Democracy Slips At Major Avon Condo Complex Following Huge Turnout To Defeat Higher Taxes For Golf Course

On May 10th residents of Farmington Woods in Avon went to the polls to vote on two bonding proposals totaling $4M, which if passed would have raised district taxes 18%, increasing some homeowners taxes by as much as $700 per year. The proposals were presented to residents at three informational meetings and a public hearing and involved replacement of the golf course irrigation system and upgrading the clubhouse with an elevator and horse shoe bar.

For three months a contentious debate took place over whether the course and its clubhouse, which is supported by $400K in restaurant minimums, were financially viable enough to invest that kind of money in. Considering that these operations had lost $1.3M over the last six years and had one profitable year in the last ten, the vote was really a referendum on the business model in place at Farmington Woods, one based on golf and a course with 89 resident members out of a total population of 2000.

The result of the bond vote was a demonstration of the power of grass roots politics and what happens when people vote based on information rather than propaganda. What followed the vote, however, was business as usual, with the board showing no remorse for wasting $43K of taxpayer money on something the majority didn’t want and a yearly budget passed that gives these losing operations another $250K to stay afloat.

The contrast between the bond vote and the budget vote is a contrast of democracy in action versus the politics of secrecy, cronyism and what most would consider an embarrassment to the very concept of democracy. What follows is the epilogue to an ongoing battle that rather than being over, is just beginning. Lagasse is Chairman of FW Resident for Fiscal Responsibility and blogs about this issue at www.farmingtonwoodsinsider.blogspot.com.

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SMALL TOWNS, COMPANY TOWNS AND WINDY CITY POLITICS

If you’ve read any of my articles comparing Farmington Woods in Avon to small Connecticut towns, company towns and most recently Chicago and its political tactics, you know that I like to use historical and geopolitical comparisons when it comes to our little community and the government that runs it.

I’ve compared Farmington Woods with the ten smallest towns in Connecticut, noting that the biggest difference is our size (we’re bigger) and the fact that they all have one thing in common: they fund a school and a library and probably a senior center. We, on the other hand, fund a golf course.

The Chicago comparison came when I started getting hate email and word of libelous emails sent to supporters followed by the board’s refusal to provide absentee ballots which looked an awful lot like voter suppression. The refusal to reveal salaries of top management here also smelled of bratwurst, but then I realized that there’s no comparing the Windy City to any other place when it comes to political shenanigans.

In the end, of the three, the company town analogy always seemed to fit best here: the small town, dependent on the fate of a company, in this case Farmington Woods Golf Club, for its financial and social welfare. It even had a company store selling the company product: golf and golf supplies, as well as a company restaurant, the clubhouse. And it had a company line: that this was a golf community first and that fact is what defined us.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION

I’ll get back to the company town analogy in a moment, but there’s good news to report first. This series started because the leaders of our community decided, with a golf operation that had lost $1.2M over the last six years and which had made a profit only once in the previous decade, to hang a 20 year, $4M bond on homeowners to replace the course irrigation system and upgrade the clubhouse with an elevator and a horse shoe bar.

Without first consulting taxpayers and with no cost/benefit analysis or feasibility study, the Farmington Woods Tax District board spent $43K on architects, lawyers and a bond broker, studied the issue for 35 weeks and finally revealed its “investment plan” in January of this year to the 2000 residents here, 89 of whom are members of the golf club. Problem was it came with a huge price tag: an 18% tax increase that would last for 20 years.

In response to this fiduciary insult, a group, Residents for Fiscal Responsibility was formed, a blog was started and 1000 flyers were sent out. The issue got media attention from local newspapers, CTwatchdog.com and Fox61 Investigative News. In the end the bond proposal was defeated in a referendum, not by a landslide, but by a tsunami. At the insistence of residents, the bond had been divided into two separate proposals. With an historic 1,023 votes cast, the course proposal went down 67-33%, the clubhouse proposal, 81-19%.

It was an impressive demonstration of grass roots politics, never before seen at Farmington Woods. The large voter turnout came as a result of a second flyer sent to all residents the week before the vote and an email campaign in which volunteers sent out 770 emails gleaned from the association member page. It even had help from an odd source. The association, feeling the pressure of media attention and resident unrest, decided for the first time in my 13 years here, to post signs in prominent places reminding residents to vote.

