Town finds quick fix to ease parking congestion

Saturday, November 29, 2008 6:25 AM EST
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

OLD SAYBROOK — After seeing an increase in train commuters this spring — and a jammed parking situation on North Main Street — officials say they have found a short-term fix for the problem.

By widening the street and reclaiming a piece of town property where the owners of Lighthouse Cleaners had planted wildflowers, the town was able to add 25 to 29 parking spaces near the train station, Deputy Police Chief Michael Spera said.

Following a meeting with Amtrak and state Department of Transportation officials, Police Chief Edmund Mosca and Public Works Director Larry Bonin decided to move ahead with the work to provide some immediate relief for commuters, who can board Amtrak and Shore Line East trains from the station.

But Spera said the town is still hoping the DOT will increase parking at the site in the future, as the number of train riders continues to grow.

“It seemed like everything that the state had to do they were interested in doing, but it would take quite some time for them to accomplish our goals,” Spera said. “We believe we’ve come up with a solution for our short-term problem and we’re hoping that the state of Connecticut will follow our lead and come up with some sort of long-term solution.”

He added that further work could include a parking garage or restriping the existing lot to increase the number of spots.

Earlier this year, drivers were encountering cars parked all the way down North Main Street to the Boston Post Road.

Spera said that the Police Department received complaints about the situation and some businesses were affected by the lack of parking.

“It was jammed and just completely unsafe,” he said. “People were doing what they had to do to park and commute. Every government says to everyone, ‘Well, let’s limit your carbon footprint, let’s commute,’ but we weren’t providing people with a spot to park to do that.’”

Since adding the parking spots, the parking issues have abated, Spera said.

“I think the problem is done for now. However, I think it all really depends on the price of gas,” he said. “I also think that once people have seen the success and ease of commuting to work via rail, I think more and more people are going to do it.”

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Working Families Party picks up political steam

Friday, November 28, 2008 5:24 AM EST
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

While many voters may still be unfamiliar with the Working Families Party, the small third party is celebrating after seeing a bounce in its vote totals this year.

Focusing on a strategy of cross-endorsing candidates from the major political parties, rather than running its own candidates, the party netted nearly 75,000 votes in the state’s five congressional races this year, and more than 150,000 including state and local races.

After a change in the state’s election laws last year made it easier for parties to cross-endorse candidates, a Working Families line appeared on every ballot this year. The party endorsed the Democratic candidate in each of the five congressional districts, as well as 75 candidates in races across the state.

“We’re ecstatic with the outcome,” said Jon Green, the party’s executive director.

In 2006, by contrast, Working Families endorsed a candidate, Chris Murphy, in only one congressional race, receiving about 5,800 votes. Statewide, it recorded more than 37,000 votes that year in about 70 state House races.

The party was founded in New York about 10 years ago, and came to Connecticut early in this decade. It also has chapters in Oregon and South Carolina.

The cross-endorsement system allows the Working Families Party to throw its support behind candidates who share its goals, which include raising the minimum wage, implementing affordable health care and guaranteeing workers sick and family leave. It also avoids the potential for a third-party candidate to act as a spoiler in tight races, Green said.

The cross-endorsement is why some candidates’ names appeared twice on each ballot this year — once under their own party and again under another, such as Working Families or the Independent Party, which cross-endorsed in a handful of races. Each line is tallied separately and then added together for the candidate’s total.

Working Families does run its own candidates in some races. In the last municipal election, voters chose two Working Families candidates for Hartford City Council, and this year Urania Petit won one of the Hartford registrar positions on the Working Families ticket.

But while the vote increases this year are heartening for party leaders — who hint that the numbers should make the 2010 gubernatorial candidates sit up and take notice — they and others say it can still be difficult to tell whether voters filling in the Working Families bubble would have voted for the same candidate without the cross-endorsement.

Green said that in the party’s top-priority race this year, Democrat Jim Himes’ successful challenge to Republican incumbent Christopher Shays in the 4th Congressional District, the Working Families Party focused on reaching unaffiliated voters. Volunteers knocked on 18,000 doors, concentrating on the towns of Shelton, Trumbull, Monroe and Norwalk.

While Shelton was one of the few towns in the state to vote for U.S. Sen. John McCain for president, Green noted, Himes also carried the town in his victory.

“When you look beyond Bridgeport, in the majority of the towns and districts, Himes actually did worse than (Democratic candidate) Diane Farrell had done two years ago, and among the exceptions to that trend are the four towns that our canvassing took place in,” he said. “I think the work that was done appealing to unaffiliated voters in the suburbs around Bridgeport had a measurable, clear result.”

Sal Luciano, the executive director of AFSCME Council 4 and a member of Working Families’ state committee, said he think the fact that voters have to pass over the major party candidates to vote Working Families means many are actively seeking out a third-party option.

