History Repeats Itself
The View/From Stratford; Residents Rally To Save Village From a Split-Up
The New York Times
By Richard Weizel
June 8, 2003
For more than a decade, Robert Blake and Joseph Vescey have lived only a few hundred yards from each other at the Oronoque Village in Stratford — Mr. Blake in what is considered the south part of the village and Mr. Vescey in the north.
The north and south are separated by a single road, Oronoque Lane, at a condominium complex that opened in 1970 for people 55 and over.
But while Mr. Blake, a councilman, and Mr. Vescey, the Oronoque Village Condominium president, can continue to be close friends and neighbors in the town’s nearly 1,000-unit senior condo complex that sits on 300 acres, a curious redistricting plan was recently approved in a 6-5 vote by the Town Council will place them in different political districts.
In fact, when the new plan takes effect in November, Mr. Vescey will be among about half the village’s 1,500 residents in the north section who will be moved from the Eighth District to the Ninth.
Mr. Blake, 72, a former association president for Oronoque, who was elected to the Town Council as an independent two years ago, will be among those remaining in the town’s Eighth District.
Some residents and political leaders said such a shift will diminish the community’s political clout, as well as possibly pit neighbor against neighbor within the complex when political and budgetary interests differ in the two districts.
”We are a unique condominium complex with special needs in that we are a community requiring at least one member of a household be at least age 55,” Mr. Vescey said. ”Dividing us into separate districts is the craziest idea I have ever heard of. But we’re not giving up on stopping it through a referendum petition drive, or through legal action.”
That, however, may not be easy since the possibility of forcing the issue to referendum would require gathering 3,000 signatures, which is 10 percent of the town’s registered voters, by Tuesday.
Proponents of the plan are convinced that any legal challenge will be unsuccessful. But opponents said they believed the redistricting changes that will occur in Second District (the town’s poorest) could constitute federal civil rights voting violations by disenfranchising minority voters.
In the Second District, minority voters comprise 53 percent of the population, but under the redistricting plan, the figure would be reduced to 46 percent.
Jimmy Griffin, president of the Connecticut State Conference of N.A.A.C.P. branches, said the organization was concerned that the plan would reduce the impact minority voters have on the town’s political process.
The district has the largest minority population and voters in town, and Mr. Griffin said he was concerned if the population were reduced to under 50 percent, minority candidates would have a difficult time being elected.
”We know that black voters will vote for white candidates, but few white voters will vote for blacks and other minorities,” Mr. Griffin said. ”We want to make sure we aren’t going backward to the days when gerrymandering was a common political tool used to disenfranchise minorities, particularly in the south.”
At Oronoque, some of the residents are outraged by a Republican-sponsored plan they are convinced was contrived as both political payback to Mr. Blake — who stunned a young incumbent Republican councilman in 2000 by beating him — and a means to ensure that it doesn’t happen again in November.
The concept has infuriated residents of the town’s largest condo complex, who live in two-level attached duplexes that range in value from $240,000 to $400,000, with the average unit valued at close to $300,000, according to Tony Carbone, Oronoque’s longtime executive manager.
Mr. Carbone and other village leaders contend that the complex is Stratford’s second-largest taxpayer. The residents said they believed dividing them into separate districts is at best silly, and at worst illegal.
They maintain it is a classic example of gerrymandering by Republicans who never got over losing their council seat in the heavily Republican district two years ago.
Louis DeCilio, a Republican and the chairman of the council’s redistricting committee, denied the gerrymandering allegations or any other political motive in drawing up the new district lines.
Instead, he and other Republican leaders said the new map, mandated by the state every 10 years, ”just reflects shifts in population and is the best one the panel could come up with.”
Some village residents are so upset that they are suggesting that Oronoque, which represents about 40 percent of the district’s 3,370 registered voters, secede from the town – either joining nearby Shelton or establishing their own independent town.
They are also planning to join forces with Second District residents to mount a challenge to the referendum.
”We operate practically as our own town already, taking care of our own sewers and utilities, providing our own security force, lighting and road maintenance,” said David Sanders, 83, who has lived in the complex 15 years and is urging the condo owners to leave Stratford and form their own town.
”The people of Oronoque feel we are being continuously shafted by the town of Stratford,” he said. ”We pay millions of dollars in taxes, then when we fight to elect a councilman to represent our interests this is how they get back at us.”
Mr. Blake and others are planning to consult a lawyer about the new redistricting plan. But Mr. DeCilio and other Republican leaders said there is nothing in the Connecticut General statutes that would make the plan illegal.
A spokesman for the state’s General Assembly indicated there was no law that mandated residents in condominium complexes from being divided into separate council districts.
”Then we may have to change the law, either through the courts or the legislature,” Mr. Blake said. ”I am appalled at the action of the council that appears to be completely politically motivated to weaken our impact as a community, and is clearly against the wishes of the people.”
Richard Miron of the Democratic Registrar of Voters said, ”This plan is a sham, and has been from the start.”
Mr. Miron, who is also Democratic Town Committee chairman and a member of the redistricting committee, added, ”I have never seen a more blatant example of gerrymandering in my life.”
Dee Varholak, 72, who has been living at Oronoque with her husband, John, 73, for the last nine years said: ”What is absurd is that we use each other’s pools, clubhouses and tennis courts in different parts of the village and have so many of the same concerns.
”People live so close to each other in the north and south we can walk across the street to each other’s units. It would be funny if it weren’t so serious.”