Looking back at 2013’s triumphs and tragedies

First Selectman Peter Tesei and the Republican ticket enjoyed a huge night at the polls in November 2013.

First Selectman Peter Tesei and the Republican ticket enjoyed a huge night at the polls in November 2013.

After several years of actual storms hitting Greenwich, the clouds over the town in 2012 were for the most part metaphorical. It was a quieter year than previous ones, free of hurricanes and nor’easters, but also one that highlighted Greenwich’s unique character. So before we get too focused on the brand-new 2014, take a walk back into 2013.

In 2013, there was controversy and surprise as board politics took over the front page and Michael Skakel walked out of prison a free man, at least for now. There was triumph in our schools and in our community, but also the darkest of tragedy that left residents stunned and vowing action. Greenwich celebrated the heritage of many of its residents with a relationship across the ocean to sister cities in Italy, and a very regal visitor came to town with pomp and circumstance and a lot of swooning.

A lease discussion took months of work and led to no changes whatsoever, the MISA project took its biggest steps forward yet and the weather plagued the Greenwich Town Party but didn’t dampen spirits as plans to make it bigger and better are back on track for 2014. And the long-delayed renovations of both The Nathaniel Witherell and the Greenwich YMCA had milestone moments.

It all happened in 2013, and these are some of the biggest moments of the year in Greenwich.

New trial for Skakel

To the shock and amazement of observers and legal experts and the delight of his family, former Greenwich resident Michael Skakel was granted a new trial more than 10 years after he was convicted for the 1975 murder of Martha Moxley, his neighbor in the exclusive Belle Haven neighborhood in town.

Mr. Skakel, who has always maintained his innocence, was put on trial in 2002 after the murder was thought to be unsolved for more than 25 years. Mr. Skakel’s trial received national interest because his aunt, Ethel, was the widow of former U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy and the decision to grant a new trial shocked many legal analysts, who compared this to a Hail Mary pass connecting for a touchdown in football. In the surprise ruling, Judge Thomas Bishop found that Mr. Skakel had not received an adequate defense from his attorney during the trial and ordered him retried.

In November, Mr. Skakel was released on a $1.2-million bond to await the retrial. The state is appealing Judge Bishop’s ruling, but if it is upheld, the decision will have to be made whether Mr. Skakel will be retried in the case that many had considered settled. Outside the courthouse, Ms. Moxley’s mother and brother insisted that Mr. Skakel murdered her, but his attorneys say they are ready for the retrial to prove his innocence.

“There were two tragedies that occurred in Greenwich in 1975,” Mr. Skakel’s attorney Hubert Santos said. “The first, of course, was the murder of Martha Moxley. … The second great tragedy occurred in a courthouse in Norwalk in 2002 when Michael was convicted of a murder he did not commit.”

Bullying leads to tragedy

One day after the beginning of the new school year in August, Greenwich was shattered by the suicide of 15-year-old Greenwich High School sophomore Bartlomiej (Bart) Palosz.

According to family members and fellow students, Bart was the victim of relentless bullying at both GHS and Western Middle School before he took his own life with a family-owned gun. Since then there has been much discussion and criticism about why more was not done to protect Bart and put an end to the bullying. No criminal charges were filed after the police investigation into the suicide, but there is an ongoing investigation being led by Town Attorney Wayne Fox to look at the district’s response and what more can be done.

While there was additional criticism that Mr. Fox’s department’s job was to protect the town from lawsuits and there were calls for a more independent review, a “thoughtful and thorough investigation” has been promised by the district.

After Bart’s suicide, Superintendent of Schools William McKersie said that while he didn’t personally know the young man, he acknowledged the district was aware of his issues by saying “We knew Bart.” He stressed that he wanted steps to be taken to keep any more students from making the choice he did.

“I want to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Dr. McKersie said.

This was not the only tragic death that the town had to contend with in 2013. In July, 19-year-old Vincent Scorese Jr. was killed in a single-car accident on Riversville Road. A memorial to the 2012 GHS graduate, who was remembered fondly by friends and coaches, was quickly erected at the scene. The roadway is considered very dangerous because of its curves and stone walls.

Racial balance

What to do about the two district elementary schools that are out of compliance with a state of Connecticut mandate that there be racial balance in public schools dominated much of the summer and continued into the fall, likely having an impact on town elections, too. And the matter is still not decided.

What is known is that two Greenwich schools, Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon, are considered by the state to be in racial imbalance because of having more minority students than white students. Greenwich is mandated to have a response to the issue this coming year and is working with the state on what that might be. However, during several public hearings and discussions over the summer, vocal parent groups rejected options including partial redistricting and busing. Dr. McKersie has also proposed making North Street School an open school of choice to try to open up space at New Lebanon to attract more students to the magnet program there, but that has also met with resistance from North Street parents.

Several parents have repeatedly called for Greenwich to challenge the constitutionality of the racial balance mandate, but there’s no indication the town is prepared to do that. Additionally, Board of Education members Peter Sherr and Peter von Braun have pushed hard for Greenwich to claim it is exempt from the mandate because since both Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon are magnet schools that meet the state’s definition of “unique schools” that do not have to be racially balanced.

However, state Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor has said that he does not agree, since the schools are only partial magnets, a view shared by many members of the Greenwich Board of Education. But the board is nonetheless pushing forward with a claim of unique schools, and discussions with the state are ongoing. The issue raised the profile of Mr. Sherr in town, perhaps leading to his re-election to the board this past November.

Tesei dominates again

The identity of who would win the first selectman’s race was never in doubt this year. The only question was by how much incumbent First Selectman Peter Tesei would be re-elected.

