Haskell responds to transportation forum controversy
A transportation forum that had been in the works for Tuesday evening in Westport and was later postponed, is now the subject of accusations that Gov. Ned Lamont was part of a conspiracy with advocates for tolls.
The weekend controversy highlights tensions surrounding the year-long debate over Lamont’s efforts to enact highway tolls.
State Sen. Will Haskell (D-26), was working to organize the forum and had invited Lamont as well as Transportation Commissioner Joseph Giulietti to speak about the administration’s CT2030 transportation plan, which includes trucks-only tolling at 12 locations.
“It didn’t come together schedule wise,” Haskell said late Saturday. “It is not going to happen on Tuesday. I do very much hope we find the time to hold an open forum ... it will be posted publicly so that anyone and everyone can attend.”
The House and Senate Democratic caucuses are slated to meet Tuesday at the state Capitol to discuss Lamont’s latest plan, among other legislative issues for the upcoming session. That’s part of the reason for the scheduling conflict, according to Haskell as well as Lamont’s spokesman, Max Reiss.
The seemingly routine forum became anything but, as advocates on both sides worked to shape the story.
In planning the event, Haskell reached out to a progressive, pro-tolls Westport-based grassroots organization, ReSisters. He said he did so to gauge interest in the forum, as he often does when planning events in his district.
Melissa Shein, a member of the group, sent an email Thursday that contained the subject line, “TOP SECRET & URGENT: Gov. Lamont Needs YOU in Westport, Tues., Jan. 7, 7PM.” The email asked recipients to keep details of the forum a secret.
That led a Hartford Courant columnist and a conservative think tank, separately, to accuse Lamont and Haskell of conspiring to quash public participation by tolls opponents — and thereby create the illusion of widespread support for tolls.
“Senator Will Haskell and Lamont are assisting tolls supporters in creating an advantage over tolls opponents,” Courant columnist Kevin Rennie wrote on his personal blog, Daily Ructions — without citing evidence of such a conspiracy. The Courant does not control the content in the blog by the former Republican state senator.
In a post on its website, the Yankee Institute wrote “‘Top secret’ email shows coordination between Lamont administration and toll supporters to hold town meeting.” The post, written by The Yankee Institute’s Marc E. Fitch, also did not show any link between the email and the Lamont administration. The Yankee Institute opposes highway tolls for Connecticut.
The governor’s office denied any coordination with the ReSisters, said the administration had no advance knowledge of Shein’s email and did not discuss strategy with the group. Reiss said the office responded to a query by the ReSisters, telling them the governor had not committed to attending.
“Do NOT share any of this information on social media,” Shein wrote. “We have advance notice of this event, thanks to Senator Will Haskell and Gov. Lamont's office, and we want to keep that advantage over the plan's ‘No Tolls’ opponents as long as possible.”
Shein did not return a request for comment. A link in the email to RSVP for the forum opened a poll created by Angela Liptack, a pro-tolls supporter from Ridgefield, who is not a staffer for either Lamont or Haskell.
The email does not say Lamont or Haskell directed the forum be held secretly, and there is no evidence either elected official had any knowledge of the email or its contents before it was sent, or that they actively tried to limit public participation.
Haskell said he was waiting to publicize the event until he could confirm Lamont and Giulietti would attend.
“It was not a secret at all,” Haskell said. “There was a plan, once we confirmed everyone was available, to put it online. We just hadn’t confirmed everyone’s availability and I’m glad we didn’t put it online because as it turns out not everyone is available. In the planning phase, my staff reached out to Westport Public Schools to reserve the space, and as with any public forum or any event that I do, I reached out to some supporters to let them know that I’ll be in the area. We hadn’t told all that many people about it because it was still in the planning stage.”
The governor’s team began drafting press releases about Lamont’s potential appearance last week but by Saturday evening, a spokesman said the governor would not attend. Internal emails reviewed by Hearst Connecticut Media show the governor’s office was planning a coordinated press announcement for Sunday in the event Lamont would be able to attend the Tuesday forum.
Reiss said Lamont will take public questions about the tolling and transportation plan this week although the specific venues have not been announced.
“The governor will be holding different public availabilities throughout the week. The governor has continued to hear from constituents and residents both positive and negative and he’s going to continue that discussion,” Reiss said.
Lamont publicly promised late last year to hold town hall meetings across the state about his CT2030 transportation plan. An earlier version of the plan, calling for 14 toll gantries that would levy charges of 50 cents to $1, failed in the fall after Democrats balked at it. Under the latest plan, Lamont returns to a version of his 2018 campaign plan, tolling trucks only, at 12 locations.
Tolls opponents, including Patrick Sasser, founder of No Tolls CT, have repeatedly and publicly requested a schedule for the public discussions. Sasser renewed his call for town hall meetings Sunday after learning the Westport forum would not be held.
In a tweet, he suggested the forum was canceled by the governor’s office after the email from ReSisters came to light.
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