NORWALK, Conn. — Michelle Maggio’s cry of frustration was met with a perhaps unexpected victory Tuesday as a few members of the Common Council’s Democratic majority sided with Council Republicans in a move that Bruce Kimmel said could cost the city big money.
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“I know, I should have stayed home and talked to myself in the mirror with this one,” Maggio, an East Norwalk Republican Council member, said at the beginning of a discussion of a $359,000 contract for preparatory study and design on expected East Avenue road work to be done in conjunction with the state’s massive Walk Bridge project and the lowering of the road under the East Norwalk railroad bridge. But a charge led by Councilman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) to send yet another “message to the state” regarding the height of the railroad bridge succeeded, with an amendment to the contract passing 7 to 6, with two abstentions.
Hempstead’s motion to amend the contract to reflect the resolution passed by the Council two weeks ago – asking the state to consider a 13-foot, 6-inch height of the bridge instead of the planned 14 feet, 3 inches – resulted in a tedious, 35-minute back-and-forth on the details of the contract and the implications of the proposed change.
If Council members truly believed in the resolution, Maggio said, they would vote for Hempstead’s amendment, changing the contract to require A. DiCesare and Associates to plan their design to the 13-6 instead of the state’s 14-3 or 14-2.
“This is on the cusp of the largest change our city has seen in years – the mall, Waypointe … POKO, projects all coming on line,” Maggio said. “We heard our constituents loud and clear. I don’t want it to be politic-type thing, but the state is waving a carrot in front of our face with the money that we would receive for the street of East Avenue.”
Maggio said she was there for her constituents.
“It is time that we are not fooled with money, and we are not going to pass a ridiculously expensive study until we know what the future development holds. … I think it is foolish to go forward with this until we have heard back from the state (regarding the city’s request for the 13-6),” Maggio said.
“I am not completely opposed to this project,” John Kydes, her Democratic counterpart said, expressing confidence that East Norwalk will get to weigh in on the proposed changes.
The contract, which eventually passed in its altered form on a 14 to 1 vote, authorizes DiCesare to do a traffic study and design roadway changes in coordination with public input. The contract includes housekeeping-type work on existing information to put it in the same format as the other projects the state is working on concurrently, as part of the replacement of the Walk Bridge, the railroad bridge over the Norwalk River.
Council President Kimmel (D-At-Large) argued repeatedly that Hempstead’s amendment was counterproductive. The pieces should all be aligned and the amendment would complicate the situation, he said, slowing down the process and forcing DiCesare to make myriad phone calls to the state to clear up confusion on how to proceed.
Public Works Committee Chairman John Igneri (D-District E) agreed over and over again, arguing that it would be a “big mistake” and “confusing” to change the contract to a height the state has not agreed upon.
“I think we need to send a clear message to our design people,” Hempstead countered. Telling the contractor to ignore what the Council said two weeks ago “does not compute.”
Councilwoman Shannon O’Toole Giandurco (R-District D) said the amendment would put in writing that the Council meant what it said.
“Let us be told that is not going to work rather than right out of the gate opening it at 14-2 and saying, ‘well it was in the contract,’” she said.
Igneri said he’s been in contact with the state on the height change, and that it’s being considered.
“I would just be wary of waiting for the state for anything, for whatever it’s worth, as somebody who has dealt with the state,” Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola said.
“The state has assured us they will be back to us in short order,” Igneri replied.
“I wasn’t trying to be sarcastic, but I am serious in saying the state, obviously in these projects, it can take a while,” Coppola replied. “… Quite often it takes longer than you think or would imagine.”
Igneri repeated that he was confident that state would “get back to us shortly,” but Kimmel said, “Maybe, maybe not.”
Mayor Harry Rilling had said the state was behind on its Walk Bridge schedule.
“If the state is falling behind on the Walk Bridge, I think that will have something to do with when they get back to us on the half a foot,” Kimmel said. “… Even though It would be nice if they responded soon, I wouldn’t count on it. The Walk Bridge is what they are preoccupied with, that’s the major thing. They are not going to move and make decisions on this bridge until they figure this out.”
