NORWALK, Conn. – A dispute over recess led to accusations of juvenile behavior as the Norwalk Common Council considered a summer camp for children Tuesday.
There was an odd pause when the proposal to allow the South Norwalk Community Center to use Ryan Park for a summer camp was brought up for discussion – odd because it had been taken off of the list of items that were going to pass without comment, but, given the chance for debate, no one said anything.
Travis Simms (D-District B), new to his role as minority leader, made a motion to table the item until the next meeting. That was a non-debatable motion.
Mayor Harry Rilling asked for a simple aye-nay vote, but a consensus was not clear. Rilling was about to do a roll call vote, but David Watts (D-District A) asked for a recess.
A month ago, Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) made an issue out of a request for a recess. Council President Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) now says Kimmel was right – Mason’s Rules say that the legislative body should vote on whether a recess will be allowed.
So Rilling tried to do a simple aye-nay vote on the recess motion, but at least four council members were against it, making the verbal vote counting impossible. He called for a roll call vote, but Watts withdrew the motion.
Rilling then returned to the roll call vote on the motion to table the item. With Phaedrel “Faye” Bowman (D-District B), Sharon Stewart (D-At Large), John Kydes (D-District C) and Simms voting in favor, the motion died, 11-4.
Bowman said a lot of people in South Norwalk were concerned they wouldn’t be allowed to use Ryan Park when the SoNoCC was hosting its summer camp. Sharon Stewart (D-At Large) said the language of the proposal called for the center to have the park from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. There are people who eat lunch there, she said.
While 100 children are expected at the camp, most of them will be indoors, SoNoCC spokesman Pat Ferrandino told her. The kids will rotate in and out, with 60 inside and 40 outside, he said. Norwalk Public Schools and Literacy How are working with the center to run what is really an educational enrichment program, he said.
“We’re not going to have 100 children in the park at one time. The park consists of over 100,000 square feet of space. There is certainly plenty of space to accommodate everyone in the area,” he said.
“How can we ensure that what happened the last time will not happen again, where people were asked to use the park and could not utilize it until other people were finished?” Stewart asked. “What can you do to make us feel secure with that, because once they say ‘OK, it’s passed,’ you guys can do whatever you want to do.”
“I have no knowledge whatsoever of any incident in the past,” Ferrandino said.
“It happened,” Stewart said.
“My guess, there are hundreds of agreements similar to this,” Kimmel said. “We’ve never had a problem with excluding folks. Events occur, whether it’s at the beach or at Cranbury Park, on a regular basis. I have never heard of a situation where people were excluded. It’s standard procedure.”
Hempstead suggested adding three words to the resolution: Instead of use the park it would be use “a portion of” the park.
“I totally support the amendment that is being proposed,” Watts said. “Just a brief comment, I think that we really wanted to get to a solution to something we could vote on. To shut down the opportunity to call a recess so that we could probably get there is nothing more than partisan politics. I am very disappointed in that because we’ve been getting along. This is a great council. We’re trying to move forward. But to not give the minority caucus — and keep in mind it’s one councilman, it’s an 8-7 council — to deny us an opportunity to work this issue out for five minutes is nothing more than partisan politics and I am calling you out on that because it’s wrong and I hope that in the future that we don’t use rules and procedures to take advantage of the minority caucus.”
Ridiculous, David McCarthy (R-District E) said, as the vote on tabling was 11-4, not 8-7.
“The standard rule of thumb in any legislative body is you try not to do committee work on the council floor,” Kimmel said.
Kimmel, who caucuses with the Republicans despite being a Democrat, said it’s not fair to council members who have spent much time working out the issue or to the public sitting in the meeting.
“You cannot use a recess to go into caucus when you’ve had your caucus meetings to do the work that should have been done first in the committee and then in the caucus,” he said. “Bottom line is we have been violating Mason’s Rules for many, many years, regarding going into recesses. It’s very, very clear. You don’t just go into recess, you need a majority vote to do so and that’s fair to the public. It makes sure that recesses are not abused.”
“I think that there are rules and if we were violating the rules then, by all means, we should correct it, we should follow the rules,” Watts replied. “However, if council members want to rush out of here, maybe we should have a little clock in here. Not give us an opportunity to do due diligence, I think it’s wrong, it’s disrespectful. … To use a rule to shut that down is wrong. I don’t care what you say, I think it was partisan politics.”
Richard Bonenfant (R-At Large) reminded him that he withdrew the recess request. “I personally have no problem voting for anybody who want to go to caucus,” he said. “Just go easy on painting the full brush.”
Kimmel said the Republican caucus had been in City Hall until about 10 p.m. Monday going over the agenda very carefully. He called the issue a “problem that wasn’t a problem,” which the caucus was assured would be worked out.
“This is a summer camp in a park, this is not the biggest, most convoluted, complicated issue that we are going to deal with,” Kimmel said. “After having this agenda for three or four days we need a recess for this particular thing, this particular type of argument, I am a little befuddled to be honest with you. The idea that we are here to get out early … I find that absurd. We are not here to get out of here early, we are here to do what’s right.”
“If we are going to get along, try to do what’s right for the city, I don’t think picking a petty fight over a recess – I just think that it’s over the top,” Watts said. “It’s not going to hold you back, to get from where you need to go, five minutes. I’m just going to go with what people say on the street: You’ve got to keep it real. I’m keeping it real right now. Everyone knows there is an issue between the South Norwalk Community Center and some individuals.”
And, “The public expects us to work together and we have,” he said. “It’s been great so far. There hasn’t been any dust ups and I don’t perceive myself as picking a fight with the majority caucus over a recess. I just think it’s juvenile and it’s offensive. I just think that we have a right to caucus when we want to. To say that it’s not partisan politics, I think that it is, and that’s what I’m going to say because these members here had a real issue with something happening in their district. We want to make sure that every council member is comfortable with moving forward and not to do so I think disrespects them and the citizens that elected them.”
“Everybody take a deep breath,” Hempstead said.
Yes, he’s been wrong for 20 years, he said, a recess should be voted upon.
“I agree with Mr. Bonenfant, you did withdraw the motion, so I wish we wouldn’t do name calling on something that we thought would have happened. Because I think your motion to recess would have probably passed”on the roll call vote, he said.
The motion passed unanimously a short while later.
Outside the council chambers as an executive session went on, Ferrandino repeated his assertion that he knew of no incident in which the South Norwalk Community Center tried to keep other people out of Ryan Park. He had the impression that Stewart was talking about something that happened three years ago and said that no one involved with leading the center now was involved with it then.
The center is expected to be renovated. It received a $100,000 Community Block Development Grant toward that project in the last budget cycle.
“The plans (for the camp) are tentative, they are not firm,” Ferrandino said. “We are hopeful that within the next two weeks we will have a definitive timeline to complete the project. We anticipate that it will take six to eight weeks to complete the project and that should give us the time needed to operate the program.”
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