West Hartford Town Council Officially Elects Mayor, Deputy Mayor

Members of the 2023-2025 West Hartford Town Council are sworn in by Town Clerk Leon Davidoff. From left: Carol Blanks, Shari Cantor, Barry Walters, Deb Polun, Tiffani McGinnis, Alberto Cortes, Mark Zydanowicz, Mary Fay. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The West Hartford Town Council met Tuesday night and re-elected Shari Cantor as mayor and named Ben Wenograd as the next deputy mayor.

By Ronni Newton

The agenda for the West Hartford Town Council’s Tuesday night meeting covered internal business only –  the election of its new officers and a swearing in – and prior to that members gave testimonials to Liam Sweeney, who did not seek re-election this fall.

Democrat Shari Cantor was nominated by Carol Anderson Blanks, the nomination was seconded by Deb Polun, and Cantor, who was the highest vote-getter on Nov. 7, was re-elected president of the Town Council and retains the role of mayor for the 2023-2025 term. She has been on the Town Council since 2004, and has been mayor since 2016.

The vote was 7-0-1 in favor of Cantor as council president. Ben Wenograd was unable to attend the meeting due to a long-planned trip out of the country, and Mary Fay, the outgoing minority leader, abstained from the vote.

Wenograd, who had the second-highest vote total, was nominated for vice president of the Town Council by Barry Walters, and seconded by Tiffani McGinnis. He was elected unanimously and will become deputy mayor.

Republican Mark Zydanowicz will be minority leader for the 2023-2025 term. The role is not part of the Town Council’s charter, but is traditionally selected by the minority party’s caucus and is not necessarily the individual with the most votes. Zydanowicz, who previously served nine years on the Board of Education before first being elected to the Town Council in 2021, had 48 fewer votes than Fay, but was supported for the minority leader position by fellow Republican Alberto Cortes.

Mayor Shari Cantor presents some gifts to Liam Sweeney, outgoing deputy mayor. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

During the first part of Tuesday’s meeting, Sweeney took his seat at the table for the last time – joined by two of his three young children, who also helped lead the Pledge of Allegiance. He received praise from other Council members for his three terms of dedicated service.

“Thank you for your leadership, being passionately astute … positioning our town to attract younger families,” said Blanks, She added that his “voice was loud and very clear about the need” in advocating for better facilities for teens at the future new Elmwood Community Center.

“You’re a product of West Hartford,” said Cortes of Sweeney, who was raised in West Hartford and whose parents still live in town. He said Sweeney believes in the town, “our youth are going to have a better place and that’s because of you.”

“I’m very happy to call you my friend and to be able to serve with you, a consummate public servant,” said Polun. She thanked Sweeney for all of the support he provided when she was appointed to a vacant seat on the Town Council last year, and said she was glad to have been placed on the same committees.

While she joked that Sweeney has “never looked younger than in the past six months since you announced you were not running for Town Council,” Polun said she suspected he is not done with public service.

Zydanowicz said while he and Sweeney haven’t always agreed, over their years working together serving the town they “always had respect for each other and listened to each other,” adding that Sweeney will be missed.  What they always did have in common was sports, he said. “Your passion for local sports is infectious.”

McGinnis was newly-appointed to the Council in February so she hasn’t had much time to serve with Sweeney – who persuaded her to take on the role. “You told me I had a story, and a voice that was needed in local government,” she said, thanking him for his service, and advice.

“I’m sorry to see you go I really am,” said Fay. “I know we enjoyed some good sparring, I’ll miss that.” She said she hopes Sweeney will enjoy having more time with his family. “Your kids do need you home,” she added.

“I was so thrilled when Liam shared his interest in serving on the Council,” Cantor said, and so taken with his willingness to serve despite the time commitment when his first child, Rory, was just a year old.

“I relied on Liam and he was there. A lot,” said Cantor, noting that he is always thinking about people and is the voice that stands out for youth. She listed many of the decisions that Sweeney has had a hand in – including the response to COVID challenges, St. Brigid purchase, the transit-oriented development ordinance, pension obligation bonds, cannabis retail, pilot solid waste recycling, allocation of ARPA funding, approval of One Park, Berkshire Road, vision for The Camelot, Trout Brook Trail, approval of housing at the former Agudas Achim synagogue, adding a social worker to the police department. “All of those were things you had a hand in and you were instrumental in doing all of that legislation.”

Sweeney, she said, is “confident, politically savvy, [and] has a very dry sense of humor.” She she knows he will stay involved “because you’re driven, you’re caring, you have a big heart, and you are motivated to keep all of our young people safe, physically and mentally healthy, and I am so grateful for your service.”

Sweeney’s youngest son was sitting in the audience with his wife, Whitney, and interspersed cheers for his dad while Sweeney shared his own thoughts.

“It’s been an honor of my lifetime to serve the town I grew up in,” Sweeney said, noting that back when he was a staffer for then-Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, he said he would never run for office.

He thanked Cantor for trusting him and in particular for assigning him to lead one of the COVID recovery committees, his fellow Council members, all of the directors of town departments, and his campaign committee, and Town Manger Rick Ledwith, whom he said is the best town manager in the business with an unsurpassed connection to the community, and an unbelievable ability to work with people.

“I will promise you will not hear the term ‘building the plane as we fly’ again,” Sweeney said, but he’s not going anywhere. And, he added, “you should know that Rory Sweeney was just elected to the Morley Student Council!”

Town Clerk Leon Davidoff was appointed Council Clerk Tuesday night, and committee assignments were also announced.

The following are the committee assignments for the 2023-2025 Council:

Community Planning and Economic Development Committee (CPED)

  • Chair: Tiffani McGinnis
  • Vice Chair: Ben Wenograd
  • Minority member: Alberto Cortes

The committee shall have cognizance of all matters related to planning and zoning; code enforcement; economic development; and engineering.

Council Affairs and Governance Committee

  • Chair: Shari Cantor
  • Vice Chair: Ben Wenograd
  • Minority member: Mark Zydanowicz

The committee shall conduct the business affairs of the Town Council.  The committee shall have cognizance of matters related to the operation, organization, procedures, and rules of the Town Council.  The committee shall be responsible for the facilitation of positive relationships with the federal government, state government, other municipal governments and entities, and local boards and commissions.

Finance and Administration Committee (F&A)

  • Chair: Ben Wenograd
  • Vice Chair: Deb Polun
  • Minority member: Mark Zydanowicz

The committee shall have cognizance of all matters related to the operational budget and capital improvement program; appropriations to Board of Education, auditing and financial oversight; and general government operations (Assessment, Human resources, information technology, town clerk, registrar of voters, corporation counsel); and approval of the settlement of tax appeals negotiated by legal counsel and staff.

Human and Community Services Committee (HCS)

  • Chair: Deb Polun
  • Vice Chair: Barry Walters
  • Minority member: Mary Fay

The committee shall have cognizance of all matters related to leisure and social services; community development and federal/state block grant allocation; housing initiatives; library services; public health; and historic preservation.

Public Safety Committee ( PSC)

  • Chair: Carol Anderson Blanks
  • Vice Chair: Tiffani McGinnis
  • Minority member: Alberto Cortes

The committee shall have cognizance of all matters related to oversight of police services; fire and emergency medical services; and emergency management.

Public Works and Facilities Committee (PW&F)

  • Chair: Barry Walters
  • Vice Chair: Carol Anderson Blanks
  • Minority member: Mark Zydanowicz

The committee shall have cognizance of all matters related to public works; cemetery operations; parking operations; plant and facilities management; waste management; energy management; and other sustainability initiatives.

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