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    Friday, August 19, 2022

    People speak against mediator for Groton Town Council, urge councilors to get along

    Groton — More than 15 people spoke out Tuesday night against a proposal to hire a mediator for the Town Council, with many speakers urging the councilors to get along.

    Some people, as part of their at times heated remarks during the public comment session of Tuesday's council meeting held at the Thrive55+ Active Living Center and on Zoom, said that if the councilors can't get along, they should resign. Many speakers opposed using taxpayer money for this purpose, some felt disagreement is part of the political process and others cast blame for the issues.

    The council, at a Committee of the Whole meeting last month, supported the idea of bringing in a mediator, which councilors said would provide guidance on how to be more productive and efficient during meetings. Town Manager John Burt said a lawyer recommended by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, with an hourly rate of $275 for municipalities, could, for example, review meetings and the town charter and council rules, meet with councilors and write a report offering guidance.

    A vote to hire a mediator was on the agenda for Tuesday's council meeting, but the council skipped taking a vote. With a long agenda and many time-sensitive items, Town Mayor Juan Melendez Jr. said he was using his discretion to skip items that were not time-sensitive.

    Neal Gardner, a resident who is also a Republican member of the Representative Town Meeting, said during public comment that he didn't understand how the nine councilors — eight Democrats and one Republican — can't get along.

    "I really don't think that the taxpayers should be spending this money and no other town council has had to have a mediator," he said, "and the voters had the confidence in you to elect you, and you need to do your jobs or, if you can't get along, then somebody needs to resign."

    Mitchell Shinbrot, a longtime resident who was on the Representative Town Meeting in the 1990s, said the council already has a mediator — the mayor — and the lack of respect for the mayor and for traditional meeting rules, "driven by self-interest" is the root cause of the problem. He said wasting taxpayer dollars on hiring an outside person will not accomplish anything.

    "The appropriate action is to put aside your differences, respect your current mediator and each other enough to accomplish the business you volunteered to take on," he said. "You don't have to be friends, but you do need to follow the rules and accomplish the business to which you are entrusted."

    Speakers included residents and local politicians. Many, though not all, were Republican Town Committee members. John Goodrich, vice chairman of the RTC Committee, said a number of RTC members were concerned and came together.

    Republican Town Committee Chairman and RTM member John Scott, who ran for Town Council in November, said the Republican committee was considering holding a Tuesday night fundraiser to benefit a local charity, in which people would give money every time a councilor said "point of."

    Scott specifically said Councilor Portia Bordelon "and others should consider resigning." He said that for the last two years, he has watched Bordelon being an "obstructionist" and she campaigned on it. He said that while Groton voters like Bordelon, who was the top vote-getter, people within the bubble of town government see how town meetings could be two hours shorter.

    But several people spoke in Bordelon's favor. RTM member Ian Thomas, Bordelon's husband and a Democrat, said there are communication problems that have their roots in the Democratic primary and are unresolved, and it's the Democratic Town Committee that needs a mediator. Portia Bordelon petitioned for a Democratic primary after she, an incumbent councilor, was not endorsed by the committee for Town Council but was endorsed for the Board of Education. Thomas also criticized a council vote on appointing members to the Citizen and Police Committee that he said "superseded the recommendations of the personnel and appointments committee."

    Goodrich said he sees two councilors who "do the right thing, that put community before their committees" in reference to Councilors Aundré Bumgardner and Bordelon.

    Representative Town Meeting member Genevieve Cerf, a Democrat, referenced the Mystic Education Center and data center proposals. She said Bordelon gave "us activists" hope and the feeling that one person, and now two with Bumgardner, is "listening to us and doing the right thing for us."

    Resident Jim Furlong said councilors need to ask developers tough questions: "We have more to fear from groupthink than we have to fear from little squabbles here," he said.

    Bordelon said in a statement Wednesday that she appreciates the community's concerns and everyone who came out to speak and was never in favor of the mediator.

    "I understand and empathize with the frustrations voiced by the public," she said. "The problems of the council are not the responsibility of the Town of Groton taxpayer to solve. It is each councilor’s own individual responsibility to make the changes necessary to reconcile the concerns of the past and move forward in a positive, constructive fashion. I, for one, look forward to working with the full council to this end. My only request is that we all commit to acting with transparency, accountability and accessibility along with following proper protocol and procedure in a fair, firm, and consistent manner.”

    During public comment on Tuesday, resident Camille Taylor, who watches the meetings on Groton Municipal Television, said she's shocked and embarrassed about the behavior of many people on the council, and one of the big things she sees is "there's antagonist against antagonist here, and the drama that's coming through is not very pleasant at all to view."

    "Groton is where I chose to settle with my husband and my son," said Taylor, who encouraged the councilors to work to resolve their issues. "It's a beautiful place. It's a beautiful town, and when I see these council meetings coming through into my living room, it's embarrassing for me even with my son to watch because I've never seen disrespect and disaccord so much."

    Diane Barber, a former town councilor who ran in the November election on the Republican slate for Town Council but was not elected, wore a sweater with peace signs. She said she has sat on the council and understands there are very frustrating nights when you disagree with someone, but she called for respect and having manners. She said that if "you are grandstanding and talking for more than three minutes, you lose the crowd." She said the opinions of all nine councilors weigh the same, and nobody's opinion means more.

    Barber, along with Cerf, recommended that Town Clerk Betsy Moukawsher help the council.

    Jean-Claude Ambroise, who is chairman of the city's Democratic Committee but said he was speaking as a resident and not on behalf of any organization, raised several points, including that he opposed the $25,000 the town spent to hold a primary to have about 1,000 people come out to vote. He said only Democrats, not Republican or unaffiliated voters, could vote but everyone is paying the bill. He noted the last time there was a primary, it was in the 1960s and for a full slate rather than one person.

    He also called on members of the group to stop tattle-telling to The Day, and said when they "don't get their way" a commentary article by David Collins shows up in the newspaper.

    While "there's plenty of blame pie to go around," Ambroise said, everyone on the council needs to take a bite, whether it's a big or small bite. If the councilors lack the awareness and are unwilling to take that bite, they're never going to move forward and do "what's right for all of us."

    Melendez said Wednesday there was support among councilors for the mediator position before public comment. Melendez, who said he is not in favor of the position due to the cost, thinks the public came out strongly against it, so if there's no longer support among councilors for the mediator position, it won't find its way back on the agenda. But if councilors still support it, it could be placed on a future agenda for a vote.

    k.drelich@theday.com

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