West Hartford Town Council Officially Elects Mayor, Deputy Mayor

West Hartford Town Council, Nov. 19, 2019. From left: Corporation Counsel Pat Alair, Town Manager Matt Hart, Chris Williams, Mary Fay, Minority Leader Lee Gold, Mayor Shari Cantor, Beth Kerrigan, Deputy Mayor Leon Davidoff, Liam Sweeney, Carol Anderson Blanks, Ben Wenograd. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The West Hartford Town Council officially elected its president and vice president – the mayor and deputy mayor – and bid goodbye to two Council members as the newly elected were sworn in Tuesday night. [Editor’s note added, Nov. 20, 4:15 p.m.]

Members of the 2019-21 Town Council are sworn in Nov. 19 by Town Clerk Essie Labrot. From left: Lee Gold, Mary Fay, Chris Williams, Shari Cantor, Ben Wenograd, Leon Davidoff, Liam Sweeney, Carol Anderson Blanks, Beth Kerrigan. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

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 “roasted” their colleagues who did not seek re-election this fall, offering positive and heartfelt comments about their service to the community.

With unanimous support, Mayor Shari Cantor was re-elected president of the West Hartford Town Council and retains the role of mayor for the 2019-21 term. Leon Davidoff was elected vice president of the Town Council by a vote of 7-0, with Republicans Chris Williams and Mary Fay abstaining, and will serve as deputy mayor for the next term. [Editor’s note: Beth Kerrigan said Wednesday that she intended to pass and did not vote in favor of Davidoff as deputy mayor. According to Town Clerk Essie Labrot, the Town Council will consider amending the minutes to reflect a vote of 6-0 with three abstentions at their next meeting on Dec. 16, 2019.]

Beth Kerrigan has been deputy mayor since November 2017, and Davidoff served in the role from the time Cantor replaced Scott Slifka as mayor in May 2016 through November 2017. While Kerrigan, who was first elected in 2015, garnered the second highest vote total in the Nov. 5, 2019 municipal election and Davidoff, who has served since 2007, received the third-highest number of votes among the 12 candidates who were on the ballot, the Council’s charter does not mention anything about using vote totals in the election of its president and vice president.

It was standing room only in the legislative chambers, but the agenda for this meeting, which is only to swear in members, elect officers, and announce committee assignments, does not permit public comment.

While Cantor did not publicly mention anything about public outcry – from people in both parties – resulting from news that leaked out about the Council’s Democratic caucus deciding to nominate Davidoff for the position of deputy mayor in lieu of Kerrigan, following the meeting she did share comments that had been distributed in an email to members of the Democratic Town Committee that afternoon.

“Over the last week, we have all experienced raw and hurtful feelings. Frustration levels are high and this discussion has become highly emotional,” Cantor said. “I am profoundly disappointed and sorry for the way this has played out. The West Hartford Town Committee works hard to make sure that a diverse, strong, capable and thoughtful group of Democratic leaders are elected to our governing bodies to represent us. West Hartford voters then vote for the individuals they want to have represent them on the Town Council.”

Cantor noted that the Town Council’s charter requires the body to elect its own leaders – its president (mayor) and vice president (deputy mayor) – with members of both parties voting. The deputy mayor role is important, and not just ceremonial, with that individual required to perform the duties of mayor in the mayor’s absence, she said.

“The reasons for allowing the Council to elect its own leaders are both political and practical,” Cantor said in the email. “First, in a race where electors have six votes for nine seats, it discourages untoward alliances or ‘bullet’ voting. It also allows the councilors, who often have had the opportunity to work closely with one another and know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, to select the leader who is best suited to lead them.”

Each councilor makes their own decision about who they believe will best serve the interests of West Hartford, based on their own criteria, Cantor said.

“With the matter of selecting a deputy mayor, the caucus met last week to discuss who would best serve the town in this position. Each caucus member considered a number of factors and there was a serious discussion of each member’s preference,” said Cantor. Kerrigan was present at that meeting, she said.

While traditionally the person with the most votes has been chosen by the Town Council to serve as mayor, and the person with the second-most votes has become deputy mayor, that is not required in the charter and has not always happened.

Kerrigan – who issued a statement as a letter to the editor to We-Ha.com earlier in the day expressing her thanks for the public support she has received and noting that it is time to move forward to work for the good of the town – said she believes the popular vote should be followed.

“It doesn’t speak well for the health of our democracy for this to have happened,” Kerrigan told We-Ha.com Tuesday night after the Council meeting. “Votes should count, we should open our charter. This shouldn’t be allowed to happen.”

The role of minority leader is not in the Town Council’s charter, but the Republican caucus appointed newcomer Lee Gold, who garnered the most votes among his party, to the position.

Essie Labrot was reappointed as Council clerk.

Council committees are being realigned to make more sense and better focus on current and future needs like economic development, Cantor said. Full committee assignments will be announced, and she said she will chair the new Community Planning and Economic Development Committee, Davidoff will chair the Finance Committee, and Kerrigan will chair the Government Affairs Committee.

Cantor said she believes the current team will be able to work together to help the town continue to be a leader among communities throughout the country.

Cantor said that West Hartford is one of the country’s top-rated communities in part because of town staff, and the professional way they handle themselves and their thoughtful processes. “We really are special, we are ranked highly by all independent measures. We have the highest quality public safety. We have some of the best schools in the country,” Cantor said, noting the announcement this week of West Hartford’s high schools both making the Newsweek list of the top-500 STEM high schools.

