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Groton Democrats preside over a broken government

I have continued to be astounded by the behavior of Groton officials, both elected politicians and town staff members, as the debacle of trying to give away a prominent property in town to someone with a criminal history of bribing New York City officials and a spotty record of development in Connecticut, where one of his three principal projects remains unfinished after 11 years, continues to unfold.

You would think, as unsettling as it may be that both the town and the state made elaborate deals to give Jeffrey Respler the former Mystic Oral School and its 40 acres and help him overdevelop it, that the freshly revealed truth about his criminal history and development failings would at least trigger some soul-searching.

But, no, instead it's all been denial, finger-pointing or the attempted laying of blame on others.

And it's not clear to me how the state and town are going to back out of the signed deals in which the state has agreed to sell Respler the property for $1 and the town has promised to help him at every stage of carrying out the overwrought and massive development he has proposed.

The only glimmer of good government in all this was an advisory from the town's volunteer Planning & Zoning Commission, that it would reject the ridiculous scale of the project being cultivated by the town staff and proposed by a developer with a criminal history of bribing public officials.

The people of Groton are largely represented by Democrats, both in town government and in Hartford, and, I'm sorry to say, as a Democrat, that one-party rule is proving in this instance to not work very well.

One of the few Groton Republicans in town with authority, however, hasn't done much to help, either.

State Sen. Heather Somers certainly hasn't called for accountability or an investigation of the state Department of Economic and Community Development for developing a contract with Respler that doesn't even hold him accountable to do anything with the state property after he buys it for $1.

"I've been contacted by many, many individuals, and I have encouraged them to contact their town councilors and local town leaders," Somers told The Day earlier this month.

State government is equally responsible for this mess and the state senator representing Groton should be insisting that they clean it up, not just pass the buck to the town.

Recent comments from state Rep. Joe de la Cruz, a Groton Democrat, that he's "100% for the project" are even more troubling. Could his head really be buried that deep in the sand?

I think maybe the most shocking comments about the unfolding disaster came from Town Councilor Lian Obrey, who actually sat on the committee that chose Respler in the first place.

"I don't want to be swayed by someone digging into somebody's past," Obrey told The Day this month about revelations that Respler plead guilty to crimes prosecuted by the New York attorney general's office task force against organized crime.

Councilor Obrey should resign immediately if she's not concerned about the town helping a developer with a criminal record of giving $40,000 in cash bribes to public officials. The implication is she believes his criminal history should have remained buried.

Conrad Heede, Democratic town chair and a town councilor who served with Obrey on the committee that selected Respler, should also resign, as he, too, has refused to acknowledge the mistake.

"I believe the project is dead," Heede wrote to Town Manager John Burt in an email in May, as he referred not to the revelations about the bad choice made by the committee he served on but to the protests by neighbors alarmed by what was being foisted on them.

"Opposition is too loud, too mean spirited and too well organized ... Better to walk away if possible than spend more political capital to make it happen," the party chairman wrote to the town manager.

The town manager also has been practicing a lot of laying of blame, including finger-pointing at the poor residents whose beloved neighborhood has been under attack.

Town Manager Burt, in a long, rambling email to town councilors in May, portrayed himself and his staff, incredibly, as victims.

"We are all getting hammered on this project and feeling the stress," Burt wrote to councilors. "The staff has to worry about this directly affecting our careers when people call for our resignations or say we're taking bribes."

"(The town attorney,) after hearing comments from the public, said they are on the verge of the legal definition of defamation against the staff. We are getting singled out by name or title regularly," he wrote.

I don't see where anyone has learned any lessons from the terrible consequences of not listening to residents and their reasonable concerns about one of the largest developments ever proposed in the town.

Maybe some lessons will be learned from what seems like a predictable political realignment in Groton.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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