By Dave Moran
As published in the Record Journal Sunday December 20, 2009
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Michael Brodinsky Age: 65 Four Town Council terms (2000-03 and 2006-09).
Occupation: Retired attorney.
Education: Bachelor’s in government, Colby College; law degree, University of Connecticut.
Nov. 2, 1999: Elected to first term on Town Council as a Democrat.
Oct. 9, 2002: Declares his intention to challenge Wallingford’s longtime Republican mayor, William W. Dickinson Jr., nearly 13 months before the election.
Nov. 4, 2003: Despite raising more than $51,000 in campaign funds, Dickinson wins 6,991 to 5,308.
Nov. 8, 2005: Elected to third council term
Jan. 7, 2008: Sworn in as council chairman to start his fourth term.
June 18, 2009: Informs Democratic Town Committee that he won’t seek re-election.
Dec. 15, 2009: Chairs his final council meeting.
WALLINGFORD — Michael Brodinsky’s term as chairman of the Wallingford Town Council technically wraps up when a new council is sworn in on Jan. 4, but his duties and obligation to the town effectively ended after last Tuesday’s council meeting, the last of the year.
Brodinsky, a Democrat who has served four non-consecutive terms, ended this phase of his political career much as he has spent a large portion of it: in vocal opposition to and open criticism of a course of action proposed by William W. Dickinson Jr., the town’s veteran Republican chief executive.
Brodinsky, a licensed attorney, argued that if the council voted to accept a $200,000 state grant toward the construction of a loop to connect the town’s Senior Center to the Quinnipiac River Linear Trail, it would be required to fund a project that would need an additional $756,000 in the coming fiscal year.
Dickinson, who is also a trained attorney, disputed this, and the council voted 6-3 to accept the grant over Brodinsky’s protests.
If there was one role that Brodinsky filled for much of his four terms on the council and as its chairman, it was as the Democrats’ strongest, loudest and most salient counterbalance to Dickinson’s agenda. His departure leaves the party, which reverts to a 6-3 minority next month, without a clear oppositional leader to the Republicans, who will control the council, school board and mayor’s office.
Although Brodinsky has been tight-lipped about why he’s divorcing himself from politics, he gave two reasons in an interview at his home last week: he feels he has served long enough and he wants to explore other opportunities and avenues in life outside of municipal politics.
When asked, Brodinsky, 65, said he does not foresee a return to town politics in his future, unlike in 2004, when he recaptured a seat on the council after losing a mayoral contest to Dickinson the previous year.
“I don’t foresee myself coming back,” Brodinsky said. “I’m sympathetic to the concept of term limits. Whether it’s imposed by law or self-imposed, I think it’s good for the organization and good for the individual.”
This view contrasts with Dickinson, who won his 14th consecutive term last month.
“I don’t want to be on the Town Council for 20 years,” Brodinsky continued. “There’s other things that I want to do and I’ve decided, in conjunction with my wife, that now’s the time to do some of those things.”
But an underlying frustration with the council’s limited authority, which he freely admits, may have contributed to his decision to step aside.
“The council doesn’t have a lot of power, by charter,” Brodinsky said. “There are very few things that we can do. Our authority over the budget is minimal — it’s perceived to be greater than it is. The one area that we can call the shots on is open space (and) real estate deals; everything else is controlled or directed practically, or as a matter of charter law, by the mayor.”
It was frustration with Dickinson and his policies that first led Brodinsky to pursue local politics.
Brodinsky and Dickinson
In the late 1990s, just as he was preparing to abandon his 25-year career at Kemper Insurance to pursue private practice (and a more relaxed workload), Brodinsky sat through a City Council meeting and was amazed to hear Dickinson tell the council that not only did Wallingford not have a surplus account, but that the mayor was unfamiliar with the term “surplus” altogether.
Brodinsky said he was even more amazed that no one on the council pressed Dickinson harder for amore thorough explanation of what the town does with its excess money, which totaled more than $20 million at the end of the last fiscal year, including more than $11 million that was undesignated.
“I thought maybe the Town Council, and the town, could benefit from my presence up there,” Brodinsky said of his decision to run for the council in 1999. He self-funded his initial campaign with $26,000.
What followed was an increasingly contentious relationship, over municipal matters at least, with Dickinson.
“I think what Mike did is he gave you his view as to what he thought should be going on in the town,” said Vincent Avallone, chairman of the Democratic Town Committee. “He wasn’t there just to attack the mayor; he was doing his duty as a councilor and thinking in terms of the best interests of the town. When the mayor was right, he agreed with him; when the mayor was wrong, he opposed him.”
Brodinsky and Dickinson had their fair share of political clashes over the years, from the disagreement over the trail funding to Brodinsky’s 13month campaign for mayor in 2002 and 2003, in which he raised more than $51,000 in campaign contributions— still believed to be a town record, and more than double Dickinson’s war chest for that election — but lost by nearly 1,700 votes. That was the closest the Democrats had come since Peter Gouveia lost to Dickinson by 31 votes in 1989, or have come since.
Brodinsky has also squared off against the town in court.
The town, under Dickinson’s direction, in 2003 sought to survey 150 acres of Walter and Joyce Werbiski’s farmland near North Farms Road for a possible industrial park, but the couple fought back in court, hiring Brodinsky as their attorney.
