Does political criticism constitute a town emergency?

That’s what some town residents are wondering after First Selectman Tim Herbst used the town’s Citizen Alert notification program to respond to a flyer distributed by Trumbull Democrats Monday afternoon. The flyer cited the town’s plan to sell six municipally owned properties, including the Board of Education building, the Aram Tellallian Building, and the Nature and Arts Center, all on Main Street. The VFW Hall, Center at Priscilla Place, and a property on Berkshire Avenue are also potentially on the block.

The flyer rhetorically asks why the properties are being sold, what potential development could result, and the possible effect on property values would be before asserting that “The Town should NOT sell municipal property in your neighborhood.”

Democratic Town Committee Chairman Tom Kelly said his group had distributed the flyers to a targeted list of homeowners who live within ¼ mile of one of the affected properties, about 1,000 homes in total.

So most of the town was surprised to receive a telephone call from Herbst Monday afternoon, using the town’s Citizen Alert program, criticizing the flyer.

“This morning, residents contacted my office with information that was left in their mailbox and on their driveways in the form of a flyer,” Herbst said in the recorded message. “The information contained in the flyer was untruthful and grossly misleading and it was designed to scare and misinform residents. It is important that all Trumbull residents have appropriate and accurate information, not misinformation.”

In his recording, Herbst did not specify what parts of the flyer he considered untruthful. When media outlets, including the Trumbull Times, contacted his office to ask for comment, Herbst distributed a statement saying the system was commonly used for items of public concern.

“When my office received several inquiries on the same issue in a short time Tuesday, I felt it important to remind residents they have an open, direct line to their town hall and first selectman where they can always direct questions or receive accurate information on town projects and plans,” he wrote.

The town’s website lists the purpose of the alert system as being “to alert citizens about emergencies and other important community news” and gives as examples, “severe weather, fires, floods, unexpected road closures, or evacuation of buildings or neighborhoods.”

Kelly said Trumbull Democrats stand behind the substance of the flyer, which listed the properties Herbst himself had said could potentially be sold in a March 10 memo “Community Center and Municipal Facility Update” posted on the town website. In the memo Herbst states that construction of a new community center would allow the town to consolidate services currently spread across the Tellallian Building, VFW Hall and Center at Priscilla Place. He also mentions the potential relocation of Board of Education and Nature and Arts Center from their current buildings, and questions whether the town needs to retain the Berkshire Avenue site that is used for storage of town vehicles.

“Let me be clear, and please be rest assured, we will be working with all parties at all sites to make sure any relocation is a positive move and results in a smart and sustainable solution for everyone involved,” he wrote. “Assuming we are able to find such solutions, the Town will be in a position to consider the sale of some or all of these sites to private owners.”

The sale of the properties could bring between $8.5 million and $9.5 million, and that returning the properties to the tax rolls could generate $600,000 in annual revenue, he concluded.

Ironically, Kelly said Herbst’s reaction to the Democrats’ notice had aided their cause since more than 90% of the town did not receive a flyer. Most people first became aware of it from Herbst’s call.

“We are happy that the FS is giving this issue added attention,” Kelly said. “We want every single town resident to be aware of the potential sale of these properties. We think it's a terrible idea for our town.”