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New London - While many expected today's recount to determine whether the city would sell 9 acres of Riverside Park to the Coast Guard Academy, an opinion issued by City Law Director Thomas Londregan and Mayor-elect Daryl Justin Finizio on Tuesday cast doubt on the entire sale.
The opinion states that the purchase contract to sell a portion of the park to the academy is void because of a "time is of the essence clause," meaning the city failed to execute it by a Monday deadline. The opinion also argues the city did not provide comparable replacement land or hold a public hearing on the matter, as required by a state statute.
As a result, Mayor Martin Olsen said the City Council on Monday will take up the issue of whether the purchase contract has been voided by the failure of the city to act before the expiration date.
With the announcement at a noon news conference, Finizio added another chapter to a divisive city issue. The vote to sell part of the park passed last week by only 13 votes, 2,117 to 2,104, and a recount, required by state law, is scheduled for 10 a.m. today in the City Council chambers.
As he addressed about 40 Riverside Park supporters on Tuesday at an entrance to the park, Finizio vowed to open a new dialogue with the Coast Guard Academy, but he said there were other land-use options available for the academy's expansion plans.
"This is not a matter of what the (referendum) vote shows or frustrating the will of the people," said Finizio, who will take office Dec. 5 under the new strong-mayor provisions of the city charter. "This is a simple matter of contract law. The contract has expired. No matter what the referendum were to show, the city would lack legal authority."
Olsen said the City Council will consider a letter received Tuesday from Londregan in which the law director states that the purchase contract is void. The council will also consider a Nov. 10 letter from the federal General Services Administration in which the United States - because of the necessity for a recount - agreed to extend the closing date of the Riverside sale to no later than Dec. 31.
Londregan did not return a message Tuesday seeking comment.
Olsen said it would be in the community's best interest for the city to avoid any rash decisions. He also questioned the timing of Finizio's announcement.
"If we had a bureaucratic snafu here, we're going to have to be careful on how we move forward as a community," Olsen said. "To a degree, he is over-reaching. I'm not saying he is right or wrong. He's not the mayor yet."
Councilor Rob Pero, a mayoral candidate who had voted in favor of the park sale in a council vote, said Tuesday he had not yet seen the letter addressed to the city in which the GSA agreed to extend the sale's closing date. While Pero said it was his wish to respect the power of the newly elected City Council, he said there should be discussion and an effort made to follow the will of the people.
"I think the public is probably going to look at this with some skepticism. Why did we just go through this long process?" Pero said. "I think there will be some concern as to what the voters voted on. Why did we even have the discussion?"
Michael Passero, a city councilor who opposed the Riverside sale, said the land-swap statute was one of the inherent problems with selling part of the park.
"We don't have extra land around to designate as park land. The people pushing this contract knew they would be unable to fulfill that requirement," Passero said.
A spokesman for the Coast Guard Academy on Tuesday said, "We're looking forward to seeing the results of the recount to confirm the will of the New London voters and to continue to build strong relationships with the city and its community."
The spokesman referred other comment to the General Services Administration, which had no comment as it was "awaiting the results of the recount," a spokesman said.
Finizo said Tuesday that he spoke with Rear Admiral Sandra L. Stosz, the academy superintendent, and informed her that he would enter new negotiations with the academy in good faith. Asked Tuesday why he waited until the deadline for the $2.9 million park sale passed, Finizio said it was not his place to act.
"I am not in city government. I am under no obligation," he said. "I am not the city attorney. I did not negotiate this deal. Therefore, there was no obligation on my part as merely a private citizen to bring this to anyone's attention. I was aware of it and waited to see if anything would be done."
At his news conference Tuesday, Finizio and the head of his transition team, Allyn de Vars, emerged from inside the park just past noon and made their way down the long hill to the park's entrance on Adelaide Street.
Members of the Friends of Riverside group and others cheered Finizio as he arrived to speak for approximately 12 minutes. He briefly greeted supporters after his formal remarks.
Kathleen Mitchell, the chairwoman of Friends of Riverside and a longtime city activist, said she was relieved to learn that Finizio and Londregan had deemed the purchase contract void. She said her group had been under a lot of pressure in recent weeks as it fought against the Riverside sale.
Mirna Martinez, another supporter of Riverside Park, and her son, Mateo, celebrated after Finizio's announcement. An unsuccessful candidate for the Board of Education, Martinez said she was already planning to celebrate her son's birthday in February with a stroll through the park.
"I feel like New London has such a history of getting rid of its history and its resources," Martinez said. "This is in line with new change, keeping our resources and taking advantage of what we have."