Overwhelming vote in favor of land trust is not enough
WINSTED — Residents at a special town meeting April 7 spoke loudly in favor of a motion to override a recent decision by the Board of Selectmen, but there weren’t enough residents in attendance to make the vote legal.Voters were asked to override the board’s rejection of the Winchester Land Trust’s plan to acquire easements on 360 acres of town-owned land. The motion to override the board was approved by a vote of 213 to 13.Under the town’s charter, 5 percent of the town’s registered voters, or 346 residents, must attend the meeting in order for the selectmen’s decision to be thrown out.Even though the tournout was under 5 percent, Town Attorney Kevin Nelligan recommended to Mayor Candy Perez that the meeting go on as planned.“I would take the vote and see how many residents we have,” Nelligan said. “How many votes is what counts.”This was up for dispute by Community Lawyer Charlene LaVoie, who argued from the audience with Nelligan.“Does this mean that this is a legal town meeting for purposes of transacting business?” LaVoie asked Nelligan.“No, we’re here simply to vote,” Nelligan said. “We’re only here to reject the action the Board of Selectmen took.”LaVoie continued to disagree and yelled her disagreements at Nelligan from the audience.“It should be how many people in the audience who are in attendance, not how many people vote,” LaVoie said. “Despite the clumsy wording in the charter, a quorum means under parliamentary rules the number of people who attend the meeting. So if 346 people come and one of them does not vote [the meeting] won’t count?”“Correct,” Nelligan told LaVoie.“That is going to court, my friends,” LaVoie said. “This is so departed from the democratic process.”At the meeting, LaVoie did not state what legal action, if any, she intends to take.Lawyer Pat Renzullo, father of Selectman Michael Renzullo, spoke to the audience and questioned the whole intention of the meeting.“The town counsel has defined this as a negative motion [to throw out the selectmen’s previous decision]. I move to reform this into a positive motion, since the motion itself is defective,” Renzullo said. “All we are left here to do tonight is to reject the rejection, but what we really want to do is approve the transaction. This makes no sense whatsoever.”No action was taken on Renzullo’s comments.Resident James Revillini made the motion to vote on overriding the selectmen’s decision.“I encourage you to vote yes despite the fact we don’t have enough people,” Revillini told the audience. “I believe we should all be involved directly in a direct democracy where each and every one of us should have a vote.”Other residents agreed with Revillini and took to the meeting podium to support the override, including Ed Davidson.“The town should be allowed to decide, not just three or four people,” Davidson said. “To say the town would lose control over this is wrong. The town still has control over the land. You might say the town does not need added protection for the land, but water company-owned land can have its use changed. I’ve seen houses built on water company-owned land. All the town is giving [the land trust] is development rights, and it gains $400,000. What is so wrong with that?”While the vast majority of the residents spoke in favor of the Winchester Land Trust and its proposal, resident James Roberts spoke against it.“This is a bad transaction because we’re going to accept $350,000 for land that the Department of Environmental Protection believes is worth $1 million,” Roberts said. “We’re about to throw away three-quarters of a million dollars of assets for this town. If this is a bad deal for the town, it’s an even worse deal for the water company. [The town] is getting their pockets picked, the water company is getting beat up and left for dead. I urge those who are against it to not vote, because not voting is as effective as a no vote.”LaVoie was the last resident to speak at the podium and criticized the selectmen.“The town meeting has the final say over two things: The town’s budget and land disposition,” LaVoie said. “The selectmen should not be making decisions on land disposition. All land dispositions should go to the town meeting for a vote. Now here we are on a Thursday night trying to cobble together 346 people because they would not have this meeting on a Saturday. Just all kinds of clever ways for [the selectmen] to circumvent the town meeting process, and it’s been going on in town for years. This reflects a personal agenda not too many people know about.”LaVoie would not explain the “personal agenda” she referred to.She added that the vote should have gone out to a day-long referendum.“Why are we bothering to vote when we don’t have what we need?” LaVoie said.“The two voting machines have been set up and this will be a quick vote,” Perez told LaVoie.From the audience, resident Neil Hunt yelled for a vote to be taken.“I say we vote!” Hunt said. “This way the politicians who voted against it will know that the people who showed up to this meeting want to repeal what four people did.”Hunt’s comments were met with the loudest applause of the night.In an interview after the meeting, land trust President Shelly Harms said she is thankful to residents for their support.“We have to thank everyone who showed up,” Harms said. “This is a huge turnout and we appreciate the support. From here, we will have to figure out what our options are. We’re encouraged by this and not deterred. We are not going anywhere.”Perez said the meeting still proved a point even though the vote was not legal.“Members of the community made it clear that they are in favor of the land trust’s proposal,” Perez said. “They took their time out to vote and to keep the proud tradition of the town meeting alive in Winsted. This point of matter may come up again. But if one of the selectmen does not change their mind about this, the [trust’s] proposal will not happen.”Perez and Selectmen George Closson and Michael Renzullo, who all voted for the land trust’s proposal, were present at the meeting.Of the four selectmen who voted against the proposal, only Selectman Lisa Smith was present.Selectman Ken Fracasso, who made the motion at a previous selectmen’s meeting to hold the special town meeting on a Thursday, was not in attendance.