Kimmel said he “highly doubts” that the state will change its plans.
“I am not confident the state will abide with the sense of the resolution because we are dealing with a major arterial and they have their own policies about what roads should have trucks and which roads should not have trucks,” Kimmel said.
“We are not in design on this at 13-6 and we won’t be for quite a few months,” Department of Public Works Director Bruce Chimento said. “The state is anxious to move ahead because it is part of that Walk Bridge.”
“We are probably several months out right now from knowing what that vertical clearance is going to be because we don’t have the study yet,” Chimento said. “The study probably won’t have really much to do with the vertical clearance, it will have a lot to do with the traffic in the entire area. That is the first part they are going to do. The design won’t even start on this until at least two months from now anyway.”
There was a move to give Chimento the authority to change the contract as needed.
“In my humble gloom and doom opinion, if we were to amend the amendment so that it comes back to Council we could kiss this project goodbye. That’s the $2.3 million dollars of work,” Kimmel said.
Change orders usually cost Norwalk money, he said. Giving Chimento authority would avoid that, he said.
Councilman Michael Corsello (D-At Large) changed his opinion as the debate went on. The amendment was consistent with the resolution, he said at the outset. Later, he said, “As we see for this body to get things done, especially as it concerns this East Avenue project, it takes quite a lot of time and time is of the essence with this project. I would only be in favor of the amendment if Mr. Chimento has the authority.”
Councilman Thomas Livingston (D-District E) called the Chimento authority idea reasonable.
“I think we really need to get this set up so it is only on automatic pilot. I think anything else is going to cause us to incur expense or unreasonable delay,” Livingston said.
That move failed because Hempstead would not withdraw his amendment.
“I am a simple guy: 13-6 is what we passed, 13-6 is what we should be sending to the state,” Hempstead said. “We should be telling the state what the city of Norwalk wants because the rest of the roadway belongs to the city of Norwalk. The overpass belongs to them. They are funding this.”
He then referred to the recent railroad bridge project in Darien.
“Other communities around us, and I won’t mention the towns that are a little bit to the east of us, when they changed the bridge on Route 1 they got the lights that nobody else could get, they got a railing that nobody else could get, they get to put flags under something down there,” Hempstead said. “So when other communities want to fight for what they want, DOT tends to bend. … Why can’t Norwalk exercise its right for what it wants and let our delegation or whoever – I don’t care, us, the delegation – go fight DOT that this is what we passed on behalf of our citizens on design issues?”
And, “DOT never comes in on time with a project,” Hempstead said.
The contract at hand has nothing to do with the height of the bridge, Chimento said.
The contract is between the city and DiCesare, Rilling and others pointed out.
Hempstead said putting 14-2 in the contract would “predetermine what would come out.”
The state said it was in a hurry on the East Avenue project in 2009, Hempstead said.
“Well, they are really in a hurry now,” Maggio muttered.
Voting for the amendment were Councilwoman Phaedrel “Faye” Bowman (D-District B), Councilman Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large), Councilman Mike DePalma (D-District D), Kydes, Maggio, Hempstead and O’Toole Giandurco. Voting against were Councilman Nick Sacchinelli (D-At Large), Councilwoman Eloisa Melendez (D-District A), Corsello, Kimmel, Igneri and Livingston. Councilman Travis Simms (D-District B) and Councilman Steve Serasis (D-District A) abstained.
Bonenfant was the only one to vote against the contract.
“I think it’s a little premature to go forward with this now,” he had said at the outset of the discussion.
Third Taxing District Commissioner Deb Goldstein, a leader of the opposition of the road lowering, watched the Council meeting without comment.
Later, she said in an email:
“Our Common Council has spoken, twice. Our residents and business-owners have spoken, repeatedly.
“The silence from the state is now deafening. We await good news from (ConnDOT) Commissioner Redeker, Senate Majority Leader Duff, and State Representatives Perone and Lavielle. One would expect that if the answer was ‘no’, that it would have come quickly.
“In the meantime, I am pleased that the engineer, A. DiCesare & Associates, will be directed to work towards a bridge clearance that will not accommodate 13′ 8″ tractor-trailer trucks.”