‘Unmatched Commitment’: Long-Time West Hartford Town Council Member Leon Davidoff Steps Down

Mayor Shari Cantor reads a proclamation noting the retirement of longtime Town Council member Leon Davidoff, left. Photo credit: John Lyons

West Hartford Town Council member Leon Davidoff missed only one meeting in more than 15 years of service.

After reading a “thank you” message, Leon Davidoff (seated) receives a standing ovation from the audience and Council members. Pictured are (from left): Mayor Shari Cantor, Deputy Mayor Liam Sweeney, Town Clerk Essie Labrot, and Council member Carol Blanks. Photo credit: Dallas Dodge

By Ronni Newton

Leon Davidoff was elected to the West Hartford Town Council in November 2007, and during the more-than-15-years he served, he missed only one of the 321 meetings that took place during that time – and that was on the day his mother passed away in March 2012.

He has served on every single Council committee at some point, and chaired several of them. He had two terms as deputy mayor. He is known for his love of zoning, attention to detail, diligence, and for perhaps his favorite phase – “for the record” –which he states often to ensure that important points are properly notated when the Council makes decisions.

But in addition to his exemplary attendance and dedication, Council members and others who spoke Tuesday night were unanimous in their praise of Davidoff as caring, genuine, honest, and a gentleman.

Davidoff’s tenure ended Tuesday night, as the Town Council reluctantly accepted his resignation at the end of their meeting. He’s not going far – and will be back in Council Chambers in April, when he begins his role as West Hartford Town Clerk, taking over for Essie Labrot who announced her retirement, effective April 7, in January. In addition to many other roles, the town clerk also serves as clerk of the Town Council.

A proclamation presented by Mayor Shari Cantor, issued on behalf of the entire Town Council, officially stated appreciation for Davidoff’s “dedication, commitment, and service,” and noted his unmatched commitment to community service, not just his years on the Council, but also his previous membership on the Town Plan and Zoning Commission, involvement with the schools, West Hartford Symphony, and West Hartford Fellowship Housing Board, and prior service in Newington on their Town Council and as president of the Chamber of Commerce, and with the Farmington Rotary Club.

The proclamation states that Davidoff “is a wonderful listener who works to find consensus and common ground with civility and decency and is a highly respected elected official. He is known to be highly professional, focused on important issues, reliable, candid, and ethical. Town Council meetings have been more meaningful and, yes, a bit longer because of Leon” – a nod to his thorough but sometimes lengthy analysis of zoning issues.

The proclamation also expressed thanks to Davidoff’ wife, Lexy, and daughter, Becky, and Lani, for their support.

Mayor Shari Cantor presented a proclamation to outgoing Town Council member Leon Davidoff. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

“How can I help you? Are you okay? How are you feeling?” is the way Leon starts every conversation, Deputy Mayor Liam Sweeney said Tuesday. “He says that to everyone and it’s great to see al the people who are out here today,” Sweeney said, noting the roughly 50 people in the audience who came for the send-off.

“That’s who Leon is, and he cares about who you are … it’s who he is as a genuine person,” Sweeney said. “Yes, he does talk about zoning. A lot,” he added.

Sweeney said he has always appreciated how Davidoff took him under his wing, from the very first day, and said it has been an “absolute honor” to serve with him.

Councilor Carol Blanks thanked Davidoff for his his commitment of time, legal expertise, and his support of her when she took office in the midst of the pandemic and struggled with the technology to attend virtual meetings. “I often refer to him as a statesman because he invokes the leader,” she said, and it’s always focused on public good.

Blanks thanked him for his service, “but you’re not done with public service,” she added. This is just a pivot to a new role, where his experience will continue to be vital, she said.

Council member Ben Wenograd said he wanted to compare Davidoff today to what he was like in his first term – which was long before Wenograd personally started serving – so he randomly pulled out a transcript of a March 2008 meeting. Agenda issues included outdoor dining, paramedic service, and changes at Blue Back Square, as well as governance of the MDC.

“I would like to state for the record,” began the transcript of Davidoff’s comments, and the statement was repeated multiple times as Davidoff stated his opinion on an ethics-related question related to the MDC. “This was pure Leon – measured, nonpartisan, and honest … this is the man I serve with.”

Davidoff’s decisions, made with integrity, have helped shape the town, and have made an impact that will not be forgotten, Wenograd said.

Councilor Deb Polun, who has been friends with Davidoff for years but only served with him for a few months, said, “We should all be so proud that Leon Davidoff has chosen to serve this town.” He’s not going far, she said, and “you will literally have our backs in your new seat,” she told him.

Minority Leader Mary Fay thanked Davidoff for his service, and his length of service. She also said she will never forget that he attended her mother’s wake, waiting for hours in a long line. “Thank you so much for that, and you will be missed,” she said.

Mark Zydanowicz has served less than a full term with Davidoff, but met him in 1997, when he and his wife were choosing wedding invitations at the Paper Station, the Newington store owned by Davidoff and his sister. Zydanowicz said Davidoff immediately charmed his wife, and a friendship was born.

