Red light, green light.

Will town administrators move forward in its pursuit of a new Trumbull community center or will calls to immediately stop the process be answered?

Only time will tell, but, as the town’s building committee has set forth with its next step — picking four architecture firms to come up with site plans for two potential locations — the political lines have been drawn and reinforced, in case anyone thought the latest strife between Trumbull Democrats and Republicans could be settled amicably.

As the committee waits to hear plans from architects on June 23, an online petition that asks for the process to cease has gained 500-plus signatures in two weeks.

“This spring I began to realize what was going on with the committee and it was disturbing to me that they were moving forward without community input and that the Town Council had allocated money — $175,000 to be spent — without a site being chosen,” said Eric Paulson, who created the petition May 16. “That’s a big red flag to me and a lot of others — they’re moving forward without much of a plan and they’re using a survey from last year that is plagued with erroneous data.”

In response to the petition’s momentum on Facebook, First Selectman Tim Herbst said that Paulson, who was an unaffiliated voter until registering as a Democrat late last year, had plenty of time to speak out against the committee’s process before now and wondered why he and others didn’t challenge the scientific method used in last year’s survey sooner.

“This town’s been surveyed five times since 1999, and in that 17-year period, every time an overwhelming majority supported the idea of building a community center here in Trumbull,” he told The Times last week, pointing to question four on the survey that 426 people filled out between Aug. 19, 2015 and Jan. 15, 2016. “Almost 85% of respondents said ‘yes’ to that question — that they would like to see one in Trumbull — so why would I be against letting the committee proceed in its very methodical and deliberate process?

“They’re just embarrassed by the fact that for five months they sat idly by as the residents of this community participated in a survey about the community center and another about the senior center and they were silent,” Herbst added. “They’re not engaged and, quite frankly, they’re dangerous because they have no answers.

“They’re good at telling people what they’re against but not what they’re for.”

Let’s argue numbers

Almost 700 residents filled out the senior center survey last fall, bumping the number of participants to a little more than 1,100 — a number that satisfies Herbst, but enrages his opponents.

Democratic leader Vicki Tesoro, who challenged Herbst in last year’s election, spoke to The Times last week and said that her side collected around half of that survey response size in 10 days.

“The petition that’s been going around already has 500 more signatures and it’s only been online for a little over a week,” she said Thursday, May 26. “That’s more than the 426 that filled out the community center over a five-month period.”

Tesoro said that the 100-plus comments on the petition were further proof that the process needs to stop.

“It’s not my decision to make; it’s not the Town Council’s decision or the committee’s decision; and it’s not Mr. Herbst’s decision,” she said. “This is the people’s decision to make and I’ve spoken to the people — I campaigned for months last year — and not once did anybody say that a community center should be our No. 1 priority in town.

“That’s why I want them to stop and re-evaluate where they are going with this because right now the process is totally backward,” Tesoro added. “Hire an architect for a site that hasn’t been approved, then hold a public hearing — it doesn’t make sense.

“We might not have to spend any money at all if that’s what residents tell us.”

Herbst, who stressed that the public will get multiple chances to comment on the issue before any facility is built or renovated, wasn’t too impressed with the collection of signatures Paulson’s petition gathered.

Rather, he wanted to focus on how Tesoro and other Democratic leaders have viewed surveying the public in the past.

“It’s ironic that they’re against proceeding with our plans for a community center now because less than a decade ago, these were the same people who were all for spending $73 million to renovate the high school — without a referendum — and they are same people who were against surveying the public for more input after an initial survey produced only 800 responses,” the first selectman said. “They’re not consistent — the only thing they’re consistent at doing is being disingenuous and it’s gone on long enough.”

Data collection

In an attempt to backup his claims that the data collected by the committee last year lacked validity, Paulson said that over 200 responses from the survey came from the same IP address.

“If only 1,100 people filled it out and 200 of those responses were the same person, then that draws the question, was the survey tampered with? And if so, we have to do it all over again,” he explained.

“The town’s basing this multi-million dollar decision off of data that’s been potentially skewed intentionally one way and that only represents less than 4% of the population — that’s a small sample size,” he added. “If you exclude those 200 responses, you have any even smaller sample and an even smaller response rate — it’s limited in even the best case scenario.”

Paulson would prefer to see the whole town population have the opportunity to voice their opinion by “widening the pool” to say, 20,000 residents.

Town Councilman Mark Block, who is in favor of a community center, thinks that surveying an entire community would be problematic. He said that Paulson’s petition resembled more of a poll — something that presents a single issue, but can’t be used as quantifiable evidence.

“If we’re talking about a full, comprehensive and scientific surveying, that’s a different animal altogether,” he said. “It’s not a feeling-based thing and it’s certainly not going to be a quick thing, it takes time.”

