Last week’s special Board of Selectmen’s (BOS) meeting was a disappointing spectacle of dysfunction and cronyism. The First Selectman had requested three plans for future uses of the Thomas Darling property and buildings be presented to the BOS. The first was a clear, polished, PowerPoint-supported presentation by the president of the Amity & Woodbridge Historical Society (AWHS) which has managed the property well for 45 years. She reiterated the mission of this non-profit, all-volunteer organization is preservation of all of the Darling museum buildings on 10 acres of property. It included a sensible, long-term vision for the property and buildings in keeping with its mission. Next, the farmer/former AWHS caretaker spoke about his plan to continue to live on and farm the property. When his presentation faltered, it looked obvious to even the casual observer he already knew his farm lease and residence in the caretaker apartment was not going to be renewed – but it didn’t seem to bother him for some reason. The third plan was, in effect, an attack by a Woodbridge resident criticizing the Historical Society’s upkeep of some of the buildings. The presentation was lavishly illustrated with the least flattering views possible of outbuildings in need of repair. While he invoked the spirit of Thomas Darling to chide AWHS, the real specter in the room was his partner, and the First Selectman’s close friend, who wants to turn the property into a tourist “destination,” totally out of synch with the Society’s mission. It should also be noted that parading high volumes of visitors through authentic historic sites goes against the recommendation of experts in the field. So why wouldn’t the BOS listen to them?
Following the presentations, the BOS discussion centered on creation of a committee to oversee AWHS and all of the buildings except for the Darling House and caretaker’s apartment. From then on it was obvious that the outcome was preordained. The First Selectman had come to the meeting with her motion in hand. It was obvious the three presentations had no effect on her decision. The Democrat Selectmen quickly approved the formation of an oversight committee while the two Republicans voted against. It was political kabuki theater at its finest and has effectively gutted the mission of the Society – and to what end? And it created another government-concocted body that fixes what wasn’t broken.
What was the cost of this unnecessary and counterproductive confrontation with the AWHS? Plenty. The Society put programs and grant applications on hold for 10 months while the town stonewalled attempts to negotiate. The stonewalling caused the Board to hire several professionals to communicate with the town attorney and publicly expose this situation – to the tune of $30,000 (which the Society would have preferred to spend on building maintenance.) A $48,000 state grant is still in limbo awaiting the town attorney’s open-ended promise to look over the Town’s updated management agreement with AWHS. Is this the right way to acknowledge volunteers for their service to the town? To disrupt a system that worked well for all concerned for decades until the behavior of one bad tenant, with a personal connection to the First Selectman, sent the whole situation spiraling down? The resolution “splits the baby” by putting some buildings in the hands of the Society but strips them of the outbuildings that are just as important to the historic preservation effort. Voters in Woodbridge should remember when the time comes that it was the Republican Selectmen, and the Woodbridge Republican Town Committee, who publicly and without reservation supported the Amity & Woodbridge Historical Society through this ordeal. We did so not to make the issue partisan, but because there was only one right answer to the situation. The partisan divide in the BOS’s vote is sad and inexplicable.
By Chuck Pyne