While Zydanowicz is a Republican, that didn’t stop Davidoff from helping and educating him about zoning issues and other matters – extending more than just an olive branch when he moved from serving on the Board of Education to the Town Council. “I’m on the other side of the aisle, and that olive branch was more of a tree” – and one offered often, as evidenced by the audience of people from all political parties, he said.

“I want to thank you for your guidance, and your friendship, and that help that you provided me,” Zydanowicz said.

Councilor Al Cortes is also in his first term, but didn’t know Davidoff previously. Still, he said, Davidoff’s “selflessness, dedication, and commitment” have always been evident, and even if they don’t agree politically, they both have the same goal of making West Hartford a better place.

“You are a genuine person, you’re a gentleman,” Cortes said.

Cantor has served on the Town Council since 2004, and has worked closely with Davidoff in many roles.

“There was always a tree, always a bridge with Leon,” she said. Family is always first, but he is always available, always calls and checks to make sure people are doing okay, “and there are very few people who care like that,” she said.

“He doesn’t carry a grudge … he has integrity and ethics … he is a statesman … he is a gentleman … he is a mensch,” Cantor said. She and the other Town Council members, and town staff, are so grateful for his service.

“On the record my friend, I will miss you,” she said.

State Sen. Derek Slap and state Rep. Kate Farrar, representing West Hartford’s legislative delegation, read a proclamation on behalf of the General Assembly.

“You made all our lives better and you’re just such a role model, and you govern with civility and class,” Slap said.

Farrar thanked him for always looking out for how the community can be improved. Davidoff suggested to her that the train bridge in Elmwood, which is in her district and that he passes each day while going to and from work, would be a good place for a mural. That project is now in the works, Farrar said.

Town Manager Rick Ledwith, who was formerly the town’s executive director of Human Resources, has known and worked with Davidoff in various capacities for 15 years. When he became town manager last year, Davidoff served as a mentor,

Their conversations were always about how to make the town better, “and a friendship evolved over this time,” Ledwith said. Davidoff has the experience and expertise to not only sit in the chair he has been sitting in, Ledwith said, or in the town clerk’s chair, but is qualified to sit in any of the chairs in the room, including his.

During the public comment session prior to the meeting, resident John Lyons also shared some words celebrating Davidoff.

“Trusted, dependable, genuine, capable, thoughtful, and hardworking” were the words Lyons said best describe Davidoff.

“Leon has given our community nearly 16 years of unpaid volunteerism serving on Council. His acts of kindness and giving outside of Council probably can’t be calculated. His service to constituents is second to none,” Lyons said.

Lyons noted that in a recent Town Council meeting, before a vote on the Arapahoe Group project for infill development in the Center, Davidoff spoke for 22 minutes. He received some ribbing from his fellow Council members for his lack of brevity, but as Lyons said, “I think those 22 minutes really mattered.” His comments noted the importance of community engagement, and properly, for the record, framed the Council’s role in considering the various aspects of the developer’s application and how they related to the town’s zoning ordinances.

He also made it clear that he was listening to those who endorsed as well as those who opposed the project. “Those moments to me were insight into Leon’s character, and the man that he is,” Lyons said.

Retiring West Hartford Town Council members receive a chair, with a plaque noting their service. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Davidoff himself had the last words.

He had looked back at town records to confirm that 321 meetings had taken place since he was elected, and calculated he had a 99.68% attendance rate.

During his tenure, he said significant measures that have been enacted have included adopting the Complete Streets policy, outdoor dining ordinance, revising the drive-through ordinance, and establishing an entertainment ordinance.

“Quality of life issues are important to all of our residents, and my perspective has been to bring balance and harmony among the various competing interests so that new developments can co-exist alongside with existing uses. Sometimes change is difficult to accept, yet progress requires reasonable and measured development,” he said. Driving through the community, he can see the evidence of positive change that he has been a part of.

Service has always been a part of his life, and Davidoff thanked his family – his wife and daughters, and his sister and business partner – friends, Democratic Town Committee members, the four town managers he has worked with, the countless town directors and employees, Board of Education members and district teachers and staff, friends in the media, and the 26 “Council colleagues” that he listed by first name, with whom he has served over the 15-plus years and together worked to make a difference in the community. “While we may not have always agreed, I have listened to your viewpoints, and at times, I have seen things in a different light,” he said.

It has also been an honor to serve with his friend, Shari Cantor, Davidoff said. “I have appreciated your hard work, your dedication to our community, your strong and capable leadership, and most importantly, your friendship.”

He said it has also been his privilege to serve with his good friend, Essie Labrot, and told her she has earned her reputation as the best town clerk in the state through “your professionalism, your attention to detail, your kind nature, and your commitment to our town,” which is unmatched.

“It has been said that I will have big shoes to fill,” he said, but noted that while Essie wears a women’s 6½, he wears a 12 double wide. “Yes, it will be a challenge to fill those shoes of yours, but rest assured, I am up to meeting the challenge.”

Davidoff said he is grateful for the trust and confidence of the community. “I have been driven by one concept: to make a great town even better. Thank you for providing me this opportunity to serve our community, a place I am proud to call home.”

The Town Council will meet March 8 to receive the town manager’s proposed budget, and at that meeting Tiffani McGinnis will be appointed to the vacant seat.

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