“We have remarkable, high-quality community services that serve so many different people in our community.

“I am humbled to build on the great leadership that has preceded me. We will continue our commitment to affordability, to sustainability, to [be a] bicycle friendly town …” said Cantor. The new committee structure will also consider the role of the arts on economic development, and livability issues, “bringing people together in different spaces and places,” and build on existing development.

“We need to keep moving forward. This community is a vibrant, thriving, desirable and sustainable community and my mission is to keep it that way,” Cantor said.

Outgoing West Hartford Town Council members Chris Barnes (left) and Dallas Dodge test out the commemorative chairs they received for their service. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The first part of Tuesday’s meeting, prior to the swearing-in of seven returning Council members, Gold, and Democrat Carol Blanks, was the last time the Council’s now-former minority leader, Republican Chris Barnes, as well as Democrat Dallas Dodge, had seats at the table.

Barnes served six years and Dodge was a member of the Council since 2016, and both chose not to run for re-election.

Both received praise for their commitment and the hours spent in volunteer service to the West Hartford community – as well as a bit of ribbing from their peers.

Dodge, who was recently named a partner at the lobbying firm Roy & Leroy and is looking forward to spending more time with his wife, Jessica, and young children Dallas IV and Felicity, was praised for his intelligence and analytic mind, as well as his sense of humor.

Liam Sweeney said that he, Dodge, and Republican Chris Williams were friends growing up together in West Hartford. “If we talked about this when we were 18 there’s no way we would have thought we’d be here,” Sweeney said.

It’s been fascinating to see our worlds collide, said Sweeney. “That’s what serving this town is all about, being able to work with people who you’ve known for your entire life. … Thank you so much for your humor, your intellect and your service,” he told Dodge.

Davidoff said Dodge immediately struck him as someone who was “smart, well spoken, holds himself to high standards and is willing to learn and do the work.” Of the 21 different Council people with whom he has served, Dodge was the fastest learned about any issue the body faced, and while they didn’t always agree, he provided “coherent, logical points” in a meaningful, respectful, and principled way.

Fay said that she feels like she has gotten to know Dodge from the disagreements they’ve had, but noted they have always patched things up. “I like a good debate and I think we’ve had several of them.”

Cantor said she has known Dodge for many years, and he has always been “beyond his years,” and ready to dive into complex issues like the UConn property. “He’s amazingly convincing, and then he changes his mind and he’s amazingly convincing again,” she said. “Also, he keeps us all connected, he loves to laugh, loves to talk.”

Dodge is a “real asset to this team and he’s going to be missed at this table,” said Cantor.

Dodge thanked his family, and said he hopes his children remember his hard work serving the public. He said he has great respect for anyone who has run for public office, and is willing to “make the sacrifices needed to make participant democracy work.”

The best moments have been listening to constituents and trying to make their lives better, Dodge said.

“Too often today we speak at each other and not with each other,” Dodge said.

“For most of us this is the highest office we’ll ever hold, and I think it’s also the best. … be true to your principles but be open to compromise in working together to get the best result for West Hartford,” he urged the new Council members.

Dodge said serving on the Council has been one of the greatest honors of his life. He praised town staff, his colleagues, and particularly Cantor for being the “Democratic caucus’ rock and social conscience.”

Williams said Barnes is his favorite politician. He complied a list of words to best describe his friend and colleague, including: work ethic, policy mad scientist, courage, and principle.

Barnes always read all the documents, understood them, and asked prepared questions, and it was not easy to go into a room and disagree with people, said Williams. He noted specific examples like when Weiming wanted to purchase the UConn property, when the MDC wanted the town to contribute to a reserve fund, and each of the six budgets that Barnes considered.

“He is a good man – good and decent. … Beyond the Town [Council], Chris has shown commitment to his town through service,” said Williams. “From my perspective Chris is a great friend, and one of the most wonderful things about being on Town Council is the people you meet through service and I am forever grateful that my journey crossed paths with Chris’.”

Fay said she can’t thank Barnes enough for mentoring her.

It’s a “tall order to lead the minority,” Kerrigan told Barnes, and she said he has done a great job because he is “smart, tenacious, don’t forget a thing, and you’re not afraid of asking questions.” Their relationship came together in trying to fight against Niagara using MDC water at a discount.

“We all share the same respect for the work you’ve done on Council,” said Ben Wenograd, adding that he also appreciated that Barnes always did his homework, and his love for West Hartford always shone through.

“As we say in the union – solidarity,” said the pro-labor Wenograd to his conservative colleague.

Cantor said Barnes has always made people think, had a great mentor in [former Minority Leader] Denise Hall, and in the end we all want the same thing, “want West Hartford to thrive.”

Cantor listed many of the issues with which Barnes has had input and has made a significant difference. “We heard you,” she said, and changes have been made because he was at the table.

Barnes said he didn’t expect such kind remarks from the Democrats. “I didn’t know you guys recognized how difficult it is to be in the minority.”

He mentioned some of the issues on which he felt he had an impact – Weiming, the UConn property, having a marijuana dispensary in town, but said it’s not easy being in the minority.

Barnes thanked former Town Manager Ron Van Winkle, current Town Manager Matt Hart, the town’s directors, his colleagues, and the “residents of West Hartford for the ability to serve on the Council.”

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