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November Referendum on Police Station Planned

Residents will get a chance to weigh in on the proposed police station for Farmington Avenue as enough signatures were collected on a petition to force a November referendum.

Town Clerk Kate Wall said that a petition was submitted on Aug. 25 containing 475 signatures, more than the 377 that were needed to call for a fall vote on the $21 million project.

During the first Town Council meeting of September, council members voted unanimously to adopt a resolution that puts to a ballot a question asking voters to approve issuing $21 million in bonding for the project.

The decision didn’t come with out heated debate from both Democrats and Republicans. Both sides said they didn’t want to make the project a partisan issue but still took opportunities to counter arguments made by their colleagues from the other party. Police Chief Paul Fitzgerald made a sharp defense of the Police Department to refute comments made by a resident on a blog.

“I will not jeopardize the safety of my officers, your officers, nor will I take away their bulletproof vests,” Fitzgerald said, calling the vests “essential tools” for the department.

The chief’s comments were directed at resident William Brighenti, who is associated with the Berlin Property Owner’s Association. Brighenti says he has come under attack for questioning the merits of the project and for questioning some of the gear that the Police Department has at its disposal. “I’m just requesting more time and information and questioning all the reasons that they are giving,” Brighenti said in an interview. Still, Brighenti says he feels like he is being targeted for questioning why the Police Department has riot armor, bulletproof vests, SWAT rifles, and other related gear that has spurred a national debate about the militarization of local police forces in the wake of protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

Fitzgerald said that items such as rifles and ballistic helmets “must be available” to officers who have to respond to active shooter situations, whether it be at a school, home, or workplace. He said those types of incidents have occurred in varied communities, from Newington to Manchester. “Our own officers have been shot at,” Fitzgerald said. “Fortunately we were well trained and were not injured.”

In addition to the police services, the department also responds to more than 1,000 medical calls each year, ranging from heart attacks to choking children.

“To suggest that Berlin is a small town where nothing happens is wrong,” Fitzgerald continued. “We have experienced assaults on my officers, bank robberies, home invasions, stabbings, shootings….”

Fitzgerald said that “mocking” the department hurts the morale of the officers.

During the Sept. 3 meeting, Council member William Rasmussen, a Democrat, criticized the three Republican members who voted against passing an ordinance for the police station during a meeting in August. A “no” vote by the Republicans was also a vote against allowing residents the opportunity to petition the project, Rasmussen said. Had there been one more “no” vote, the opportunity for discussion and informational sessions would not be occurring.

Charles Paonessa, a Republican, responded by saying his dissenting vote was not about the police station in particular, but instead in objection to the council’s “Rule No. 7.” Paonessa said he didn’t want to see the project “rushed through without a public hearing.”

Later, Rasmussen said, “Don’t try and distract us again and put up a smoke and mirror show saying that all you were concerned about was rule seven. You didn’t want the project. You were afraid you weren’t going to get the signatures to go referendum, so you had to kill it with your no vote and not take any chances that it might actually get approved.”

Republican council member David Evans, said he “appreciated Mr. Rasmussen’s opinion” and then was interrupted by the Democrat who yelled, “It’s a fact.”

“You’ve interpreted what our no represents,” Evans said.

Mayor Rachel Rochette, a Democrat, also joined in on the discussion and asked Evans why he had voted in 2011 to purchase land on Farmington Avenue for the police station and has now “changed” his mind.

Evans responded by saying he had issues with the estimates associated with the project “and the process by which it was established.”

The mayor urged residents to attend future informational sessions. Rochette said that “it’s important that people are basing their decision on facts, not innuendo that has been…thrown about in the newspapers.”

Rasmussen described comments made in the press about the project “ridiculous” and

the discussion about militarizing the police force a “distraction.”

“I think you have to have a good dialogue in a Democracy,” said Brighenti, who once served on the Board of Finance and Taxation in New Britain under the Tim Stewart administration. “You have to allow and encourage participation and I’m not seeing that. Somebody has to have the courage to stand up and say ‘Let’s take a step backward and really explain why this is absolutely necessary and that there are no other alternatives.’”

Some residents, including Brighenti, say all the options have not been considered. One alternative that he suggests is moving the Board of Education offices to another building and giving the Police Department the extra space. He also suggests off site storage for some of the department’s equipment.