In an attempt to change the tone in town and eliminate social media animosity, political leaders from the Republican and Democratic parties are entertaining the concept of a “weekend retreat” that will encourage face-to-face conversations and team-building exercises between residents with rivaling bureaucratic ideologies.
First Selectman Tim Herbst unveiled the idea in a Facebook post last week after meeting with his challenger from this year’s election, Vicki Tesoro.
“It’ll be a breakout session where we can talk through the issues that bring out anger on social media and help us acknowledge that we need to work through these problems together,” Herbst told The Times Friday morning. “My goal is to invite people who post a lot and have very strong opinions on how this town can be run better — it’s an open invitation really for anyone who wants to share their opinion but believes that doing so face to face is a lot better than hiding behind a computer.”
In his post on the Facebook group “Trumbull Talks,” the first selectman said that his meeting with Tesoro lasted two and a half hours and was “one of the best conversations she and I have ever had.”
“We hugged at the beginning and we hugged at the end and we laughed in between,” he wrote. “We critiqued each other’s debate performances and we also talked about issues where we could find common ground.”
Tesoro told The Times Friday that the idea was an “interesting concept,” but that party leaders still needed to meet to discuss details and goals.
“While this is an interesting proposal, it cannot be a substitute for what should and needs to happen every day in Trumbull,” she said. “Our citizens want civility not just in words but in daily actions. It really is a simple concept.”
Clearing the air
Herbst explained in his post that the idea of a weekend retreat was further hammered out when he met with Town Council member and former police commissioner Jack Testani.
He said he’d like the meeting to take place at the Trumbull Marriott or another large corporate entity in Trumbull.
“Mandatory attendance by the key players in each party, no excuses. Face-to-face, honest, candid conversation,” he wrote in the post. “I would like to see us break out into smaller groups to have some dispute mediation and clear the air.”
Herbst told the Times there would be a trained professional to mediate the dialogue, which would include “40 to 50 of the most prolific and hard-line social media posters on both sides to attend.”
“It’s time to get in a room and get this out on the table,” he said.
Besides conversations, Tesoro said she’d like to see Herbst ask Democrats for recommendations of candidates to serve on various boards and commissions.
“We expect that our nominees will be treated in a fashion that reflects this new desire for civility,” she said.
Time and place
While the location of the proposed retreat hasn’t become a point of dissent, the timing of the meeting has created a bit of a divide already.
Herbst said he’d like the meeting to occur by the end of the month or in early December, while Democratic leaders believe this isn’t the right time of year for such an event.
“The Board of Education members are going to be wrapped up in budget talks in December that’ll take away a lot of free time that they’re already volunteering to the town,” said Tom Kelly, chairman of the Democratic Town Committee.
“Plus, it’s the holiday season,” he said. “I can’t see it happening until January, at the earliest.”
Similar to Tesoro’s comments, Kelly said that Herbst has the opportunity to show civility in the remaining month and a half of the year.
“He can do it in his words and in his actions before we get to 2016,” he said. “He can lead by example, and I believe that the best way of doing that is having words and actions in alignment.”
Kelly agreed that having a weekend-long meeting between political rivals could produce some positive results.
“I definitely think it’s in the best interest of the town for everyone to work together,” he said. “We are neighbors and we ought to act that way. …
“This town is not at war,” he added.
Looking at the results from this year’s Election Day, Kelly said, the message the voters sent to the town’s leaders was pretty clear.
“The main lesson is that the town is tired of this heavy-handed approach,” he said. “I think the Democrats have been calling for it for the last six years, and if it it took a close election to finally
embrace it, then we’re certainly all for it.
“We’re open to anything that’s for the betterment of the town,” he added.
Show, don’t tell
Newly elected town Treasurer Anthony Musto responded to the idea on Facebook, saying that instead of talking about stopping the vitriol in town politics, leaders needed to show residents by example.
“We don’t need professionals to tell people to be civil to each other; we need to say hello and thank you, and shake hands and mean it, when we see each other,” he wrote last week. “We don’t need conference rooms to help us talk to each other; we need to do that in Stop & Shop, Dunkin’ Donuts and the library.”
Musto, who defeated town Treasurer John Ponzio by a 122-vote margin on Nov. 3, said the same rules that apply to life should apply at Town Council or Board of Education meetings.
“Listen respectfully, address the issues, don’t tell lies, and don’t insult anyone,” he said. “If we want civility in politics we simply need to be civil, not talk about being civil.”
The former state senator said there was only one rule that both residents and politicians needed to remember in day-to-day life.
“There is a line, sometimes difficult to find and easy to cross, between telling someone why you disagree with them and telling someone they have evil intent,” he said. “It’s the same line as that between pointing out a flaw in a policy and calling a person flawed.”
“Not everyone has to like each other, and not everyone has to agree, but we must stop attacking people and start debating issues,” he added.
Musto said that he’s not totally against the idea though.
“If the town wants to host a gathering of social media participants so we can all meet each other and see who is behind the keyboards, that sounds like an idea that would bring people together,” he said. “But I see no reason to spend a weekend away from my children to talk about something I try to show them every day.”