BACK TO POLITICS AS USUAL

But then came the actual yearly budget vote the following Tuesday. If the bond vote was a demonstration of democracy at its best, with its grassroots beginning and huge voter turnout, the budget vote was, to put it bluntly, an embarrassment to the democratic process.

How was this possible? Because our committee had allotted all its resources to stopping the bonds, we had little time or energy left to keep the budget from passing. And the boards went back to their usual routine, keeping voter turnout low by announcing the vote on the small message board that people rush by every morning on their way out of Farmington Woods.

As a result, the turnout for the budget vote was a depressing 110 voters. It didn’t hurt that in anticipation of winning the bond battle and due to increased resident scrutiny, the new budget contained an astoundingly low tax district increase of .01% with a total increase, including the association budget, of .99%. Of course, this low increase hid the fact that $250K of resident taxes and fees would go to shore up the money losing golf operation, every dollar of which represented reduced services to residents who foot the bill.

The meeting itself was an intimidating experience for some, not so for others. As the board members swaggered into the room smiling, you’d never have guessed that they’d taken a beating at the polls the previous week or that they were concerned about being asked about the $43K that was spent on the bonding boondoggle. And they had nothing to fear, because there was no comment allowed at this meeting, just the vote on the association and tax district budgets.

I said earlier that the meeting was intimidating for some. The previous week’s vote was taken by secret ballot behind a screen, at the association office, with polls open from 6am to 8pm. This was a result of resident demand. The turnout, 1,023 was the largest for a vote in the history of Farmington Woods. Our flyers and emails had done the job and as mentioned previously, the board felt compelled to advertise this vote everywhere.

At the yearly budget meeting, the association vote was done by secret ballot from attendees and by proxy, but the tax district vote was done by standing and holding up the little blue cards that had been issued to eligible voters. (There were no absentee ballots allowed, unlike most tax districts which routinely provide them.)

The Yes vote was taken first and as usual the board had mustered enough of their base to receive 73 of the possible 110 votes cast. The vote was counted, by of all people, the course/clubhouse manager who had every reason to see the budget pass: his clubhouse was being provided $62K to keep it out of the red for the coming year.

When the No voters stood with their blue cards, the negative reaction of the rest of the room was palpable: old ladies pointing and giving mean looks, with board and staff members looking on disapprovingly. There was mumbling and snickering in the room.

After the meeting I received several emails asking me why in the the previous week’s vote we had secret ballots and this week we were made to stand up and be counted not just by a members of the board, but also in full view of most of the staff that runs this place and provides services to us. It just seemed like an intimidation factor to many.

WE HONOR THE 37 WHO VOTED NO

It is for this reason that I dedicate this column to the 37 who had the courage to stand and be counted. When you consider that last year 5 No votes were cast for a budget with a 2.4% increase and 37 No’s were recorded this year with an increase of just .01%, there is an undeniable message being sent by residents here: they are tired of seeing their taxes and fees go toward bailing out a losing operation, money that could go toward improving amenities for all residents and maintaining the beauty of Farmington Woods.

My intimidation factor was a little different. At the previous meeting I had a rather spirited discussion with the Chair of the Finance Committee about whether the course was an amenity here. His claim that the golf course was an amenity that benefited all residents just doesn’t ring true when you factor in the money losing nature of the enterprise. I also mentioned him in my last article in CTwatchdog.com for not knowing anything of the policy that prohibits revealing staff salaries here.

He must have taken it personally, because every time I looked in his direction he appeared to be trying to stare me down. First my wife noticed, then Joe Caggiano, my co-chair and another supporter who was sitting nearby. I can only say at this point that none of this is personal with me. I just want residents to get their money’s worth here and like others, I feel we’re not getting it because a losing operation is draining the lifeblood out of this community, using its resources to fund an operation that a tiny minority here actually use.

After the meeting I approached the board president and asked her if she could refer me to the section of the by-laws relating to the process of removing officers. She gave me an odd look of surprise and then accused me of threatening her. I told her that she and at least four other board members were not representing the interests of the majority here and needed to resign. Again, she accused me of threatening her.

My response to that accusation is this: if removing people from office is now called threatening, then all local, state and national elections need to be cancelled for the foreseeable future. No more petitions, primaries or recall votes. That’s the new democracy.

