Taking one last look at 2019
As 2020 begins, it is once again time to take a look back at the year that has just ended. The year 2019 certainly had its share of joy and sadness, inspiration and “what were they thinking?” moments.
Politically, 2019 saw a familiar name running for first selectman. Land use and zoning dominated the headlines. Trumbull took a leading role in fighting a new form of drug use, and an educator was recognized statewide for his leadership.
And so without further ado, here are the Trumbull Times’ picks for the top stories of 2019, in no particular order.
Apartments: Monroe Tpke., Oakview Drive, Westfield mall, or Huntington Tpke. apartments dominated the conversations around town and played a major role in the 2019 municipal elections. Many around town worried that the addition of high-density rental communities would change the town’s character, while others welcomed the inclusion of more diverse housing stock.
On Route 111, a planned senior housing complex that would include independent and assisted living and memory care on the site of the former United Healthcare property remains tied up in court. An age-restricted single-family housing development at the site of the former Moorefield Farm was approved over the objections of a group of neighbors whose opposition to the project was so sharp that Town Attorney James Nugent issued a statement criticizing their public comments as “attacking municipal staff” and “defaming town volunteers.”
Other apartment complexes, approved in previous years, neared completion this year. To assess their impact on the town, the Planning and Zoning Commission passed a moratorium on apartment proposals in January. The moratorium called a one-year “time out,” although First Selectman Vicki Tesoro has said she hopes to extend the moratorium for a second year.
Strike: Grocery shopping became more complicated for an 11-day period as 31,000 workers at Stop and Shop supermarkets across the state, including Trumbull’s, walked off the job when contract negotiations broke down.
On April 21 the strike ended after the company offered workers a three-year contract that included pay increases, continued health care and pension benefits for eligible workers and continued time-and-a-half pay for working on Sundays.
Vaping: Trumbull was among the leaders in Connecticut and the nation when the Town Council passed a resolution raising the minimum age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21. The resolution had bipartisan support on the council, with no members voting against it and only one abstaining.
Proponents cited surveys showing vaping products were widely used and available at Trumbull High School. Most of those who used such products got them through an active black market where upperclass students who were 18 purchased them legally and resold them to younger students, according to Melissa McGarry, the project coordinator for TPAUD, Trumbull’s youth substance abuse prevention program.
Before passing the resolution, the council pondered potential legal challenges to its pre-emption of state law, which allows purchases at age 18. The issue became moot in September when the state legislature raised the tobacco age to 21 statewide.
Frenchtown principal: Within the space of a week, Frenchtown parents found out they were losing their principal, rallied dozens of supporters, got their principal back, then wondered what the whole situation had been about in the first place.
Principal Laura Cretella, who had been hired in 2017, informed parents in an April 25 email that she was resigning. Parents and staff mobilized in support of Cretella, and five days later she rescinded her resignation letter before the Board of Education meeting at which the panel was scheduled to accept it. After she opted to remain at Frenchtown, most of her supporters decided to attend the meeting anyway and deliver their messages to the board. Some parents tearfully recounted Cretella’s personal interest in their children’s education.
Cretella’s return was short-lived as she departed Frenchtown in July to accept the principal’s job at Deer Run Elementary School in East Haven.
Double down: The odds of winning the grand prize in any state lottery game are fairly remote. The odds of winning it twice, on the same day, are astronomical.
Yet Trumbull resident Jim Zygmont beat the odds, purchasing a $20,000 winning ticket at the Crossroads Card and Gift Shop in Norwalk. Upon learning he had won the 20X Cash 4th Edition game’s top prize, Zygmont celebrated by purchasing three more of the $20 tickets ... and promptly won again.
According to the state, the game consists of 2.2 million tickets, of which 116 are $20,000 winners. The odds of winning the game once are at about 1 in 19,000. The odds of buying two winning tickets within a few minutes are in the millions.
Cop arrested: Former Trumbull cop Michael Gonzalez was given a suspended sentence and ordered to register as a sex offender on Nov. 7 for stalking and sexually assaulting a teenage girl he met through the Police Department’s Explorer program.
Gonzalez was accused of using the Trumbull Police Department computer to get the address and car registration information for the victim and then later sexually assaulting her at her Trumbull home.
