediation process was able to be completed this summer after voters approved middle school renovations for a second time earlier this year. Voters approved the renovations in 2011, but renovations were sent back to referendum after school officials discovered that the removal of PCB would increase cost estimates significantly.
School renovations are expected to be completed by fall 2015. Upon completion, the schools will have a new media center, 10 new classrooms and a new main office as well as a separate room for band and chorus practice in the back of the auditorium. The old media center will turn into two new art classrooms, and there will also be an upgrade in technology.
Implementing full-day kindergarten
The Southington Board of Education moved ahead and implemented its full-day kindergarten program this year. The change to a full day program has allowed for a more extensive curriculum. School officials are calling the program successful.
Looking for a new location
Bread for Life will open the new year looking for a new home.
The group had an application continuance before the Planning and Zoning Commission, but Bread for Life decided to reapply once it found a new location. Earlier this year Bread for Life had proposed a facility near Derynoski School. This proposal drew criticism from parents and school officials, citing safety concerns for the children.
School and town officials are working with Bread for Life to find a new location.