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Picking a senator for the 20th

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published May 18. 2014 4:00AM

I am sure many of Andrea Stillman's constituents will miss her steady presence in the state Senate seat for the 20th District, a big swath of eastern Connecticut west of the Thames River.

One bright consequence of her decision to step down after a long and successful run in the Senate is that an interesting race for the seat is unfolding.

Democratic delegates to a district convention are to make a decision Monday, choosing between William Satti, the Democratic Town Committee chairman in New London, and Betsy Ritter, the state representative from Waterford.

East Lyme First Selectman Paul Formica has been endorsed by Republicans to run for the 20th seat.

With a tight gubernatorial race expected, this will be a good year to have a lively debate among candidates in as many General Assembly races as possible, as state voters should look closely at the Democrats' lock on power in Connecticut.

Formica seems like a good candidate to give eastern Connecticut voters a chance to consider that topic and the two party's views on the issues.

I think Democrats, since they have a choice, should disqualify Ritter based on her ineffectiveness in dealing with the development of the state-owned Seaside property, right in her hometown.

Voters send representatives to Hartford to consider a range of topics about state government, budgets and taxation, laws and issues that affect everyone in the state. But those representatives are also a community's liaison to state government, to make sure a town's interests are tended and looked after.

I would say Ritter, for all her years in Hartford, bears responsibility for allowing the Seaside properties, significant buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, to sit vacant for more than a decade.

They are deteriorating to the point where it is going to cost much more to restore them, if they can be saved. The clock is ticking as the deterioration continues, unchecked.

The neglector in chief seems to be Donald J. DeFronzo, commissioner of the Department of Administrative Services, which is responsible for the buildings. DeFronzo is still nursing a years-old sales contract with Mark Steiner, a developer whose credit is so marginal that a Superior Court order has put him on a $35-a-week payment schedule to clean up an unpaid American Express balance.

Both the federal and state governments have put tax liens on his property. That's right, Mr. DeFronzo, the state, which pays your salary, has claimed it is not even being paid the taxes due from the person you insist on selling Seaside to.

Just this month, the bank that is foreclosing on close to $800,000 it says it is owed on mortgages on Steiner's home filed a motion for final judgment in the case and possession of the property.

In one of the motions for foreclosure, lawyers for the bank complained about Steiner's "months of empty promises" and "no concrete plan of action."

Ritter's constituents in Waterford could say the same thing about Seaside, although it would be more like years of empty promises.

Since a lawsuit challenging the zoning was decided last May, the developer has submitted no specific plans for the property. He has proposed a zone change but refused to answer queries from town officials, the people Ritter is supposed to back up.

Steiner is losing his house in a foreclosure in which his lawyer quit because he wasn't being paid. He has submitted no specific building application and plans for Seaside, even though there has been a green light for him to do so for more than a year. He can't roll out a set of drawings on a table and tell you what he plans to do.

And, day by day, a little more weather seeps into the magnificent buildings, designed by Cass Gilbert, a great American architect.

Ritter suggested a new deadline - the end of the year - to cut the Steiner rope. What's the rush? she might as well have added. What's another half a year lost, after a dozen.

Rep. Ritter should have been in DeFronzo's office a long time ago, banging on his desk, demanding that something be done to begin to find a new developer. She should also have been in the governor's office, banging on the desk, demanding her due for all the votes she has cast over the years as a loyal Democratic soldier.

Maybe, with luck, it's too late. When the hour hand on the clock rolls around to 7 p.m. Monday, maybe Democrats can choose someone who knows how to bang on a desk and make state bureaucrats see the obvious.

This is the opinion of David Collins

d.collins@theday.com

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