By LISA CAPOBIANCO
Emails involving two mayoral candidates in this November’s election and the work to transform the former Memorial Boulevard School are surfacing as the result of two dueling Freedom of Information requests.
Several weeks ago, Mike Nicastro, a Democrat and former president of the Central Connecticut Chambers of Commerce, submitted a FOI request to City Hall for information regarding the former Memorial Boulevard School, specifically citing information tied to mayoral candidates Ken Cockayne and Ellen Zoppo-Sassu, as well as city councilors Eric Carlson and Henri Martin, the chairperson of the Board of Finance, and heads of the city departments. Nicastro said he also submitted a FOI request involving inbound or outbound emails to the mayor from the Bristol Chamber of Commerce and the Summit Development Corp. In 2013, Summit, a Rhode Island developer, proposed to turn the Memorial Boulevard School building into a housing facility— a project that Cockayne, a city councilor at the time, expressed his support for. After the proposed sale did not pass the City Council vote, the issue of what to do with the building was turned over to the city planner.
Nicastro’s FOI requests were officially approved last Wednesday.
“I was trying to get a clearer picture as to what was going on behind the scenes with the effort,” said Nicastro. “The city and the mayor have no authority to sell the building, yet the discussions of sale continued. I wanted to understand why.”
On Aug. 19, Derek Czenczelewski, chairman of the Bristol Republican Town Committee, also submitted a FOI request for e-mails and documents sent and received between Nov. 1, 2013 and Aug. 19, 2015. This request cited Zoppo, the Democratic City Councilor, and Assistant Corporation Counsel Attorney Richard Lacey, as well as legal secretary Noelle Bates.
Czenczelewski said the goal of his request was to seek “any additional information that may have gone unreported” in Nicastro’s request. He said “there is reason to believe there are additional unresolved issues,” such as “clear violations of FOI law that included secret meetings, avoidance measures with regard to public reporting, and a blatant disregard for sharing pertinent information relative to building integrity and public safety” by Zoppo.
For over a year now, Zoppo has served as the chairperson of the Memorial Boulevard Task Force, which is working to turn the 1921 school building into a community and cultural arts center.
On Monday, the Republican Town Committee, along with former Democratic Councilor candidate Terry Parker, filed a FOI complaint to the Freedom of Information Commission in Hartford against Zoppo. In its complaint, the committee accused Zoppo of violating the Freedom of Information Act by strategically organizing meetings to avoid a holding a quorum, requiring a public meeting.
“The fact that the Republican Party has FOIed my emails is clearly political,” said Zoppo. “I fully complied to the letter of the law.”
Czenczelewski said Nicastro’s request “was made based on a rumor he and other detractors of the mayor had been circulating that the mayor was attempting to sell Memorial Boulevard School.” Czenczelewski said from everything he has heard to date, including the mayor’s press release, “that rumor was completely fabricated and debunked.”
Cockayne, who is seeking reelection as Republican mayor this November, announced in a press release this past July his support for the release of $400,000 for designing the first phase of restoring the Memorial Boulevard building. The first phase of the project involves immediate development of the theater and first floor.
“Until I receive the results of my particular FOI request, and unless there is definitive proof of wrong doing by anyone, I’d prefer to hold off on discussing the matter or accusing anyone of anything,” said Czenczelewski.
Nicastro said if the mayor “has nothing to hide he has nothing to worry about.”
Although he commended Nicastro for using the FOI requests as a way of “keeping every elected official honest,” Cockayne said all of his e-mails show that he has nothing to hide.
“I have nothing to hide and I’ve always been open and honest,” said Cockayne, adding he always will be transparent. “Everything we do and write is public.”
Zoppo said she believes that the Task Force was formed “to fail or buy time, and the fact that we eluded failure has caused political irritation.” Calling the task force “an eclectic group of people with different priorities,” Zoppo said “it was tough going in the beginning,” as two members resigned and additional members were added months into the process.
“It was a frustrating time with a lot of thorny issues that eventually worked themselves out and the Task Force—for the most part, ended up rowing in the same direction, with people playing to their strengths, whether it was concessions, financial or mechanical,” said Zoppo.
In his FOI request, Czenczelewski included the names of volunteers who served on or worked with the Memorial Boulevard Task Force.
Peter Del Mastro, a member of the Task Force, said he “knows very little” of what the FOI requests are about, adding how surprised he felt upon hearing about them.
“I don’t know what sparked it,” said Del Mastro.
Del Mastro added that the Task Force “worked well together.”
“The discussions were lively, we had our disagreements, but we worked through them,” said Del Mastro. “We all came together to make a unanimous decision on what approach would be best.”
Zoppo added how she took issue with the targeting of e-mails from city employees who they consider “Democratic supporters” as well as emails of private citizens. She said that “type of witch hunt creates a chilling effect on people’s willingness to get involved in community activities, and also attempts to distract people from realizing the potential of the former school as a catalyst for arts and culture downtown.”
Kim Villanti, a Republican who volunteered on the Task Force’s theater subcommittee, said she felt “appalled that anyone would target community volunteers by asking a city attorney for legal authority to invade our privacy.”
“I would like to know why our names were on the request. I would like an answer to that,” said Villanti. “We do not work for the city, we were not appointed to serve on the Task Force, we were simply volunteers, as were hundreds of others.”
Villanti said she got involved with the Task Force because she wanted to do something positive for her community. Villanti, who did not know Zoppo before volunteering on the subcommittee, said she “became extremely impressed” by the chairwoman’s leadership through her involvement.
“She had a really difficult job at hand and managed to take a group of people with many ideas and agendas and get them all working cohesively, in a non-partisan way, for a common goal,” said Villanti. “She treated everyone with respect and inclusion, even those that had opposing views to hers.”
Zoppo said the volunteer theater group brought expertise to the Task Force and “did an incredible job.”
“We routinely had 40 people at our meetings, and dozens who volunteered to ensure the events went off without a hitch,” said Zoppo.
By LISA CAPOBIANCO