OPINION: Wallingford’s ARPA decisions marred by drama

By Stephen Knight

The Wallingford Town Council’s February 8th meeting was all about one issue: the $13.3 million granted to the town under the American Rescue Plan Act. The meeting ran just over two and a half hours, with the highlight being the introduction of the consultant hired by the Town to serve as guide as to the legitimacy of the ways the town determines how this money is spent.

And yes, we will certainly need his expertise to avoid granting funds that fall outside the parameters of the federal legislation. Unfortunately, those parameters are built on constantly shifting sands, with the “Final Rule” having been publicized just weeks ago.

For example, under the heading “Responding to Public Health and Economic Impacts of COVID-19” as one of the allowed criteria is this definition: “Recipients also have broad flexibility to (1) identify and respond to other pandemic impacts and (2) serve other populations that experienced pandemic impacts, beyond the enumerated uses and presumed eligible populations. Recipients can also identify groups or ‘classes’ of beneficiaries that experienced pandemic impacts and provide services to those classes.” Reading such wide-open language, municipalities such as Meriden have thus “committed more than $2.2 million to upgrade basketball and tennis courts and Cheshire has allocated $2 million to expand a town park.” (R-J; Feb. 9th)

What this meeting brought to the surface, other than town councilors really had not truly considered how this money should be spent, is that there has been an ongoing tug of war over which branch of government has decision-making authority on many issues — an argument over process, if you will, not over substance.

This unproductive and distracting turf war has been going on for some time. All too many Town Council meeting hours have been spent arguing process with the mayor. If the issue were raised by the Democrat councilors, it might make sense, because they are attempting to exert their influence over a Republican mayor. But, for the most part, it’s coming from a couple of members of his own party.

A good example of this futile waste of time came last October when councilors wanted to overrule the administration’s decision to postpone the paving of the Wallace Avenue parking lot. An entire hour was spent arguing that the mayor must spend an extra $100,000 to pave this lot immediately rather than wait until the following spring. The council, once the money is allocated, has no authority to make such a decision, but that didn’t stop them from passing a toothless resolution demanding such action.

The decision-making of how and to whom the ARPA money is allocated is way too important to the community of Wallingford than to get caught up in this unnecessary drama. We have an opportunity to address some of the personal and economic devastation that Covid-19 has wrought. If there ever was a time to put this jockeying for position aside, this is certainly it. Put the question to the Town Law Department as to how to divide up the responsibilities regarding ARPA fund disposition and get to work. There are real human beings that have been devastated by the economic mayhem that the government’s lockdown policies caused. That’s why it’s called the American Rescue Plan.

One other issue came up in this meeting that needs to be addressed. It was suggested by a member of the audience that the length of the public question and answer period should be determined by the size of the audience and, to some degree, the number of people wishing to weigh in on an agenda item.

In answer to that suggestion, no sitting town councilor will say the following, so I will: A Town Council meeting is just that: a meeting of the nine town councilors. The purpose of this meeting is to conduct the business of the municipality. It is not a press conference. If there are legitimate questions, there isn’t a public official or town employee who would refuse to answer a query from a town resident. All of them are available by phone, and many by email.

The 20-minute period for comment from the public is an accommodation made by the Town Council. Many communities do not even have that. And a limited amount of public input is available for most agenda items. Unfortunately, these opportunities have been abused over and over. Consequently, those tuning in to hear discussion from the people they elected have to endure much more lengthy meetings all too full of “gotcha” questions from a handful of self-appointed gadflies that see themselves as “speaking truth to power.”

Determining the correct allocation of millions of pandemic relief dollars is going to be a daunting task as it is now. To accede to open-ended public comment is to turn every Town Council meeting into a potential political rally. It would turn the representative government we have on its head.

Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford town councilor. 


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