THIS IS DEMOCRACY?

We’ve had board members spend $43K of our money without informing us, been told that we have no right to know what management is paid here and that we don’t have enough money to change the by-laws to add absentee ballots, regardless of the fact that many people here are away on business much of the time. Of course this would also apply to a member of the armed forces fighting for our freedoms in Afghanistan. The irony of this fact seems totally lost on ou

We’ve even had a board member who should have been bound by Roberts Rules of Order announce at the Public hearing in February that they had “enough votes to win”the bond vote and another, who as president, refused to prosecute our former general manager when it was discovered that he had misappropriated funds and proceeded to appoint a general manager who was neither certified nor fit to oversee a $6M budget.

We have another board member who as Chair of the Clubhouse Committee asked in a memo “is there really a compelling reason why we should insist on a balanced budget at all.” and admitted that “we have always aimed for a slight loss to a break-even policy for the restaurant” That would be the restaurant that residents keep afloat with their contribution of $400K per year in restaurant minimums, $140K of which went unused last year. And they still can’t make a profit even with this onerous assessment.

One board member even emailed a supporter to inform her that “Lagasse and his ilk” had never done anything positive for Farmington Woods and that “Lagasse” himself had been fined many times by the Covenant’s Committee. Not true.

COMPANY TOWNS: A BAD IDEA

So, to get back to my town analogies of the past few weeks, it seems I’ve been overly generous in my description of Farmington Woods as a company town. It’s difficult to describe the feeling, but last Tuesday’s budget meeting had the aura of something that would happen somewhere else, some place other than America. But then I remembered something I had read about Pullman, Illinois, George Pullman’s ideal company town built in the 1890’s.

When the economy went sour in the crash of 1893 and his business suffered, his town and its residents suffered as well. The residents were made to work longer hours for less pay, prices at the company store went up and rents remained the same. This led to a massive strike resulting in the death of 13 and injuries to 37. We got Labor Day out of that terrible event. But we also got something else.

Shortly after the strike a national commission was formed to study its causes. It found Pullman’s paternalism partly to blame and Pullman’s company town to be “un-American”. In 1898, the Illinois Supreme Court forced the Pullman Company to divest ownership in the town, which was annexed by Chicago. The era of the company town had come to an end.

But at Farmington Woods in the 21st century we have a board that thinks it can continue the company town tradition by hiding information, suppressing votes and using intimidation to get what they perceive is best for our little community. They have the same paternalistic attitude that George Pullman had, and their little company town is about as “un-American” as can be. They make a mockery out of the democratic process with their attitude of “we know what’s best for you” which usually means spending more money on the losing golf operation while the rest of the community suffers.

A striking example of the lack of transparency here occurred since the budget vote on Tuesday. After the meeting, our General Manager announced his resignation from Farmington Woods to the president. It wasn’t until Friday afternoon that some members of the Executive Board discovered this fact by talking with staff and a few residents in the know. Did it have anything to do with the ongoing financial crisis here or the criticism that has been directed at him? We don’t know and probably never will, due to the cloak of secrecy that exists here.

But I do know that now we’ve got to search for a new General Manager, one who will advise the board as the representative of the majority here and help us move into the future with or without golf. This is an important hire. It could affect the future viability of Farmington Woods as a community.

WE NEED A WAY OUT OF THIS MESS, NOW!

Can the current board be trusted to hire the type of person we need? The answer to that is a resounding no. We know what they want and it isn’t what the majority of residents here want. We want a new identify as a community, one that will bring us together, not put us at odds with each other. We’d like a library or a fitness center so that residents can meet and form a real community, one based on a 21st century paradigm, not one created in the 80’s based on the old company town model.

Is this some kind of pipe dream or can it be accomplished? For that to happen, the board needs to realize that the people who pay the bills here really do want change. And if they really cared about Farmington Woods as a community, they would step aside and let us move into the future with a new board, a new identity and a direction based on fiscal responsibility and transparency, not special interests.

The current board has shown that they are completely out of touch with the interests of the majority of residents here. When they resign we will thank them for their years of service, but we will also thank them for allowing us to move Farmington Woods into the future without them. The residents have spoken. It’s time for a change.

 

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