Editorial: Controversy strikes…again

Once again, the Town of Southington was dragged into the muck of controversy. This time, it was the unveiling of a statue on the grounds of the John Weichsel Municipal Center. It left us scratching our heads, thinking how could this have happened again? How has creating controversy become our council’s biggest legacy? This time, the controversy sparked protests and grabbed statewide headlines. It even drew the attention of a national organization—the ACLU.

We never do understand why this council is so driven to make changes to a building that Southington doesn’t actually own. That was our question when councilors pushed through the renaming of the building, and it’s our question now. When the statue was first proposed, it could have just been postponed until after voters decide whether to buy the building back from its current owner, Borghesi Building and Engineering.  Sure, the town has the right to make small changes, but should they? In this case, they shouldn’t have.

On the other hand, this controversy wasn’t a case of moving too quickly. The talks began at least three years ago when some local organizations and donors, including the Knights of Columbus, UNICO of Southington, and others proposed the monument, and the town council threw themselves into the middle of the project. The decision to approve the plan was made at the Sept. 14, 2015 council meeting, so we went back to see where things went wrong. In all fairness, there were no protests at the meeting or in the weeks that followed.

At that 2015 meeting, Dawn Miceli (D) and Victoria Triano (R) led this bipartisan discussion. Both admitted their personal interests as members of UNICO, and that should have been a red flag.  Then, Mark Sciota, in his role as Town Attorney, weighed in on the discussion before admitting his own personal interest, adding that he doesn’t vote.

These are exactly the sorts of problems that town leaders were trying to avoid when they drafted the town’s Code of Ethics. They saw how important it was that town officials have clear motives when pushing for town projects.

The code says that a board member (or an official like a Town Attorney) should disclose and abstain when they have an interest that’s either financial or personal. The code isn’t limited to those that vote. It limits a person’s involvement when they have an interest in any question before the town.

We hope that nobody questions the good intentions of UNICO of Southington or the Knights of Columbus, but as members of UNICO—one of the driving forces behind the plan—Miceli, Triano, and Sciota sounded less like town officials and more like UNICO members when they championed the project to their peers. Miceli drove the discussion. Sciota weighed in. Triano actually made the motion to add the project to new business, and she made the motion to approve the project—seconded by Miceli. Without these three UNICO members pushing their organization’s agenda, it’s unclear if the vote would have even happened. It set into motion the events that led to news cameras and protests.

The code is clear that a board member or town official must refrain from comment, vote, and even the discussion—removing themselves from the panel “until the matter has been dispensed.” That clearly didn’t happen here.

It’s unfortunate, too. The Knights of Columbus have been doing good works in town since 1885. UNICO has been a great influence for generations, and town leaders did a poor job of protecting these organizations from controversy by not seeing the big picture. We think that, if officials weren’t blinded by their own personal conflicts of interest, they may have been able to see the protests coming or other points of view.

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