Who’s using the proposed community center for political gain?

That was the question being tossed around last week between First Selectman Tim Herbst and former Democratic Town Councilwoman Vicki Tesoro, who previously squared off for the town’s top-elected position in November 2015 — an election that resulted in a narrow victory for Herbst.  

Fast forward eight months and there’s no love lost, as a petition against community center spending is the latest wedge to further divide town’s already fractured political parties.

“If they shared the survey that was emailed to them back in August — a survey that Ms. Tesoro and the rest of the Town Council Democrats chose openly not to participate in — with the same dedication and persistence that they’ve used to push out this petition, then we could have gotten a lot done, but the reality is that they don’t want to get anything done,” Herbst told The Times Friday, June 3, after reading Tesoro’s comments in a pair of articles about proposed locations for the community center and the subsequent petition that calls for the process to be stopped until more feedback is gathered.

“Their true motives are simple: they want to obstruct,” the first selectman added. “If they truly wanted to give constructive feedback, they had five months to respond to the survey that was sent out.”

For her part, Tesoro said she chose not to participate in the survey because she thought it was poorly done.

She told The Times that she provided her opinion in other ways.

“I attended at least two of the public hearings held by the building committee and spoke there to the committee and the public,” she said after reading Herbst’s email blast to more than a dozen town officials that was written June 2.

Public hearing attendance wasn’t the only thing that Tesoro boasted.

She said she’s also attended every committee meeting since its inception in February 2015.

Back on March 7, 2016, she returned to the Town Council chambers when the building committee was giving a full update about the project.

“I spoke during public comments about my concerns and asked that the committee continue to reach out to the public for their feedback,” she said.

“I attended a gathering of residents at Island Brook Park on March 6, 2016, to tour the park with the neighbors and to listen to their concerns about the possible choice of the park property as the site of the new senior center,” she added.      

Most recently, Tesoro pointed toward her contribution at a public meeting at the senior center that was held on April 11 — and was actually called by Herbst — to gauge resident’s opinions about moving the district’s probate court to the building located at 23 Priscilla Place.

Campaign trail

Herbst believes that the appearances at the meetings and the hearings don’t represent an interest in the community center or the building committee’s process; rather, he told The Times that these were all purposeful maneuvers from Tesoro to keep her name in the news.

“It’s all about the 2017 election for them,” he said. “And that’s why they won’t take a position for or against the community center, because it’s not about the community for them — it’s about what can help Vicki Tesoro win the next municipal election here in Trumbull…

“All of their attacks — whether it’s posting on social media or writing letters to the editor or getting signatures for a petition — are geared toward the next election,” he added. “We can all see it.”

In response to those allegations, Tesoro said that she has been involved with the committee’s process from the beginning and has been consistent with her stance in regards to the community center — she’s for it, as long as Trumbull residents are supportive of the idea.

“Saying that what I’m doing is for political reasons doesn’t make any sense,” she told The Times Monday, June 6. “When I announced my campaign last year, I said I wanted to pursue a community center — I’m not opposing anything. All I’ve said is let’s make sure we are asking the community what they want. Is it a renovated senior center? Is it a new senior center? Is it a multi-purpose building that has community and senior activities?”

Political purposes

Somewhat ironically, Tesoro said last week that Herbst was using the situation to flex his political muscle.

She underlined her hard stance against use of government email and processes for political purposes.

“It is not for the first selectman to dictate how a private citizen chooses to participate,” she said June 3. “Misuse of government email and processes for political purposes should not be tolerated…

“His email was politically motivated and he crossed the line when he sent it because I’m not an elected official,” she added three days later. “I’m a private citizen and I’m allowed to freely express how I feel without having to be intimidated.”

She said that the crux of the survey dilemma stems from “a pattern of harassment” coming out of Town Hall.

“We’re not the obstructionists he likes to paint us as,” Tesoro said. “All we want is to have the ability to speak freely and submit our comments without harassment and intimidation…

“Right now, what we have is a scary example of Big Brother,” she added. “It’s an abuse of government power.”

The former council member suggested hiring an independent consulting company similar to the one the library used last summer to review survey results and encourage residents that their responses won’t be shared publicly.

“People are afraid what they say in the surveys will be used against them because that’s what has been done here in the past — that’s the pattern everyone’s familiar with seeing,” Tesoro said. “I don’t want people to feel that Big Brother is looking over their shoulder and I don’t think they should feel that way.

“That’s why we need a balance of power in this process, and the best way to achieve that is bringing in an outside party to review what we have and go out and get more information from the community,” she added. “Residents want to know who’s in charge of the process — who they can give feedback and input to — and it shouldn’t be the first selectman or a committee that he oversees directly.”

Too much free time?

Without being asked to submit them, each Herbst and Tesoro posed several questions to one another about their involvement in the community center survey process — the first selectman challenging his challenger’s lack of involvement and the former Town Council minority leader pondering why the town’s top official had so much time on his hands to care.

“Did you tell the public you would be tracking who participated in the survey and how they responded? Did you tell the public you planned to call out private citizens who did not participate in the survey?” Tesoro said in her response to Herbst’s email blast. “Did you intentionally forget to tell people the other ways residents could participate in the process? Did you use government resources in furtherance of this blatant surveillance of the people?

“Don't you have better things to do with your time?” she added.

In the original email, Herbst said he respected Tesoro’s opinions but was overtly critical over her position on the matter, especially for eschewing the original survey that was open from Aug. 27, 2015, to Jan. 16.

“The survey system has revealed that none of you participated in the survey,” he said. “The 2015 Democratic nominee for First Selectman, the two Democrats on the Board of Finance, the Town Council Minority Leader and two very vocal members of your party did not, over a five month period, take the time to offer constructive comments through the survey that was sent directly to each of you. It raises some very valid questions that you should answer for the general public: If you are truly concerned about the public having input, why didn’t you alert the public to the survey that you received in August of last year?”

Speaking to The Times last week, Herbst continued that the Democrats needed to lead by example by participating in the survey and sharing it with other interested residents who belong to the political party.

“If you’re going to be highly critical of the process that’s one thing, but if you’re going to be critical for the sake of being critical — without offering any positive or constructive feedback, then you shouldn’t be part of that process,” Herbst said. “I still can’t wrap my head around this: why didn’t they share the survey and get their opinions out there?

“It begs the question: Are they opposing this for legitimate reasons or are they opposing it for the sake of obstruction?” he added. “What I want to do is whether or not they are for or against having a community center in trouble. They still haven’t taken a stance on that and that’s because they’re more concerned about the next election.”

Double-edge sword

Herbst recognized that retaliation in this case could be playing into the opposition’s hands, propelling the community center to become a “wedge issue” for 2017 — something that he theorized the Democrats want.

However, he stood firm in his use of social media and, in this case, an email blast, to attack what he deems are misleading facts or outright lies.

“They can’t attack a tax reduction; they can’t put down our growing grand list and our economic development; they can’t say anything negative about our rising SAT scores and our soaring AP enrollment numbers, so they’re go to try and create this as the big issue for the next election,” Herbst predicted.

“It’s a double-edge sword,” he said about the back-and-forth squabbles on social media. “When people spread enough lies and they are repeated enough, then people tend to believe it as truth and I can’t allow people to spread misinformation.

“That’s why I go on there and try to set the record straight because if you were to read some comments on Facebook, then you would believe that we didn’t elicit any feedback and we haven’t been following any process whatsoever,” he added. “And that simply isn’t true. We’ve been at this thing for a long time now and we’re going to continue to go after it and seek feedback from the community every step of the way.”