Updated, 12:51 p.m.: Comment from Tom Hennick.
NORWALK, Conn. – The Maritime Aquarium is still waiting for an answer from the Norwalk Common Council, as its proposed new lease was tabled Tuesday after prolonged protest by Councilman David Watts (D-District A).
Watts said the aquarium should give back to the city in return for the $1 a year lease effective through 2031, and he had something specific in mind – a week-long free summer class open to 75 Norwalk children for three weeks of the first year of the lease and open to 100 children for four weeks in the second year of the lease.
He also protested the fact that the lease had not been on the agenda until Tuesday morning; Freedom of Information rules require that items be on the agenda 24 hours in advance of a meeting. The Democratic caucus did not have the opportunity to discuss the lease, Watts said, because it had not been on the agenda.
Council President Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) countered that the lease had been on the Council’s agenda for two previous meetings and had been tabled. The minutes that were included in the Council packet clearly stated that it had been tabled to the next meeting – the one on Tuesday, so everyone should have expected it, he said. In addition, everyone had voted to table it to the next meeting so they should have been aware of it, Hempstead said. The public had had ample opportunity to comment on the matter, as it had, as previously stated, been on two agendas, he said. No one had come to speak to the Council on the matter, Hempstead said.
Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola said three times that he thought the matter met FOI requirements for the reasons mentioned by Hempstead. Watts pressed the issue over and over. After more than 40 minutes of conversation on the matter, a two-minute recess was called. The Council then voted to both put it on the agenda and table the matter, although it had appeared that a majority of members would vote to approve the lease.
Regarding the repeated statements that the aquarium needed to give something back to the city for its “free” lease, Attorney Rebecca Brown of Shipman and Goodwin, representing the aquarium, said, “I just want to make it clear that it’s not that we’re only paying $1 a year. We’re paying $1 a year rent plus we’re taking on all of the expenses and the capital improvements and the repairs to actually maintain the building. So you’re talking about a structural shell, everything inside it, all of the systems. You’re also talking about everything that is pertinent to the building, everything around it, so we will take care of the sidewalks as well. … This is an aging building, we’re going to tell you, the city, you no longer have to worry about that.”
Watts asked how much the bond that funded the construction of the aquarium, which was recently forgiven by the city, had been, although it’s been widely reported that the bond was $30 million. Given the answer as “30,” Watts asked, “How much was that, $30,000?” Given the “$30 million” figure as an answer, Watts theatrically repeated “$30 million,” three times.
“In exchange for $30 million – and you’re not done, you’re not done with asking,” Watts then said. “Now, ‘after you pay off the $30 million, give me a lease for $1.’”
Brown said the maintenance would be 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Watts also protested that the aquarium recruits well-off people for its trustees. In the interest of fairness, the aquarium should recruit people from South Norwalk, Watts said, because that is where it is located. The aquarium had just purchased a $2.8 million research vessel, he said.
“They could do more for the city’s residents,” Watts said. “There are kids who I feel can benefit from going through a one week program, to allow them to explore the inner workings and get behind the scenes and travel on that wonderful $2.8 million vessel they have.”
If the aquarium could afford the research vessel it could afford the program for children, Watts said.
Brown pointed out that the vessel was a gift to the aquarium.
Watts pointed out aquarium President Jennifer Herring is retiring and said that something should be put in place for the new CEO with a real commitment to Norwalk youth. “If they don’t want to do the program, then maybe they should consider paying rent.”
Maggio asked what Herring’s retirement had to do with it.
“It goes to show the long-term vision of the aquarium,” Watts said.
Phaedrel “Faye” Bowman (D-District B) asked Herring and Brown to quantify what the aquarium does so the dollar value can be compared to the proposed lease. She referred to the recent Saturday where Norwalk residents were allowed in for free.
“Norwalk gives away a lot of things for free,” Bowman said. “We don’t want to break your bank, we know you need to make money to keep things going, but we just want to get something back. You know our kids, we got great feedback about your first free day, so we just want to see more of that. Because the parents … that’s big for our families.”
Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) said the lease had been discussed at a number of committee meetings.
“This is a big deal, taking on the capital expenses. This is a big deal for them, a big responsibility,” Kimmel said. “Like I said, my fingers are crossed. Forget the debt, my fingers are crossed about them being able to cover future capital expenses. I personally would have no problem with the city stepping in into help if there was some problem, catastrophe, something like that. The Maritime Aquarium is an integral part of our city. It’s not some alien private outfit that has moved in and set up shop and they want to make some money, we should treat it that way. So I think this is really balanced and I like the way it was worked out.”
Watts made a motion to table the item. It failed.
Watts called for a roll call vote. “I call for a roll call vote because this is clearly letting down the kids in Norwalk,” Watts said.
Bowman called for a point of order, saying that the Council couldn’t vote on it because it had not been noticed. Coppola said, for the third time, that from a legal standpoint it was fair to move forward. Bowman said the rules would have to be suspended to add the motion to the agenda.
Hempstead called it a dilemma. There had been public participation two meetings previous. It was tabled to a date certain twice, he said.
Jerry Petrini (R-District D) said Watts had been at a negotiation meeting and talked about the lease with the aquarium’s trustees.
Watts threatened to file an FOI complaint. It was agreed that there would be a two-minute recess. On his way to the caucus chamber, Minority Leader Travis Simms (D-District B) stopped to angrily address John Kydes (D-District C) before being admonished by Mayor Harry Rilling to hash it out in private. Kydes did not enter the caucus room during the recess.
The item was then tabled for the third time.
At a recent meeting of the Parking Authority, Herring said, “The board of the major donors are becoming quite concerned that there has been no agreement has been reached on either the lease or the parking agreement. Further delay could jeopardize the contributed income that pays for about 25 percent of our operating budget.”
Asked for an opinion Wednesday, Tom Hennick of the Freedom of Information Commission said the legality of voting on the matter hinged on what type of meeting it was.
A meeting held at its usual date and time is a described under FOIA as a “regular” meeting. A meeting held on a different day is a “special” meeting.
“If it was a regular meeting, then the council could have voted to add the item to the agenda (2/3 approval needed) and it would have been in complete compliance,” Hennick wrote. “If, however, it was a special meeting, then it should not have been added as no items can be added to the agenda of a special meeting.”