“People went further than that, they skipped over their candidate either on the Republican line or the Democratic line and went down to the bottom and voted for that candidate on the Working Families line, so I would say that it’s harder step,” Luciano said. “I think it pulled from more people than would have voted for that person.”

John Orman, a professor of politics at Fairfield University, said that the cross-endorsement process could make small parties “look like they’re more powerful than they are.” Orman is a member of the Connecticut for Lieberman party, which U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman used to run in the 2006 Senate race after losing the Democratic primary to Ned Lamont. It has now become an anti-Lieberman party and organizers hope to run a candidate against Lieberman in 2012.

Orman said he thinks cross-endorsed candidates this year would have received many of the same votes without the Working Families line.

“The people that voted for the Working Families Party, they would probably vote for that person, so if there was no Working Families Party they would have voted for the cross-endorsed person,” he said. “If all they do is cross-endorse, then it’s really not a choice.”

Although Working Families tends to cross-endorse Democratic candidates, it did support a handful of Republican and independent candidates this year and in 2006. State Sen. Leonard Fasano, R-North Haven, said that many of his values line up with those of the Working Families Party.

“For Connecticut to survive, we need to make sure that the working person is taken care of and I think that especially in this economy you’re going to see an outreach more of the Republican party towards the working people,” he said. But he added that he does not always vote in line with the Working Families Party, for example voting against a raise in the minimum wage last year.

Fasano, who ran unopposed this year, said he thinks the Working Families line draws voters.

“I think it brings more votes to the table,” he said. “But I think the second thing is it’s nice to get recognized that, hey, look, I’m not a one-party-system guy. I believe if it’s a good idea, it’s a good idea; if it’s a bad idea, it’s a bad idea.”

Matthew Lesser, who unseated Republican incumbent state Rep. Ray Kalinowski in the 100th House District Nov. 4, was one of a few candidates whose votes on the Working Families line pushed them beyond their opponents’ vote totals. Lesser, a Democrat, received 5,704 votes on the Democratic line and 431 from Working Families voters, to Kalinowski’s 5,787 on the Republican line.

“I am a Democrat and I think of myself as a Democrat, but I was pleasantly surprised to see how much support I received on the Working Families line,” Lesser said.

But he added that he heard from some constituents who were confused about the cross-endorsement and the fact that his name appeared on the ballot twice.

“I think ideally (the Working Families Party) and the secretary of the state would just help get the word out about the cross-endorsement system,” Lesser said. “I think it’s great. I think it shakes things up, I think it enlivens the process and my guess is if the Working Families Party is successful in electing more candidates that you might see other parties trying to copy them.”

Municipal budgets get break on fuel prices

Friday, November 28, 2008 6:04 AM EST
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

Earlier this year, as they were putting together a town budget, North Branford officials anticipated another season of high fuel prices, using estimates of $2.55 to $3.05 a gallon for their purchasing outlook.

So they were “pleasantly surprised,” Finance Director Anthony Esposito said, when prices began to tumble in the past few months. For its most recent delivery, the town paid $1.46 a gallon for unleaded gasoline, $2.18 for diesel and $2.15 for heating oil, he said.

With the economy continuing to suffer, towns across Connecticut and the country are anxiously anticipating the upcoming budget season, and worrying about credit, taxes and municipal projects.

But there appears to be at least one hopeful spot in the economic forecast: fuel prices. Just as car owners are feeling less of a pinch at the pump, municipalities are hoping for some relief from the escalating costs of recent years.

Towns purchase hundreds of thousands of gallons of heating oil, diesel and gasoline each year to heat municipal buildings and schools and to power their fleets.

With the price of a barrel of oil surging to an all-time high of $145 in July, many town finance directors were fearing the worst for this winter. But now that oil prices have plunged to about $50 a barrel, some towns are locking in oil prices in anticipation of future savings. Recently, Guilford locked into prices for the 2009-10 fiscal year that are expected to save it $145,000 over the current fiscal year.

Others, like North Branford, made a decision to stick with the market and see how low prices will go. Esposito said he expects the town will lock in to a price if officials think that oil has hit bottom.

“It was a conscious decision to see how the whole economy affecting the energy pricing was going to pan out, and has it helped? Most definitely,” he said. “A decision was made not to lock into a fixed price, and to date that’s been a very wise move.”

But Esposito noted that the poor economy has hit the town’s budget in other ways. For example, the lower interest rates that the Federal Reserve has implemented to try to stimulate the economy mean that the town is seeing less of a return on its investments.

“While we’ll see positive variance on the energy side if the current trend continues, we’ll see a negative variance on the interest income,” he said. “I’m not sure it’s going to be a dollar-for-dollar match, but the energy savings will definitely help offset the bottomline impact of the reduced interest earnings.”

