NORWALK, Conn. — A planned outpouring of anti-Go Ape! anger got short circuited Tuesday as the Norwalk Common Council voted to table the item at the beginning of its meeting, thereby taking it off the agenda and making public comment inappropriate, according to Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola.
The Go Ape! treetop adventure course proposed for Cranbury Park will not be considered again until Sept. 13, at which time a Council public hearing will be devoted to the topic, Council members said. Republicans protested the move, as did many members of the public.
Video of the Go Ape! discussion at end of story
“Process-wise, how dare you?” former Common Council member Anna Duleep said, shortly thereafter, from the lectern. “… I cannot express to you how deeply, deeply disappointed I am that you showed such disrespect for my neighbors, whether they agree with me or disagree with me.”
The outrage might have been avoided. Councilman Mike DePalma (D-District D) said, after the meeting, that he had contacted a member of the Cranbury Preservation Association (CPA) on Monday night to inform the group that the Go Ape! proposal was likely to be tabled. He got an immediate reply and thought the community had been notified, he said.
“I thought I had gone out of my way to be very transparent during this,” DePalma said. “This was not any kind of bait and switch type thing. I let them know in advance: We were not going to be voting on it, and then we get that kind of outrage. It was pretty frustrating.”
DePalma is on the record as saying he does not plan to support the proposed attraction, often referred to “the zip-line.” A zip-line is part of the overall treetop ropes course.
The Council chambers were full for the Go Ape! agenda item, with signs pro and con – except that one man tore down Mike Mushak’s “yes” signs before the meeting, tore them up and sat on the pieces.
When Mushak went to take a photo of the man with his phone, the man grabbed the phone from him.
Council members after the meeting suggested that Mushak file a police report, but Mushak later said he had decided against it. He had gotten his phone back.
Police were not present for the incident but three officers arrived later and watched as the meeting began.
Councilman John Igneri (D-District E) made a motion just after the roll call to suspend the rules and table the item. Councilwoman Michelle Maggio (R-District C) asked if that meant the public would not be able to comment, and the answer was yes.
The vote was 10-4, on partisan lines; Council President Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) was absent.
Recreation, Parks and Cultural Affairs Committee Chairman Travis Simms (D-District B) then made a motion to table it until Sept. 13, and an identical vote ensued.
“There you go folks, that means you wasted your night,” Councilman Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large) said.
“Disgusting. We vote for you. Discuss the issue,” a man in the audience said.
“One more outbreak and we’ll have you removed,” Mayor Harry Rilling said.
“Doesn’t matter. Then vote,” the man said. “… Democracy at its best right here, from the damn Council.”
Rilling went on to explain that the Council felt it didn’t have enough information to vote because there is no contract drawn with Go Ape!.
“Even though it may have been tabled, it is on the agenda, so I don’t know why these people in the audience can’t speak,” Councilman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said. “I don’t understand that.”
“It’s been tabled, it’s no longer on the agenda,” Coppola said. “I understand it’s on the printed version on the agenda, that was here when we started the meeting, but when it gets tabled it’s then off the agenda. The reason for that is, quite frankly, to have significant discussion about an item that is not on agenda is not appropriate for a variety of reasons. The Council can’t do anything; to have people spending their time giving testimony regarding an item that won’t be considered now for what, 6 to 8 months, doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
At least 23 people had signed up to speak. Deb Goldstein asked to take her turn.
“It’s unfortunate that all these people came out tonight to discuss an item that was going to be tabled,” Goldstein said.
Rilling said that Igneri and Simms had just told him there would be a public hearing prior to the proposal coming back to the Council in September.
“There is no proposal by the vendor as to where it is definitely going to be right now, and we have no contract indicating what the particular details of the proposal will be,” Rilling said.
Duleep shortly thereafter asked for her turn to speak, as Goldstein had done. Rilling asked if it was on the “zip-line”; Duleep said it was about the process, and he allowed it.
“I think it’s basic courtesy to all the people who came out, if you were planning, and of course you know that I know that you knew ahead of time you were going to table this, you could have waited until after public participation for people to speak,” Duleep said.
Rilling and Council members said after the meeting that it had come out in the news media before the meeting that the item would be tabled.
Duleep said the Council members would have their own turn being tabled without a chance to speak, sooner or later.
“I think next time when you have the public hearing, do what you are going to do but give everybody that voted for you, who you are here on behalf of, the chance to tell you what they think before you go and screw them,” Duleep said.
Rilling, after the meeting, said, “The item has not even been vetted properly so we are going hold a public hearing at another time.”
“We have to make a decision for what is appropriate for the park or not appropriate for the park,” Rilling said. “… By pushing it back to September, we pretty much guarantee it’s not going to be there this year or maybe not next year. I would think that people would be relatively happy.”
DePalma said the CPA member who he had emailed was present in the audience, looking at him. He declined to say who that was.
“Normally we don’t talk about things we discuss in caucus, but I said (in the email to the CPA member), ‘Look, I have it on a very good suspicion that this is going to be tabled. I want to avoid’ – a couple of weeks ago everybody came out and thought it was going to vote and then it was just discussion only. I got an immediate response, ‘Thank you so much,’ that was it,” DePalma said.
“I am opposed to the zip-line at this point, but their whole message, that I was getting from fliers and such, was ‘We need more time, we need more time,’ to deliberate,” DePalma said.
Diane Lauricella, a District D Democrat who has been working for CPA, requested at the recent Recreation, Parks and Cultural Affairs Committee meeting that the item be tabled. Lauricella was not present for the Council meeting.
DePalma said that, on Monday night, after the caucus meeting, he and Councilman Nick Sacchinelli (D-At Large) had gone to a District D Democratic Town Committee (DTC) meeting to talk about Go Ape. They had been handed a flier asking for more time to consider the Go Ape proposal, he said.
“I thought this was going to be a happy thing for them,” DePalma said. “We had people yelling. I am very curious to see … when I speak with this person where this miscommunication was.”
DTC District D Co-chairwoman Donna King said after the meeting that DePalma and Sacchinelli had said that tabling the proposal would allow the Council to see how the summer goes with the new pavilion and the newly renovated bunkhouse at Cranbury Park before deciding whether to commit to a vendor.
Duleep, after the meeting, said she remembered meetings that went to midnight when she was on the Council.
“I have never seen them table something before public participation before,” Duleep said. “I think I was shaking because it was so angry and I am just glad I didn’t swear as much as was in my head. Because I just thought it was a big slap in the face to people who turned out.”