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City Council Meeting: Second Time is a Charm for Wheeler

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RIT CARTER FEBRUARY 10, 2022

Tuesday night, in the city council chambers with every seat nearly filled and an overflow crowd consuming the outer reaches of the room, and with the previous city council looking on and lending support, the current city council reversed course in a 5-2 vote approving the Wheeler project. The lone dissenting votes were Jacqueline Olsen and Sue Tyler.

Ten speakers rose during the public comments section of the meeting and urged the Council to approve the Wheeler project. Wheeler Clinic Chief Executive Officer Sabrina Trocchi, former city councilor Scott Rosado, former city councilor Tony D’Amato, who last served in 2017, Chamber of Commerce CEO Cindy Bombard, and several city residents spoke passionately of the need to fix what many considered a disastrous decision the Council made in December.

With a busy agenda and recognizing the large crowd and the reason for it, Mayor Jeff Caggiano moved the Wheeler vote up on the night’s schedule to accommodate those in attendance.

For weeks, there had been a great deal of speculation about who would change their votes. So, as the councilors prepared to explain their decisions, a palpable silence fell over council chambers.

First to speak in support was Andrew Howe.

Howe, who sat motionlessly and blankly stared ahead during the public comments, initially seemed nervous when he spoke, but he gathered his bearings quickly and delivered well-thought-out remarks.

The freshman councilman had done his homework since the previous vote and stated he held meetings with stakeholders and experts in the field of construction, economic development, and mental health services, which helped him see the value in locating Wheeler downtown. “This project’s goal has been to provide children and families greater access to the services Wheeler Health Clinic provides. We are currently in a mental health crisis, and access to help is a key part of battling mental health issues,” he said.

Following Howe, the two votes against were announced.

Jacqueline Olsen stated that she wanted to thank the many Bristol residents that contacted her to express their opposition to the Wheeler project at Centre Square. She went on to say she appreciated all the work Wheeler Clinic does for the people of Bristol. But ultimately, she stated, “I was elected to represent and serve all of District Two, not just a few.” Her vote remained a no.

Next was the other representative of District Two, Susan Tyler.

She had also voted no at the December Council meeting and stated that the new Wheeler plan was an improvement over the first. But she lamented, “I don’t necessarily agree that it will boost our economic development to the extent that some think, but with having said that, perhaps someday in the future, I will be in the position to publicly say I was wrong.” She remained a no.

At this point, the tally was 2-1 against the proposal. As Councilwoman Cheryl Thibeault slightly adjusted her microphone to speak all in the room knew that her decision was key.

Thibeault had previously shot down the project because she felt it did not provide economic growth, and the location was not suitable for a non-profit.

The councilwoman from District 2, summarized her vote with a six-minute speech. She was pleased that Wheeler had agreed to move to another lot, making the previous lot available to “accommodate an option that will bring a retail, dining, or whatever option that many in town have been waiting for.” She told those gathered, “While the tax-exempt status was not a motivating factor in my decision of December 14, I fully appreciate the concern of taxpayers, and we’ll look to help push for additional pilot funds while working to reduce the tax burden through prudent spending and smaller government.”

She stunned many when she voted yes, which resulted in light applause.

With Howe and Thibeault on board, the proposal was now a go.

Council members Lusitani and Panioto then announced their yes votes with short explanations. Lusitani changed her vote, she explained, because “the moving of the Wheeler site gives the city the opportunity to bring Bristol something community and family-oriented in the remaining building lot.”

Sebastian Panioto, the only member of the Council to vote yes in December, remained steadfast in his resolve that mental health was a priority for Bristol, and reaffirmed his approval of the project.

While many were critical of Olsen and Tyler outside the chambers for their nay votes, they respected that Howe, Thibeault, and Lusitani amended their previous decision.

For the Mayor, though, despite the previous setback in December and the resulting criticism and fallout, he remained confident the project would still be part of the Centre Square portfolio. Later, he told the TBE, “For me, it was persistence and it was just the right thing to do.”

While Wheeler garnered the lion’s share of the attention, there were other matters on the agenda, but one stood out and is worth noting.

Item 18: The resolution to rescind the executive authority given to Governor Lamont created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which overrides proper local control of the government in Bristol, was up for debate and vote.

Following the Board of Education, the city council adopted a similar measure. Councilwoman Lusitani, who is the BOE liaison, read the measure into the record, which read in part, “And whereas the people of Bristol have spoken and expect the City Council to act on their behalf, to defend their constitutional freedoms and to set policies for our town.

“Now, therefore, be it resolved that the Bristol City Council in regular session assembled, calls upon the governor of the state of Connecticut and the Connecticut General Assembly to rescind any executive authority created in response to the COVID 19 pandemic which overrides the proper local control of the government, the city of Bristol.

“I move that we approve the resolution as written.”

When the vote passed unanimously and a sparse crowd was still in attendance, the Council applauded themselves.

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