We are looking forward to the June 24 public hearing about the future of the municipal center, but we hope this is the start of a real discussion—along with alternative plans and options. After all, many town leaders have had eight years to explore other options. We hope they didn’t just back voters into a corner to get their way. We have reason to be skeptical.
The municipal center has been mired in controversy since it was first envisioned. Southington had outgrown town hall by 2005. The Gura building had fallen into disrepair, and there was a need to centralize departments under one roof for more cooperation between departments—most notably between Southington’s school employees and town workers.
Like snake oil salesmen, councilors whirled around their plan to knock down the Gura building and expand town hall. The historic building was beyond repair, they argued. It was unhealthy. It was unsafe. But residents weren’t fooled. Officials tried to force their will three times through referendums, but residents pushed back each time. In 2005, residents voted overwhelmingly against the plan with two separate referendums (and by a 2:1 margin in the second vote).
Council talks were drawn along party lines with many of today’s councilors playing roles. Chris Palmieri (D), John Barry (D), Victoria Triano (R), Mike Riccio (R), and Dawn Miceli (D) were all members of earlier councils that led us to this choice about purchasing this unremarkable building.
By 2011, it was clear that locals didn’t want to rip down the Gura building (now so beautifully restored for the arts), but councilors didn’t seem to care. After a third failed vote, they found a loophole. Triano was no longer on the council, but Miceli had entered the fray. At the Feb. 28, 2011 council meeting, the board voted, 6-3, to move ahead with a plan—First, sell the abandoned North Center school to Borghesi Building and Engineering for $1. Next, lease it for eight years. Finally, buy it back for $2.9 million (after yet another referendum). Perhaps the fourth time’s the charm?
Former town councilor Peter Romano (R) made the motion. Miceli seconded it. Officials voted, 6-3, to approve the plan with the five Republican councilors (including Riccio) voting with Miceli in favor of the controversial backdoor deal. The council’s other three Democrats (including Barry and Palmieri) voted against it.
Residents came out in force at a public hearing that March. Although they supported the idea of merging board of education offices with some town departments, they were overwhelmingly against the town council’s methods.
“This entire proposal is a blatant attempt to circumvent the voter rejections of previous plans to renovate town hall,” one resident was quoted in the Observer.
We hope that town officials handle themselves differently this time around and actually listen to voters. We hope this next referendum isn’t just a case of throwing good money after bad. We are happy to see that school officials and town officials benefit from being under one roof, but why does it have to be under this bland roof? With eight years to think about other options, we hope that town officials have come up with more than just two choices—to continue the lease or buy the building outright. Since residents voiced their opinions so loudly from 2005 to 2011, we hope that councilors at least listened to the public that elects them. We are looking forward to hearing all the options available—especially from those five (representing both sides) that were involved in the votes along the way that led to this condundrum.
We are worried that the council is trying, once again, to force their will on residents. We hope we are wrong.
To comment on this story or to contact Southington Observer editor John Goralski, email him at JGoralski@SouthingtonObserver.com.