To survey effectively, Block said that a sample population — not the entire town — should be selected at random and given the survey at the same time, not online. However, he feels that that won’t prove to be effective given the political nature of this issue.  

The District 3 representative believes that — beyond the walls of a survey room — the best way to find out what’s needed for a center in Trumbull is by looking around at surrounding towns.

“It’s not rocket science; we don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “Let’s look at our friends and our neighbors and see what they have and determine what we can borrow from them to enhance the quality of our town...

“We can argue the details and costs and ask for more surveys or polls but there’s one overriding question that everyone must ask themselves and that is: are we lacking something that will ultimately enhance our town? I think the answer is ‘yes’ and that’s why this discussion has to move forward rather than go back to square one.”

Petition against spending

The petition titled, “Survey All Residents Before Spending Taxpayer Money,” is straightforward in its request: find out what Trumbull residents want and what they are willing to pay for before spending a cent.

“A project of this scale requires a comprehensive town-wide planning process to answer some basic questions,” wrote Paulson, who only has plugged it on Facebook and is still shy of his 1,000 signature goal.

Paulson said that from the beginning, the process has been flawed.

“Yet the Town Council and Board of Finance have allocated $175,000 to the Building Committee to hire an architect to design this new facility,” he wrote. “This money is being spent despite the fact that the need for a new senior center has not been established; initial resident surveys were ill-designed and elicited poor response rates.

“Currently, no financial projections have been done regarding the cost to run a new facility, membership numbers, or membership fee increases,” he continued. “A site has not even been selected. Nonetheless, our town government continues to push ahead, spending our tax dollars on this poorly planned process.”

The leftovers

If Paulson and Tesoro get their way and the committee is halted in its tracks, then $175,000 that was approved by the Board of Finance in the 2016-2017 will be left over — potentially to spent anywhere in town.

That begs the question, where would the money go if not allotted to the committee and the architect?

“We can use it elsewhere,” Paulson told The Times May 25. “Education is my personal preference but I don’t really have the answer.

“All I know is picking an architect is foolish,” he added. “The first step of this process should be getting a feeling for what the town wants — I don’t think that step has been completed.”

Somewhat in the same vein as Block’s scientific approach, Tesoro suggested that the committee hire a consulting firm to design a survey “that’s conducted properly, like the library did last summer.”

“The committee was ready to do that but then it stopped and that’s resulted in a lot of people not knowing what’s going on,” she explained. “Whether you’re with the existing survey information or for the petition to slow things down, I think it’s clear that we need to have better communication.”

Paulson, and Tesoro for her part, each said that the money wasn’t the true issue; rather, it was the process being followed.

They each cited the committee’s lack of transparency, claiming that they should be giving quarterly reports to the Town Council, which they have not.

“It’s been going on for 15 months and they’ve given, what, maybe two reports to the Town Council?” Paulson asked, rhetorically.

Better call Tim

Block disagreed, and so did Herbst, about the claims that the committee lacked transparency.

“That’s a shame on them,” the first selectman said. “I have a three-inch-thick binder full of minutes from this past year alone from the committee’s presentations to Town Council…

“If there’s a question that wasn’t asked on the survey or some information that wasn’t delivered at a meeting that they would like to hear — something that they can specifically identify — then why don’t they say it?” he asked. “They can email me, my Chief of Staff Lynn Arnow, or [committee co-chair] Joe Pifko any time. I haven’t heard anything from them.”

As for the idea of a leftover $175,000 in the budget, Herbst said that no money has been spent yet and that allocated fund is part of the town’s capital improvement plan — earmarked when the committee is ready to make a recommendation and one is approved by the council.

“There were never any objections raised at the Town Council or Board of Finance level — not a single motion,” Herbst said. “Why not try and cut it then in open deliberation? They had months to review it and none voted to cut it out and it’s because they’re not engaged with anything other than their rhetoric, and that’s why they deliberately chose not to take part in the committee’s survey...

“It’s easy to sling mud at the wall and see what sticks,” he added. “And that’s what they like to do.”

While definitely muddy and unclear, the ongoing political dance around the community center doesn’t have to be contentious, according to Paulson.

“This needs to be about including people, not excluding them,” the 15-year Trumbull resident said. “I’ve never seen it so bad here — there has to be a more inclusive way to drum up more interest and have people be more active in the process.

“I would like to see the community, together, design the building. That way they really get behind something that they can see it and they’re interacting with in a hands-on manner,” he added.

“We need to get rid of the ‘us versus them’ mentality and mend our differences.”

Despite being on the opposite side of the argument, Herbst and Block agreed.

“Let’s put politics aside and do something positive for everyone,” Herbst said.

“Hyper-partisanship is not helping advance this town — it’s only doing a disservice,” Block added.