West Haven officials also decided not to lock into fuel prices this year and have seen some savings over the anticipated 2008-09 budget, Purchasing Manager Mark Bisaccia said. He noted that prices could still change by the end of the winter.

“Last July, we probably would have thought, ‘OK, we’re well on our way toward paying these extreme prices,’ which we thought were going to take place. Come to find out in September everything started dropping like crazy,” Bisaccia said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”

Hamden Finance Director J. Michael Betz said he thinks this will be a difficult budgeting season for towns in predicting energy costs for the 2009-10 fiscal year. Hamden locked in to prices of $2.96 for heating oil, $3.14 for diesel and $2.83 for gasoline five weeks ago, only to see prices fall further still.

“It stopped for a while when it was falling and I think that’s when we moved in,” Betz said. “We did better than some and we did worse than some other communities I think. It is higher than what it is now, but who would have thought it was going to go to $50 a barrel?”

Betz said he expects the town to come out on budget for fuel spending for this year. But as for next year, 2009-10 is “very murky right now,” he said.

“I’ve never seen anything like this, and I’ve been in this business for a long time,” he said.

Women’s media panel gets political in Guilford

Thursday, October 23, 2008 5:53 AM EDT
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

GUILFORD — With the news this week that the Republican Party has spent $150,000 on vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s campaign wardrobe, the opinions flew fast and furious at a panel Wednesday on female politicians and the media.

The panel, which featured several female politicians and journalists, was the second in a series from the Women and Family Life Center on women and politics.

The speakers covered topics from the importance of female politicians’ clothing to sexism in the media. The audience of about 30 women and a few men included state Reps. Patricia Widlitz, D-Guilford, and Deborah Heinrich, D-Madison.

The panelists agreed that physical appearance may play more of a role in politics than many people would like.

“I think people who are in politics and who are in front of the public have to be aware of what you’re wearing,” former Secretary of the State Pauline Kezer said. “Is it right? Probably not, but it does happen.”

WTNH anchor Jocelyn Maminta said she thinks that, while female politicians and reporters often see a focus on their looks, men face scrutiny as well.

“I don’t think it’s just for the female candidates,” she said. “If you talk about Joe Biden, there’s some speculation that he’s had Botox, and Barack Obama, does he wear the American flag (pin) or not.”

Maminta noted that viewers often call in with comments on her appearance, adding, “As much as I’d like it to be about substance, it is still perception in so many ways.”

Much of the discussion focused on the way reporters and commentators have covered Palin as well as Sen. Hillary Clinton. Duby McDowell, a former reporter for WFSB and the owner of a public relations consulting company, said she thinks that a focus on image led to Palin’s nomination.

“I think part of her whole package was a fresh-faced governor, Alaska, all that, and let’s face it, a very attractive woman,” McDowell said.

The panelists noted that, with Connecticut’s history of women in positions of political power, sexism may have less impact on local media. But they took exception to some statements made by national pundits during the primary and general election.

“I think we tend to be pretty evenhanded here in Connecticut because having women in politics here is kind of old hat,” WTIC-AM host Diane Smith said. “I was really disturbed by the way Hillary’s campaign was treated … I thought that voters took her more seriously than reporters took her.”

The evening included questions and back-and-forth debate with many members of the audience.

Leslie Krumholz, program director for the Women and Family Life Center, said that the next discussion in the series is scheduled for Nov. 13.

“It’s really about getting people together to talk about issues that are timely,” Krumholz said.

Economy among chief concerns in 98th

Wednesday, October 22, 2008 6:05 AM EDT
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

GUILFORD — Coming off what she called a “very interesting, successful session,” state Rep. Patricia M. Widlitz, D-Guilford, said she is looking forward to a 15th term.

Widlitz pointed to the passage of an electronic recycling bill and a climate change bill in the past two years as accomplishments in the most recent session. Now, she said, state legislators will have to put most of their focus on addressing the poor economic climate.

Widlitz, a Democrat who lives in Guilford, is running unopposed in the 98th District, which covers parts of Guilford and Branford. She is the House’s assistant majority whip.

While campaigning, Widlitz said the most common concerns she hears are economic ones.

“In these difficult economic times, we’re going to need to help people,” she said. “We need to do more with fuel assistance and energy assistance for people who really, especially those living on fixed incomes, find their costs just escalating out of control.”

She added, “There will be difficult budget decisions along with that,” but said she thinks the government should work to help people struggling financially.

After Gov. M. Jodi Rell vetoed a bill in June that would have allowed municipalities and small business to access the same health care plan as state employees, Widlitz, who voted for the bill, said she thinks the legislature will revisit the issue tin the next session.

Rell vetoed the measure as poorly written, but said she supports the concept, according to a news release from her office.

“The economy is going to be the key discussion coming up in the upcoming session, and there are many pieces to that, including health care,” Widlitz said. “There were some concerns around (the bill), so that will be back on the table, and we hope to make that a better bill coming forward.”

