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Record $5M housing discrimination penalty to go in restricted account, Cromwell voters decide

The Middletown Press - 7/15/2022

Jul. 14—CROMWELL — Voters approved a measure Wednesday to transfer $5 million from the town's general fund to pay a record penalty imposed by a federal jury last year for "overt discriminatory practices" related to the opening of a home for men with mental health disabilities.

About 50 people, 11 of whom spoke during the public hearing, turned out for the town meeting.

Last fall, the jury found in favor of the plaintiffs, awarding $5 million in punitive and $181,000 in compensatory damages to Middletown-based Gilead Community Services, the Connecticut Fair Housing Center and Rainbow Housing Corp.

The Fair Housing Center purchased the home to be used as a community-based residence for six individuals under Gilead's care.

The three entities had filed suit due to town practices that led to the closure of the single-family home on Reisman Drive in October. Due to these issues, the single-family residence, located off Main Street and close to the middle and intermediate schools, was eventually sold.

The award set a national record, according to civil rights lawyers in the case.

"In response to the purchase, city officials in Cromwell staged a battle against Gilead and their clients through a series of overtly discriminatory actions, making it clear that individuals with disabilities were not welcome," the Connecticut Fair Housing Center has said.

"The jury's verdict sent a clear message to towns throughout the state of Connecticut that exclusion of group homes for people with disabilities violates federal law, and will not be tolerated," Gilead's counsel, Relman Colfax, has said.

During Wednesday's meeting, town attorney Tom Girard said he's in the process of writing appeal briefs and expects to file the paperwork in the New York 2nd Circuit Court in September.

"We have a very strong appeal," said Girard, who likened the process to a football game. "We're at halftime ... this is not over by any stretch, but, in order to succeed with our appeal, we have to convince the court ... that, if we go through our appeal process, and we are unsuccessful, the town of Cromwell is good for it," he explained.

"We have the money. They don't need to force us to pay for and post a very expensive appeal bond," said Girard, who "wholeheartedly" recommended residents approve the measure.

"The advantage is, yes, the money has been put aside, but if we're successful, it all comes back," he explained. "We don't lose anything."

The bond market would "charge us an arm and a leg ... if we could even find someone to do it ... and you never get that money back. That money is spent and gone," Girard added.

Attorney's fees are being paid out of the town's Connecticut Interlocal Risk Management Agency insurance policy, Girard explained, so the municipality would not be on the hook for legal expenses.

After the 30-minute session, the vote was taken by a show of hands. The exact number of those in favor of, or against, the proposal, is not recorded, Town Clerk JoAnne Doyle said Thursday, because it was not conducted by paper ballot.

A number of people said they wanted to make an informed decision and needed to know details of the case and the grounds for appeal to do so, however, they were repeatedly reminded that the sole issue being considered Wednesday was whether to put the funds in a restricted account.

Former longtime councilman Myron Johnson was among them. "It would be one thing if I'm a citizen, and I don't know any of the details of the case," he said, "but, I'm a former member of the council, and I have no idea what this case is all about. ... if I don't know about this case, that's a (charter) violation."

Councilman James Demetriades said at the meeting that the evening's issue was solely about the $5 million appropriation, not "whether the town did something correctly, or incorrectly."

Winning the appeal could mean a lesser penalty would be imposed on the town, he added.

"Last night's vote was not about whether the electors agree or disagree with the town's past actions, but about moving forward in a fiscally responsible way," Demetriades said Thursday.

Finance Director Mary Anne Sylvester said Cromwell has between $12 million and $13 million in reserve. These monies are set aside for unexpected expenses, such as during the pandemic, when people had trouble paying their bills.

"Everyone needs to have some savings," she explained. "This is our savings."

Seeing only 50 people in the room, Robin Cassella asked for the question be put to referendum so townspeople would have more time to appear.

Since notice of the meeting was given June 29, Doyle said a petition with at least 200 signatures would have had to already been submitted.

"I'm pleased the citizens voted to put the money in a restricted fund, which will address the judge's concern," Town Manager Anthony Salvatore said Thursday.

The town is in the process of appealing the ruling and has "strong grounds" to do so, Girard said.

Dan Haar contributed to this article.


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