Malloy's Seaside State Park debacle lands on Lamont's desk

It was just about a month before the 2014 elections when Gov. Dannel Malloy, in a stunning political gambit, used his gubernatorial powers to magically declare, quite literally with the sweep of his hand toward the waters of Long Island Sound, the abandoned Seaside sanitarium in Waterford to be a state park.

The proclamation appeared to be a Hail Mary pass to rescue the candidacy of then Democratic state Rep. Betsy Ritter of Waterford in her battle against Paul Formica for the empty 20th state Senate seat. She lost, and Malloy rewarded her instead with a pension-turbocharging commissionership.

And now, some four and a half years later, the abandoned buildings by renowned architect Cass Gilbert continue to deteriorate. Seaside State Park is a park in name only and doesn't even have an official description on the state's website listing of parks.

The park-creating Malloy is gone.

A tortured process to find a developer to restore the buildings and turn them into an inn, which was supposed to conclude before a deadline last summer, still is underway, according to officials of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, who are in charge of the "park."

Citing Freedom of Information protections, DEEP officials refuse to say anything more about this process. The exemption to lawful disclosure they claim is a provision of FOI law that allows governments to secretly solicit bids and requests for proposals, with no requirements for disclosure until a contract with a winner is made. There is no deadline in the FOI law for how long this period may last.

One thing to consider in this FOI exemption is that it is one the government opts in to. The law says the government doesn't have to disclose any part of a request for proposal process while it is underway but government officials are not prohibited from releasing or talking about whatever they want.

So wouldn't you think that Susan Whalen, the deputy commissioner in charge of the stalled Seaside park planning, would at least give the public some broad report on the status of things, whether there is one suitable developer or two or three in the wings?

If the bidding was a flop and if developers are making unreasonable demands, doesn't the public deserve to know at least the broad framework of that?

The whole thing has been cloaked in secrecy for the better part of a year, and we have no idea whether the idea to save the buildings with a developer's investment is viable. That's way too long to keep the public in the dark about the status of this landmark property, which deteriorates by the day.

If there is a developer or developers still interested, they know what's going on. Can't the people of Waterford at least get a hint?

Whalen told me they essentially put the whole process on hold once it began to overlap with the gubernatorial election, so the new governor would be the one to make decisions about Seaside.

And Gov. Ned Lamont, she said, has been busy with other things since taking office. Honestly, how long would it take to get a briefing and make a decision?

I reached out to the governor's office but no one there was inclined to shed any light on the issue.

"The governor understands the importance of the Seaside property," a Lamont spokesman said in a statement. "He is in discussions with his administration on next steps."

Is it just me, or does it sound like the whole thing is in turmoil, and no one wants to talk about it?

The park-creating-for-politics governor has been replaced by one with no apparent inclination toward transparency.

I scolded Republican Sen. Formica when he criticized the plans to find a developer to restore the Seaside buildings as an inn, which strikes me as the kind of thing Republicans would like, leveraging private investment for public purposes.

I later apologized to Formica, as the Malloy administration refused to talk about Seaside bidding as the last election came and went. I would urge him to pay attention now to the continued stonewalling.

And I would suggest to Gov. Lamont that the next time he hears the pitter patter of rain on the roof of the governor's mansion, that he consider the ongoing damage being done to the architectural landmarks on the Waterford shoreline, treasures on the National Register of Historic Places, that are his responsibility.

Those buildings are not buttoned up against the weather like Lamont's new mansion.

Three governors before him have kicked the Seaside problem down the road.

The most recent engineering assessment, done for the park planning, found that the buildings still could be salvaged. But time is of the essence.

It would be a shame if they were finally lost, in secret no less, on Lamont's watch.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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