Discussion of Freda, Big Y photo, heats up at selectman meeting
The Sept. 3 Board of Selectmen meeting touched on many concerns, including a photograph of Selectman Michael Freda, Leigh Gomez, solar panels, milling and paving costs, Freda’s Web site, Lexington Gardens, and the town pool.
Part of the meeting focused on a circulated photograph of Freda and the manager of the North Haven Big Y Supermarket at 345 Washington Ave. In the picture, which was published last month by several local media outlets, Freda is accepting a North Haven Italian Festival donation check from the manager.
The photograph prompted a recent protest that occurred at the Big Y, which was brought up by Freda before the meeting’s public comment. The incident took place after the supermarket contacted the Italian Festival board of directors and expressed a desire to withdraw their donation from the Aug. 21-22 event.
Freda, a businessman who – along with Selectman Steve Fontana – is involved with the Italian Festival’s hosts, said that board of directors contacted him to inquire whether he had any business contacts within Big Y, which he did. Freda then drove to the chain’s executive headquarters in Springfield, Mass. and convinced his executive contacts to restore the Italian Festival donation.
According to Freda, it was customary for the Big Y to publish a photograph of the store giving an oversized donation check to an Italian Festival organizer before the event for publicity. As Freda had helped restore the donation, he said, the supermarket contacted him to ask whether he wanted to be in the photograph. Freda added that the store did so purely in respect to his connections to the festival, and in no way because he was also currently campaigning for the town’s first selectman position.
However, after the photograph of Freda accepting the Big Y check from the store’s manager was circulated in media outlets, several concerned North Haven residents allegedly took it as the supermarket’s endorsement of Freda for the upcoming November election. In an e-mail sent from Big Y headquarters to Freda, it was reported that a number of town residents entered the North Haven supermarket to protest the photograph.
The e-mail, as summarized by Freda at the meeting, alleged that several individuals tore up their Big Y cards in front of store employees. Additionally, the e-mail and Freda claimed that one individual “complained for 20 minutes with the store manager” and stated that the manager should not have been next to Freda in the photograph because the third selectman was running for office.
Freda and the e-mail also alleged that the individual “described his support for Janet McCarty and the present administration” to the store manager.
Freda added that the manager was “approached by several people telling him that they couldn’t believe he was next to this particular person [in the photograph], because apparently everybody hates this individual in town.”
“Big Y corporate headquarters is upset,” Freda said. “The store is upset. They have the idea that there is a boycott of Big Y because of the picture. The town of North Haven looks foolish.”
“We don’t look good to a grant list member,” Freda added, alluding to the three selectmen. “All three of us look foolish.”
The third selectman also believed that the incident may be hurtful to the Italian Festival. “The largest sponsor of the Italian Festival may pull out next year,” Freda added of Big Y. “It is very unfortunate. It is very upsetting.”
In defending himself, Michael Mele approached the public comment microphone at the front of the room and revealed himself to be the individual who spoke with the Big Y manager. Mele said that Freda was at fault for not alerting the manager prior to the photograph that he was running for office in November. “It appeared like an endorsement,” Mele said.
“There was no mention of supporting Janet McCarty,” Mele added. He also denied that the incident was confrontational in nature, and said that he would make up any lost Big Y donations to the Italian Festival in 2010.
“I give you a lot of credit for standing up here,” Freda said to Mele as the resident remained at the microphone.
The third selectman defended the photograph as strictly an economic exercise, and stated that it was not a political maneuver. “This falls under the category of town business,” Freda said to Mele. “This was not a political issue – you made it a political issue.”
Freda added that he did not tell the manager he was a candidate for first selectman beforehand, because he did not view the photograph as being political.
“Every year, there is a picture in the paper of the store donating money to the festival,” Freda said after the meeting. “They contacted me [for the photograph]. I’m responding to a request. This is not a political issue. I’m helping an organization looking to restore their largest sponsor.”
Other concerns and comments
First Selectman Janet McCarty said that the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities had received Leigh Gomez’s rebuttal to Town Hall’s response to Gomez’s charges of racial discrimination and retaliation. The first selectman added that the CHRO now has up to 90 days to decide whether the accusations warrant further investigation. Gomez, an African American and former executive assistant to the first selectman, attended the meeting.
The selectmen resolved that the 2009 cost for town road paving and milling, which came to $638,120, would be covered by two state grants. The Local Capital Improvement Program will provide $400,000, and Town Aid Roads will provide $238,120. Director of Public Works Lynn Sadosky said that the $190,500 cost per mile in 2009 was cut in half from last year, due to the drop in the cost of oil.
The first selectman also announced that the town’s Clean Energy Task Force had successfully signed up enough residents for clean energy to be rewarded with a large solar panel. The panel should arrive by the end of the year. It is currently unknown what town building will receive the panel. McCarty also thanked the North Haven High School Green Club for its continued work on clean energy in town.
Speaker Jim Leahy opined that Michael Freda’s campaign Web site was “misleading” in claiming that the town accepted its trash removal contract without competitive bidding, because there are only few companies capable of providing the service. Freda’s Web site claims, “As First Selectman, [McCarty] awarded a $9,000,000 trash contract with no public bidding in December 2008.”
McCarty also spoke on the subject. “We spent a year looking for the best contract,” she said. “Only two people wanted the job. We got the best possible result.” McCarty added that the town awarded the contract to Covanta over the Connecticut Recourses Recovery Authority. “One supplier was clearly superior to the other,” the first selectman said.
Speaker Michael Zuccarelli inquired to the status of the asbestos removal at the Lexington Gardens demolition project. Zuccarelli, a neighbor to the half-raised, 14-acre greenhouse property at 500 Middletown Ave., feared that little had been done to remove pollutants, and that the contaminated site would not be cleaned by snowfall. “It’s an environmental nightmare,” Zuccarelli said. “The town should step in.”
“It’s not town property,” McCarty responded. “We are doing as much as we can, which is to encourage [its owner] to begin work.”
The first selectman added that the owner is waiting for an asbestos removal contractor to be approved by the state to begin cleanup. The demolition project is currently being overseen by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection after the discovery of asbestos on the site in July.
Speaker Veronica Kivela asked of the delay in opening the town pool. Janet McCarty replied that the delay was due to necessary repairs. Town treasurer William Gambardella said that the repairs would go over the $25,000 budgeted line item for pool repairs by $5,000 to $15,000. The town pool opened Aug. 31. It was originally scheduled to open Aug. 10.