Mr. Tesei, a Republican, won a dominating victory over Democrat Elizabeth Krumeich, a late entrant into the race, by an 8,433-to-3,086 margin. Independent candidate Jim C. Reilly took in 157 votes. This means that the same Board of Selectmen of Mr. Tesei and Selectmen David Theis and Drew Marzullo, both of whom also enjoy strong popularity in town, will be in office for another two years. And it was a big night overall for the Republicans beyond Mr. Tesei as Mr. Theis and Tax Collector Tod Laudonia both cruised to easy re-elections.

The Republicans also beat back a challenge from town Democrats for control of the Board of Estimate and Taxation as the Democrats made it a real race by offering up an alternate fiscal vision for the town with increased long-term borrowing to pay for capital priorities. The Republicans won that race with ease as well, and most of the attention was on the Board of Education, where Mr. Sherr, despite not having the endorsement of the Republican Town Committee, was the night’s top school board vote getter as a petition candidate. Democrat Laura Erickson, also a petition candidate, won as well, joining Republican Peter Bernstein and Democrat Debbie Appelbaum as the new board members.

Here comes Harry

Greenwich got the “royal touch” in April when Britain’s Prince Harry came to town for a polo match at Greenwich Polo Club. This was part of a weeklong visit to the United States for the prince, and his stop in Greenwich was high-profile all the way.

Only a lucky few Greenwich residents actually got to be at a luncheon where Prince Harry appeared before the match, and it quickly turned into the hottest ticket in town. But access was exclusive and few actually got to even interact with the prince. The entire event caused a stir in town and resulted in the arrest of one woman who traveled from Canada to meet the prince and got a little too close for comfort as far as the Greenwich Police Department was concerned.

At the Sentebale Royal Salute Polo Cup charity match, the prince was a key part of the victorious team, even scoring the tying goal. The event benefited Sentebale, a charity formed in memory of the prince’s mother, Princess Diana, that assists the poor and orphans in Africa who have lost their parents to AIDS.

The prince wasn’t the only notable name in town this year, as a movie filmed in Byram had Jennifer Aniston in Greenwich to film scenes and Jessica Alba stopped in for an afternoon to collect an award for her work creating chemical-free products for sale to use in the home.

New lease for boat club

It was supposed to be a simple matter for the North Mianus Boat and Yacht Club, but it ended up being anything but.

The club was seeking a renewal of its 10-year lease with the town that allowed it to continue to operate on town property. This was the standard agreement for town property and was enthusiastically supported last January by the Board of Selectmen in a quick, unanimous vote. However, approval from the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) ended up taking all the way until late October as club members wondered what their future held.

The lease got caught between a disagreement between the selectmen and RTM about what the town’s procedure on leases should be. Several RTM members demanded the town first have a formalized policy for town leases, while the selectmen insisted that a policy was in place and that leases were given out at the discretion of the Board of Selectmen and then considered by the RTM. Ultimately, the selectmen put this policy on paper, but the RTM still pushed forward with efforts to write its own lease policy, placing the status of the club in flux for months.

And while the members of the boat club were repeatedly assured that the delay was not personal, it felt personal to the members who vigorously campaigned for the renewal and for the selectmen who openly criticized the delay and the conduct of some members of the RTM. When all was said and done, the report and recommendations of a joint RTM subcommittee were not even approved by the full body, making the effort essentially wasted time.

In October, the vote renewing the least was a blowout 123-11 in favor of it.

An AVID triumph

Graduation at Greenwich High School is always a reason to celebrate, but especially for 16 students who will be the first in their families to go to college.

These students were the first class of Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) at GHS. The program, started by the nonprofit Greenwich Alliance for Education, seeks to help students be the first in their families to attend a college or university. Starting when they were freshmen, these students went through four years of AVID classes to help them build on their promise and abilities to be able to go on from GHS toward a degree. And the entire class of students was successful, with each of them getting into college.

This is expected to be the first of many AVID classes that will graduate. The school has a new class come in every year when they enter the school to move up through 12th grade, and another one is expected to have great success again when it graduates this summer. The students in it are ones who have shown great promise but might not attempt to apply to college because their parents haven’t. The classes help them apply, sharpen their academic skills and make sure they are able to get scholarship assistance.

In addition to getting citations from Gov. Dannel Malloy and U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D-4th), Mr. Tesei and GHS Headmaster Christopher Winters were among the speakers congratulating the class at a special ceremony, and students expressed gratitude for the program both academically and as a support system.

“AVID has really helped me push through everything,” student Patricia David said.

Witherell breaks ground

With Mr. Malloy, Mr. Tesei and Greenwich’s state delegation to Hartford grabbing shovels, the long-awaited groundbreaking for The Nathaniel Witherell’s Project Renew renovation finally took place.

The renovation of the town-owned nursing and rehabilitation facility has been long called for, but the project ran into a myriad of delays and concerns about the cost and the scope of the plan. A planned rebuild was scrapped for the more focused Project Renew and, after years of approvals and delays, shovels were finally put into the ground in January. It took 10 years of planning to get there, but the day was one of celebration, and construction is now fully under way with the hope that it will be completed this year.

In brief remarks at the event, Mr. Malloy, who had pushed forward state assistance for the project as one of his first acts in office in 2011, called it a “great day for Greenwich, a great day for Connecticut and, especially, a great day for seniors.”

The groundbreaking was preceded by a week by another big event in town as the town celebrated the official opening of a renovated YMCA. The oft-delayed project received a major boost in 2012, and in 2013 the renovated interior was finally unveiled, allowing the facility to finally fire on all cylinders again after years of waiting.

“We are alive and well and have a lot to offer the community,” YMCA CEO Edward Philipp said.

 

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