The town ultimately prevailed in the state Supreme Court, but not before a portion of the debate spilled over into council proceedings when Brodinsky recused himself from the discussion and proceeded to grill Dickinson and the council from the audience about their intentions.
Both Dickinson and Brodinsky, however, tend to dispute the assertion that they are constantly at political loggerheads with one another, both noting that if that were the case, very little would get accomplished at council meetings.
“Cleary, we had disagreements on a variety of issues, but it wasn’t a situation where we couldn’t talk to one another or had heated arguments all the time that got nowhere,” Dickinson said.
And Brodinsky pointed out the numerous times during his four terms that he voted in favor of items put forth by Dickinson, and said the media tended to “spice up” the times when they disagreed.
Avallone said he believes the Democrats will still have a vocal presence on the council when Brodinsky leaves and the Republicans take over, but noted that Brodinsky’s examination skills as an attorney and knowledge of state law will be missed.
“I think we have three people who are capable of putting forth the issues and making sure they are discussed openly and honestly,” said Avallone, who is also a licensed attorney. “Mike had some abilities and experience in the legal profession that benefited him quite well, there’s no question about that, but it’s hard to compare one councilor to another.”
Vincent Testa, the Democratic council vice chairman who will remain on the council next month, agreed with Avallone.
“I’m sure I can speak for my two Democratic colleagues when I say we will be heard from and we will make every effort possible to make sure that our positions are heard,” Testa said, referring to incumbent Nick Economopoulos and newcomer John Sullivan.
Brodinsky and Choate
Brodinsky also clashed with Edward Shanahan, headmaster of prestigious private secondary school Choate Rosemary Hall, when he came in June to ask the council to close a half mile portion of Old Durham road to allow the construction of an environmental center in the area.
Over the next four months, a contentious back and forth between the two men played out in a series of meetings — both public and private— letters, email exchanges and, at times, even on the editorial pages of the Record-Journal.
Choate withdrew its request for the road in October — although it has hinted that the idea might return when the Republicans take control next month — but Shanahan remains openly critical of Brodinsky’s handling of the matter.
“I thought that he, for one reason or another, didn’t enable the conversation to move forward to some kind of a resolution in a timely way. There were times that I got the impression that, for whatever reason, he just wanted to drag it out,” Shanahan said last week, adding that he felt Brodinsky himself was not particularly hospitable to him or the school during the proceedings. “At times I felt like I was being cross-examined in a court of law.”
Testa disagreed with Shanahan’s characterization, maintaining that it was the school’s obligation to devise a compensation package for the road that was acceptable to the council, not the other way around.
“I don’t fault in any way the way Mike handled that,” Testa said. “A lot of that was in Choate’s hands, and I think, unfortunately, a lot of people misinterpreted his approach to handing the discussion to mean that he was against it. If anything, he was very careful about making sure we didn’t violate any (Freedom of Information Act) laws regarding how the council could discuss the request.”
Brodinsky said Choate expected a “sweetheart deal” in exchange for the road, and that he felt it was his obligation to residents to come to an agreement that was of actual benefit to the town.
“I’m not hostile to Choate — I’m hostile to sweetheart deals with private entities,” Brodinsky said. “And if it takes a little persistence to sort of push back against forces that want a sweetheart deal, it was, in my opinion, my duty to do it. Not everybody was happy with that, but that’s the way it had to be.”
Dickinson openly endorsed the school’s proposal.
Accentuating the positive
Testa said integrity and transparency in government have always been Brodinsky’s basic operating principles during his time on the council.
“He’s a man of incredible integrity,” Testa said. “There was always a driving force in everything that he’s done, and that was in making sure that it was above board. That’s something that Mike’s been consistent with since he first got involved in the town. He’s not one to look at something and wink and nod and just let it go.”
Even Robert Parisi, a longtime Republican councilor who is expected to reassume the chairmanship in January, echoed much of Testa’s praise.
“I have a lot of respect for Mike; I always did have,” Parisi said. “He’s very hard working, he’s creative and very precise. He’s a good councilman and he’s served the town well over the years.”
When asked about his legacy as a councilor, Brodinsky grimaced — the one thing it should not be, he asserted, was as Dickinson’s “primary political opponent.”
He then pointed out the Wallingford Energy Conservation Commission, an initiative that he helped spearhead last year to explore ways the town can reduce its energy consumption. The commission recently worked with the school system and other town departments on an energy audit of the town’s schools, which found $500,000 in potential savings annually if the town spends $1.3 million for retrofits.
“The mission statement is to try and save the town money by reducing energy costs and reducing the carbon footprint,” Brodinsky said, lauding the group’s progress over a short period of time.
When pressed, Brodinsky did not entirely rule out a return to town politics, however, and said his decision not to seek re-election this year, which he informed the Democratic Town Committee of on June 18, literally came down to the wire.
“Being on the council, and especially as chairman, is very time consuming, and it’s just time to take a break,” he said. “The decision was a very close one and I was waiting till the last minute because it was so close.
There was a possibility that I could have flipped the other way and said, ‘ OK, another term or two,’ but I decided, all things considered, this was a good time to start doing some of the other things that we’ve wanted to do.”
Whether the town ends up needing to appropriate $756,000 for the trail project will be decided during the budget process this spring, but it should be far from Brodinsky’s mind; he has intentionally planned a vacation in Hawaii in May, just as the council will vote on Dickinson’s budget proposal.