Widlitz added that, despite the adverse economic climate, another of her priorities is increasing state funding for education. She said that she would like to see the state offering more support for special education, a cost that towns currently assume.

“You have to look ahead to building a stronger economy in Connecticut and you do that by giving our kids a solid education, preparing them for the work force, so that we do have a good work force climate here and our industries can survive here,” she said.

Towns preparing for worst of winter

Saturday, November 22, 2008 6:10 AM EST
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

OLD SAYBROOK — The scenario: a week-and-a-half-long ice storm hits southern Connecticut over the Thanksgiving holiday. Residents trapped in their houses are running out of food and fuel, and dangerous roads are causing accidents and making it difficult for people to reach the hospital.

With a cold snap this week and harsher winter weather fast approaching, officials from local towns and hospitals gathered this week to talk about how they would respond to a cold weather emergency.

The meeting at the Saybrook Point Inn included representatives from Old Saybrook, Westbrook and Clinton, as well as other towns in the Connecticut River area, the state, Middlesex Hospital, utility companies and the Red Cross. Attendees included local officials in charge of emergency management, police and fire, health departments, public works, youth and family services and school districts, among others.

Carl Osaki, the program’s facilitator, said that the goal is to have people work through the procedures they have in place for themselves and for interacting with other towns and agencies.

“We want them to understand some of the gaps that might be in their program’s policies,” Osaki said. “We want them to meet with other agencies so that they can work together more collaboratively.”

The group of representatives from Old Saybrook talked through the plans they have in place for emergency situations and how they could have to adapt in this situation. Through the course of the scenario, groups received a series of 15 messages dealing with items like coordinating with hospitals, communicating with the public, making sure people stay warm and using schools for shelters.

Old Saybrook First Selectman Michael Pace and Social Services Coordinator Joanne Messner said that it would be important to reach out to residents during the first forecast of bad weather.

“We’re finding that we have people that are not in traditional housing arrangements — we have families in motels,” Pace said. “We want to make sure that there’s no one who’s a substantial group in our town that may fall through the cracks because they may not have radio, they may not have TV.”

Messner said that a local oil company works with the town to deliver emergency heating oil to residents.

Saybrook Deputy Police Chief Michael Spera added that the town would probably set up “warming centers” for people whose homes were cold. During the summer, there were similar cooling centers for those without air-conditioning.

“We don’t want people running generators in their homes, opening up the electric oven to heat the home,” Spera said. “We’re not telling people they have to evacuate their homes. We’re saying, ‘If you’re cold, come get warm, if you’re warm, stay home.’”

The town’s fire, police and public works departments also have a number of vehicles for snowy and icy conditions.

“It would be unlikely that the Old Saybrook Fire Department would be unable to respond,” Deputy Fire Chief J.T. Dunn said.

Many of the town’s preparations and responses would involve coordinating with other groups, Spera said.

Spera said that the role-play activities help town officials understand the policies and resources they already have. Although it is difficult to predict every scenario, he said, police and fire officials are trained on how to work within established standards.

“I think that you can’t have a policy and procedure for every type of single emergency,” he said. “I think it would be impossible to do that.”

Guilford breaks ground for day care

Saturday, November 22, 2008 6:25 AM EST
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

GUILFORD — After years of planning, local politicians and officials from the Guilford Center for Children donned hard hats Friday for the ceremonial groundbreaking on the group’s new day care facility.

The Center for Children plans to move its day care from Park Street to the town-owned Rollwood Park, across from the Henry Whitfield State Museum on Stone House Lane.

The move will allow the day care — which usually has a waiting list of between 60 to 80 children, according to officials — to roughly double its capacity, to 60 students from 30.

The group’s architectural plans call for a design that would combine two old barns on the property. Rollwood Park was the site of former Gov. Rollin S. Woodruff’s “gentleman’s farm” and summer home. The town bought the nine acres in 2003 for more than $800,000.

Gary Melillo, vice president of the Center for Children’s board, shed a few tears at the groundbreaking ceremony, which he called a “momentous occasion.”

“This is an emotional moment for me,” Melillo said. “It’s taken us what seems like forever to accomplish.”

Dawn Ross, the board’s president, thanked past and current members of the Board of Selectmen and state Sen. Edward Meyer, D-12, and state Reps. Patricia Widlitz, D-98, and Deborah Heinrich, D-101, who picked up golden shovels for the groundbreaking.

Ross said the center has been looking for a larger location since 1999, “when we realized that our waiting list continued to grow and grow.”

“We felt a responsibility to provide safe and nurturing child care to the growing number of families in need,” Ross said. “We are grateful to all of you for trusting in the quality of our program and ensuring that even more of Guilford’s children will enjoy the benefit of an enriching preschool.”

Many of the day care’s staff members and other supporters were also in attendance Friday.