Gonzalez had previously made national news in 2010 when he donated part of his liver to the 15-year-old daughter of a fellow officer. Gonzalez also was arrested twice on domestic violence charges regarding an affair he had with a female officer he was training.
A familiar name: For the fifth time in six municipal elections, the name Herbst was at the top of the Trumbull Republican ticket. This time, though, it was Michael Herbst, former Trumbull High athletic director and father of four-term First Selectman Tim Herbst, that was challenging incumbent First Selectman Vicki Tesoro.
Though well known from his years in the Trumbull school system, Herbst, and his campaign, never seemed to find their footing, issuing statements on public safety that were roundly criticized by the town’s police and EMS commissions, and focusing its efforts on opposition to apartments in town. Voters, while likely concerned about the new apartment complexes, were unconvinced that Tesoro was responsible for them since many of the complexes, and the zone changes that allowed them, had happened before she took office.
Voters, ultimately, returned Tesoro to office as Democrats completed a near sweep of town offices and boards.
Seaquest: Seaquest Interactive Aquarium, a for-profit organization that encourages guests to feed and interact with its animals, opened a 17,000-square-foot facility at Westfield Trumbull in July. The aquarium features an array of exotic animals.
Business owners near the Seaquest location said the aquarium drew increased traffic to an area of the mall that had previously been slow. Patrons said they liked the convenience of having an aquarium in the mall, and the fact that families could visit for an hour or two, rather than taking up a full day. New attractions at Seaquest include indoor snorkeling with sharks and stingrays, and private parties.
Todd Manuel: Trumbull High School House Principal Todd Manuel was named the 2020 Assistant Principal of the Year by the Connecticut Association of Schools.
Manuel is the principal of C House at the school, meaning he oversees students whose last names begin with the letters O through Z, and about 40 staff. He also has been closely involved with students who show an interest in business, serving as a liaison with the Trumbull Business Education Initiative and as a DECA coordinator.
School Supt. Gary Cialfi, who nominated Manuel for the award, said Manuel’s effect extends well beyond the walls of Trumbull High, and well into the future. He cited the March 2019 student protest against school violence. What could have been a confrontation between angry students and frustrated staff became a positive and powerful statement of unity due to the cooperative relationship between Manuel and other staff and student leaders and a focus on what everyone could agree on, Cialfi said.
My Friend Abby: Losing a family member to suicide is a devastating experience, but also one that can inspire someone to action, said Trumbull resident Gillian Anderson. Now, five years after her daughter Abby died by suicide, Anderson is ready to make a difference. Anderson’s foundation, My Friend Abby Inc., formed in 2019 with the mission to engage young people in helping each other. By distributing small grants, she said it can allow students and teachers to initiate peer-to-peer programs and events.
“Kids have so many creative ideas, and they have been bringing them to me already,” she said.
Many of the ideas revolve around the idea of removing the stigmas of both suicide and mental illness.
“If you break your arm, people can see it,” she said. “The stigma with mental illness is that you can’t see it. Look at Robin Williams, or Kate Spade, or Anthony Bourdain. They looked happy and successful. Their struggles were invisible.”
Abby’s own life had similar details that made her death all the more shocking. A varsity cheerleader with social media pages full of photos where she was smiling and surrounded by friends, she had written out an aspirational list of things she wanted to achieve in life less than 24 hours before she died.
Missing in Hawaii: Alex Gumm, the 26-year-old son of former longtime Trumbull Times publisher Ben Gumm and former Trumbull resident, was reported missing by his family in August. Family members say Alex was last seen at a youth hostel on the island of Kauai in February 2018.
The family believes he may have entered a monastery on the island, but they aren’t sure. With no word from him for so long, friends took to social media to spread the word about his disappearance.
Gumm said his son had delved into the Hindu religion and Buddhism, and had taken a vow of silence. He went to Kauai “seeking enlightenment,” Gumm said.
The family hired a private investigator on the island, who did not discover their son’s whereabouts. They even offered a reward for information about Alex. Ryan Collins, a reporter for The Garden Island, said he thought Alex was living in a small tent community at Salt Pond Beach Park in Hawaii, but that in unconfirmed.
“I have no problem with him being in a monastery,” Gumm said. “He’s an adult, but if they’re holding him there against his will, that would be a very big concern.”
Gumm added that many people on Kauai choose to live off the grid, or choose to live in seclusion in one of the dozen monasteries on the island.