Groton city, town leaders exchange sharp words over vote
Groton — For several years, a relative few voted on major financial decisions at residents' meetings in Groton City.
Not so this year.
On Feb. 16, dozens of residents at a freeman’s meeting refused, by a vote of 18-66, with one abstention, to appropriate $800,000 of unspent city bonds for new projects.
The request included improvements to the City Municipal Building, Mother Bailey House and a parking area at the Costa property.
On Tuesday, Groton City Mayor Marian Galbraith appeared at a Town Council meeting and publicly scolded Town Councilor Greg Grim, who lives in the city and voted against the appropriation, and town Mayor Bruce Flax, who lives in Mystic but spoke on the Lee Elci radio show about the upcoming city vote.
Galbraith said the appropriation would have supported Thames River Heritage Park, a joint effort by Groton City, Groton Town and the City of New London to drive economic development.
“Why would prominent members of the Town Council then actively work to defeat something that would support the Thames River Heritage Park,” she said, adding that the city wasn’t asking for new money.
“The majority of taxes raised out of the City of Groton go to the Town of Groton. So why would you vote against economic development? Why would you urge people on the radio to vote against economic development? Just doesn’t make sense to me,” she said.
Galbraith said the city wanted to divert money it already had.
Grim replied that he was one of 66 who voted no, and Galbraith was picking and choosing what she discussed. The city’s proposal bundled multiple projects so voters couldn't select one to support or reject, Grim said.
“I resent the fact that you’re coming up here and singling people out that have a right to vote at the freeman’s meeting,” Grim said. “I think that’s just not the American Way. You have your vote.”
The exchange heightened an already tense relationship between the town and city as the budget season is about to begin.
On Wednesday, Grim said he’s lived in Groton City since 1988 and supports economic development but didn’t support all the projects.
He believes work on the historic Mother Bailey house, for example, should be paid for with private funds. The town still must develop the heritage park sites, and that should be done before the city pays for a parking lot, Grim said.
“And personally I felt bullied last night to tell you the truth,” Grim said. “My vote on the freeman’s meeting had nothing to do with the Town Council at all. It’s a completely private vote as a city resident.”
Galbraith said she raised the issue in a public forum because the city, town and New London are working on the heritage park together and she believed the vote hindered that effort.
She said she believes there was "misinformation" circulated about the vote.
"When you're a public official, you need to expect that people have the right to question your position on a public vote," she said, adding, "I think it's proper to do that in a public forum rather than behind the scenes or behind someone's back."
Flax said he discussed the upcoming vote on the radio because it’s a large expenditure and he wanted residents to be aware of it, not to tell them how to vote.
Town Councilor Dean Antipas commented Tuesday that the public exchange was unusual.
“The gripe ought to be taken out in the hallway as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
Galbraith was not the only one from the city to speak.
Paul Duarte, immediate past president of the Friends of Fort Griswold, said he didn’t understand why people would reject a transfer of money for a parking lot at the Costa property.
“If we’re going to be running a water taxi, people should have a place to park,” he said, referring to the heritage park that would join historic sites in Groton City, Groton Town and New London by water taxi.
The neighborhood already has insufficient parking, he said.
Elizabeth Duarte, also of Cottage Street, questioned the Town Council for using the term “One Groton” among its stated goals.
The council recently chose four goals, including improved communication by branding and marketing “One Groton.”
Flax said this is meant to encompass all of Groton, including Groton City, so no one is left out.
The council also included Thames Street among places to target for economic development, Flax said.
But a community Facebook page called "1Groton" also is taking on a different connotation.
A police union started the page to bring together law enforcement, but it's been cited by those seeking to consolidate town and city departments and eliminate “duplicate services” like multiple police departments.
Elizabeth Duarte told the Town Council on Tuesday that if “One Groton” means saving money, she’d cite a 2014 report that showed town police responded to 27,665 calls with 71 staff, while city police answered 20,583 calls with 36 staff the same year.
“I would suggest that you have the city police run the town police,” she said.
Joe de la Cruz, the sole Democrat on the Town Council, said the phrase “One Groton” was meant to brand the town as one. But he said the Facebook page has taken on a life of its own.
“If you look on the some of the Facebook stuff, a lot of the comments are ‘Get rid of the city government, get rid of police, get rid of that,'” de la Cruz said. “That’s really no way to start a conversation at all, anyway.”
Antipas said the Town Council didn't discuss getting rid of the police or consolidating.
“We can’t get rid of anything,” he said. “We’re here, they’re here, the thing exists. We work together, that’s all there is to it.”