Sure, there will be one or two hot-topic items on which every candidate pontificates, but inevitably something transpires during the fall that grabs everyone’s attention.
Even the smallest things can become big controversies.
Take, if you will, what occurred in lead-up to Election Day in 1992. In September, Republican Town Councilor Richard Conrad proposed what on the surface seemed to be a rather cut-and-dried proposal. Conrad wanted to install a larger sign in front of the Cheshire Youth Center along Route 10, believing that it would do more to help the Town promote to the general public important messages, such as event dates or upcoming activities.
No one thought much of it until the issue went before the Planning and Zoning Commission, which needed to sign off on a zoning change to allow for the sign’s size to be increased.
When it came time to vote, problems arose, as was recounted in an Oct. 8, 1992 article in The Cheshire Herald:
Planning and Zoning Commission member David Orsini said he is not the one to blame for the recent defeat of a proposal to construct a larger community billboard at the Youth Center on South Main Street. Blame it on an “invention from the town’s legal department,” he said.
The proposal was defeated 3-2 last week after Orsini and commission members Joseph Traester and Kenneth Irish chose to abstain from voting on the project proposal that was submitted by a Town Council member and fellow Republican Richard Conrad. Orsini said he is “speaking only for himself” when he says he will not vote on this or any proposal from a fellow Republican until he gets a ruling on the term “political ally” from Town Attorney John Knott.
So, what was going on?
The trouble had started a few weeks back, when the Commission was considering an application for an expansive mall project called The Crossroads at Cheshire. At the time, an attorney representing the town during hearings to consider the proposal — Daniel Casagrande — requested that several members of the PZC recuse themselves from said hearing because of their connection to Republican State Senator Philip Robertson, who had served as a consultant to Greenwich development firm Banker & Banker Realty, which was proposing the Crossroads project. Orsini, Traester and Irish were required to recuse themselves because it was deemed that each could be considered a “political ally” of Robertson.
The article explained: According to the letter, Orsini’s conduct in discussing with the “advisability of meeting with Stephen Banker at Sen. Robertson’s home” with the Republican Town Committee “could create an impression that he might be an advocate for the zone change” that would have allowed Banker to build Crossroads.
“Mr. Orsini is a former Republican Town Committee chairman and is a political ally of Sen. Robertson,” Casagrande wrote.
Orisini said he has never worked in any of Robertson’s campaigns and has never donated any money to Robertson’s re-election efforts.
Given the legal opinion, Orsini, as the article explained, felt bound to protect himself by not voting for a proposal submitted by a Republican. If he could be deemed an “ally” of Robertson, the logic went, why could he also not be considered an ally of a sitting Cheshire Town Councilor?
While Orsini’s reasoning seemed justifiable if also debatable, one entity in Cheshire wasn’t buying it — The Cheshire Herald.
In its Oct. 8, 1992 editorial, The Herald insisted that Orsini was simply using the sign issue to register his complaint over the Crossroads decision:
The problem here is that two PZC Republicans, Kenneth Irish and David Orsini, were still smarting from their disqualification from the controversial Crossroads hearings … the two felt that, because they had been considered political allies of Robertson, and Traester a Republican not considered as such, then they must also be political allies of Republican sign-supporter Conrad.
So what? We’re not voting on whether we should go to war or tax the rich or poor — we’re voting on a sign. A minor issue has thus become a major one, and the only ones who lose out, really, are the people who put them into office.
… We think those involved are attempting to make a statement, and a petty one at that. While it may be true that the town’s legal department is to blame, as Orsini says, we think he and others should have put their necks out and voted anyway.
The issue didn’t die with the PZC. Conrad, upset that the sign project might be a victim of other issues, decided to bring the matter back to the Council, as an article in the Oct. 15, 1992 edition of The Herald explained:
“The community should be able to look to one location for a community bulletin board,” Conrad said. “The purpose is to get rid of the multitude of signs in town. There is no other way around it.”
Although he agreed that the sign project was a good idea, Council member George Bowman, a Democrat, was angered that the proposal passed from the PZC to the Town Council.
“I’m concerned as to why the Town Council is getting into zoning matters,” Bowman said. “The problem started with Mr. Robertson … if the Republicans on the PZC can’t do their jobs, they should step (down) for being derelict in their duties.”
Council member Louis DiMauro, also a Democrat, agreed with Bowman.
“I almost feel like this has been decided,” DiMauro said. “Why didn’t alternates on the PZC take care of this? We’re not on the Town Council to clean up after the PZC.”
Conrad, sensing that the Council was in no mood to bypass the PZC, ultimately withdrew the proposal from consideration, while also lamenting that the issue had become politicized in the first place.
Over the following few weeks, it appears that the town became immersed in election season. Candidates campaigned and debated, Herald readers submitted letters of endorsement. Issues of mill rates and education spending took over the conversation.
Once the town got past Election Day 1992, however, it seems the issues surrounding the bulletin board became easier to manage. In early November, Town Attorney John Knott stated that the three Republican members of the PZC would not in fact be deemed “political allies” of Conrad, which opened the door for the sign project to be considered once again.
This time, there were no roadblocks, and on Nov. 23, the PZC approved the zoning changes that would allow for a bigger sign to be installed.
It’s likely that no one following local politics in Cheshire in 1992 could have predicted that a sign out in front of the Cheshire Youth Center would become one of the most talked-about issues of that year’s campaign, but such is life in a small community. Who knows what Cheshire will be talking about this year, as we get closer to Election Day 2019.