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Democrats won’t reveal secret plans for State Pier expansion into New London

October 4, 2018

The Connecticut Port Authority submitted one of the two letters of interest in the Crystal Avenue property near State Pier in New London that were received after the city put out an official request to find buyers interested in the property, the site of vacant low-income housing towers.

This letter was submitted in secrecy, apparently the latest development in back-room talks between the city and the port authority, which is controlled by a wide swath of the state’s Democratic establishment.

You can almost see the smoke pouring out from under the door.

I only finally confirmed Wednesday that the authority submitted a letter of interest in Crystal Avenue because I caught Joseph Salvatore, port authority program manager, answering the phone, and he admitted the letter was sent.

By Thursday afternoon, after I made at least a dozen calls asking about the letter, a public relations agency hired by the authority released a one-paragraph statement that confirmed that the letter was sent but contained no details of its content.

Salvatore wouldn’t provide a copy or talk about it Wednesday and referred me to the authority’s lawyer, Glenn Santoro of Robinson + Cole, who did not return phone calls. The authority’s executive director, Evan Matthews, was out of town, Salvatore said Wednesday, and not available.

But by Thursday afternoon, a response — signed by Matthews — to a Freedom of Information Act request for the letter and other communications about Crystal Avenue landed in my email inbox minutes before the one paragraph from the professional publicist.

Matthews denied the FOI request, saying the agency is protecting trade secrets and property evaluations.

Scott Bates, chairman of the port authority board, deputy secretary of state and the Democratic Town Committee chairman in Stonington, also did not return phone calls. One message was taken by someone in Bates’ office Wednesday who said Bates was on another line and would call back. He didn’t.

New London Mayor Passero would not release either of the two letters of interest in Crystal Avenue, citing an FOI exemption for bids and requests for proposals submissions, even though it is not clear this was an RFP process. The exemption also gives the mayor the discretion to release the submissions if he deems that it is in the public’s best interest. Apparently, he doesn’t.

In light of refusals for days by the mayor and port authority to even acknowledge the submission of a letter of interest, I put out calls to many of the powerful Democrats who populate the authority’s board of directors.

I thought at least one of them might be willing to talk about the bold gambit by the state to take over 12 acres of land in a little city short on taxable property. I got no answers back from messages left for Catherine Smith, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development; Nancy DiNardo, vice chair of the Democratic State Party; Jim Redeker, commissioner of the state Department of Transportation, or Denise Nappier, state treasurer.

A spokesman for Nappier did tell me the treasurer is on a lot of boards and only participates on the port authority board through a delegate. That seems to make a lie out of the elaborate entry for her as a full  board member on the authority’s website.

In all of my searching for answers about the state’s designs on Crystal Avenue I was most disappointed in a conversation with state Rep. Chris Soto of New London. He confirmed the port authority’s interest in Crystal Avenue and expressed a concern about losing the city tax base if the state were to purchase it and make only payments in lieu of taxes, dimes on the tax dollar.

But Soto refused to suggest he would use his representation of the people of New London to insist on some transparency by the port authority, a state-funded entity, about its plans for expanding State Pier further into the city, an ambition Soto clearly is familiar with.

It may be that increasing the footprint of State Pier is an important strategic move to improve the state’s port opportunities. And there may be ways to accomplish that without harming New London, with a generous lease perhaps or subsidies for the city to compensate for its participation.

What’s sorely lacking here is some leadership to enunciate the goals, to lay out an outline of why this additional 12 acres is needed and what that will accomplish for the city and state. Own it and explain it, at least in broad terms, if not the nitty gritty details of deal making.

Answer some phone calls from the media and explain your work on the public’s business and stop hiding behind one-paragraph statements from paid public relations professionals and claims of trade secrets. At least crack the door and let in a little fresh air.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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