Commuter advocacy watchdog council still lacks members [Greenwich Time]

August 26, 2013

Article as it appeared in the Greenwich Time

By Martin B. Cassidy

The new Connecticut Commuter Rail Council is still short of its full membership, but the members who have been appointed are itching to start meeting as soon as possible to discuss railroad business.

“For the past four or five years we have met in August to give us a running start at the end of the summer,” council member Jim Cameron. “We’ve been talking about meeting because there is so much going on.”

The new council replaces the Metro-North Connecticut Rail Commuter Council, after Gov. Dannel P. Malloy proposed reconstituting the organization as a state-wide group that would represent all Connecticut commuters. Cameron had been the chairman of the original council, which was formed in 1985.

The old council was disbanded June 30, and Malloy had set Aug. 1 as the deadline for nominating members to the statewide council. As of Thursday, 11 members have been nominated and confirmed to the new 15-member council.

Cameron and council member John Hartwell, a member of the council from Westport and another holdover from the old council said the status of appointments to the group had remained unclear in recent weeks, though group members are eager to begin tackling outstanding issues before they are officially confirmed by the General Assembly.

“I’ve been trying to find out for weeks,” Hartwell said. “…I think we should get going again.”

David Bednarz, deputy communications director for Malloy’s office, confirmed the governor has reappointed three members from the previous council to the new organization: John Davis, a Stamford commuter, Susan Prosi, a planner for the South Western Regional Planning Agency, and Jim Gildea, a commuter from Fairfield.

Malloy’s administration has yet to fill a fourth vacancy which will be a chief elected official from a town or city along the New Haven-to-Hartford section of a proposed new spur that will extend to Springfield, Mass. That line is supposed to be finished by 2016, Bednarz said.

Hartwell said that he hoped that the inclusion of a chief elected official from another part of Connecticut would bolster the council’s position.

“It could give us more clout,” Hartwell said.

Thus far Malloy and other appointing authorities, who include State Sen. Donald E. Williams and State Rep. Brendan Sharkey, have chosen eight of the members of the previously existing council.

“The initial crew seems to be more or less intact,” said Davis, the Stamford commuter on the council.

The ranking minority members on the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee, State Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, and State Rep. David Scribner, R-Danbury, have reappointed Danbury Metro-North line rider Timothy Beeble, while State Sen. and minority leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, selected Mitch Fuchs, a Fairfield resident and holdover from the old council.

“I’m on the committee hoping we can effectuate some kind of change but understanding sometimes it is a kind of political show,” Fuchs said. “Honestly, most of the time the railroad does a pretty good job, but it is frustrating when you know something is wrong and there isn’t a better plan to deal with the situation.”

Two of Sharkey’s appointments to the new statewide council confirmed by his office are newcomers to the board: John Austin of Fairfield, and Leslie Creane of Hamden.

Austin, a Fairfield resident who has worked as a consumer advocate, said he is interested in getting the state transportation department to further explore the best options for introducing higher-speed rail networks. “My interest is to make sure that Connecticut gets high-speed rail and that it fits in with our needs and the needs of people who are going to be traveling through the state to get through Hartford, Boston, and who knows, maybe even Portland, Maine,” Austin said.

Malloy proposed making the council a statewide organization in January 2013 as part of House Bill 6363, which targeted more than two dozen citizens advisory groups for elimination, consolidation or reorganization, ostensibly to improve efficiency.

In 2012, the old commuter council criticized state transportation officials for not publicizing a hearing about a controversial rail station redevelopment plan, and rallied dozens of commuters to attend the hearing. They spoke adamantly against the proposed station project if it would result in creating more distant parking from the railway tracks.

In response to Malloy’s proposal, members of the old commuter council worked to get the bill amended to eliminate giving Malloy power to appoint the new council’s chair, and to protect language that safeguarded the group’s legislative power to request and receive information and documents on the functioning of the railroads.

As a result, members of the new council will still elect their own chairman, like on the old council.

“Those were important changes,” Cameron said.

Hartwell, who helped negotiate the changes to Malloy’s legislation, said the amendments should preserve the group’s autonomy and effectiveness.

“We’ve retained our powers, the essence of our experience, and have an expanded scope of responsibilities,” Hartwell said. “We have a big job ahead of us but I think we’re in a good position to begin.”

Yesterday General Assembly’s Transportation Committee co-chairs, State Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, and State Sen. Andrew Maynard-D-Griswold, were unsure of the remaining nominations to the council.

Rodney Chabot, a member of the previous council since the year of its inception in 1985 who served as its chair for more than a decade said he had sought reappointment by Malloy.

“I’m still hoping to serve and I’m disappointed that I wasn’t reappointed by the governor,” said Chabot, a New Canaan resident.