So that happened Monday night.
If you missed it on Twitter or Facebook or on our website, here’s what happened Monday night at Meriden’s City Council meeting.
Image courtesy of Richie Rathsack l Record-Journal
I could sit here and analyze the meeting, but for the first time in a long time, I wasn’t actually at a council meeting. Well, I stopped by briefly before it began, but that’s about it.
When I walked in to hand Richie a cable for the camera so the RJ could take video, there were people spilling into the hallways. It was one of the larger crowds I’d seen.
The topic isn’t a laughing matter, but people I spoke with in recent days couldn’t help but smile or laugh when this meeting was mentioned. Having attended dozens of these meetings, there are some that you can anticipate being contentious, heated and messy and you can’t stop it from happening. And I think that’s where the smiles or jokes come from - the ability to sense something from a mile away, trying to anticipate and then just living it out. Either way, there is a reason to be upset and there is a reason to try and let it all go.
Elected officials are on both sides of this issue both defending Rich and strongly opposed.
Those supporting him cite Lenny’s facts and say he is correct. By the definition of the facts, he is mostly correct. 2010 Census data was a little lower than 90% black in Detroit, but it could have risen within the last four years. Others supporting him have said Lenny said nothing wrong - they seem to think Meriden is headed the way of Detroit.
Let’s not lose sight of what was said though.
He compared the two locations. He was listing what he considers to be flaws of Detroit that have lead to a bleak picture. He cites the poverty. He cites the percentage of black people. He cites the graduation rate. Yes, poverty is a problem. The graduation rate is a problem. But unless you specifically argue that 90% black is a flaw because you’d prefer to see a more even distribution of races, then all you’re saying is that 90% of the people living in Detroit is a problem.
Lenny saw nothing wrong with what he said at the time. He saw nothing wrong when a story appeared in the newspaper two days later after we attempted to contact him multiple times.
He said the comment on Sept. 22. He apologized on Oct. 5., the night before a council meeting.
In his apology, Rich said he did not mean to bring race into the statement. Odd, considering he clearly did research and specifically mentioned a race.
The apology was done in an email. The email was sent to the City Council, Board of Education, some city staff, some BOE staff and a few reporters. Yet, he addresses the city of Meriden. He did not contact the Record-Journal asking for us to print anything. Were the elected officials supposed to contact all of their constituents to let them know Lenny apologized? Did he assume the RJ would just write a story. Credit to Molly Callahan, our Sunday reporter, who was on I-91 when she was called back into the office at 9 p.m. to write a story so the apology could be read by people BEFORE the council met that night.
Lenny made no statement at the council meeting. No apology. He told the press he had no further comment. He told reporter Andrew Ragali that it was the Record-Journal’s fault that it became a widespread media issue. Truth is, the Associated Press picked up our story and Monday morning, every news outlet in the state picked it up after that. Four TV news crews showed up Monday night. Chaz and AJ spoke about the issue at length Tuesday morning on their radio show. And a staff member from Chaz and AJ spoke about calling him Tuesday morning and his seemingly angry or frustrated response.
Now if he issued an apology earlier or only chose to issue one at the meeting, it’s less likely those same news crews show up.
Of course this isn’t Lenny’s first controversial situation.
Last year, he called me out on his Facebook page. I’m told not long after that went viral within the city of Meriden, his wife banned him from Facebook.
Prior to the ‘Detroit’ remarks, he made comments about Yale Acres and the people living there not needing a community center. That drew some criticisms from Democratic councilors and the people living there.
The police were requested at a City Council meeting in February because councilor Cathy Battista was concerned. She and Rich had some type of phone conversation in which she felt threatened. There was also an email exchange where he made mention to one of her family members.
There was the “There was a time when everyone but a few thought the (Earth WAS FLAT)” comment to a constituent.
Every time, he is defended with a comment about how Lenny is “unpolished” or “old school.”
Then there was the incident between he and I where I also got an apology. Back in May, the council was discussing the certificate of compliance program. Multiple recesses were called. A tri-party caucus was held on the council floor. And a task force was created.
While people from the parties spoke during recess, people gathered to talk about the tense meeting around the Council Chambers. Some walked on the council floor to talk to other councilors or city staff. Others tried to listen to this meeting going on in front of our eyes, with a quorum, mind you.
I opted for a closer listen. I stood up. Walked a few feet forward. And listened. Some councilors were aware I was there and continued on. Lenny realized it when he turned around and saw me. He told me to get out of there. I asked what they were discussing, as they were discussing council business in the Council Chambers, with a quorum, and multiple parties (all of which help it qualify toward its own actual meeting).
Lenny stood up, put his hand on my shoulder and with some slight force, lead me back to the crowd. He gave me a little shove - enough to send me forward an extra step or two - and said to stay away. I told him I was listening and asked what they were talking about. He said it was a tri-party caucus and it didn’t involve me.
I’d heard enough so I sat down. Some people saw it, some people didn’t. Those that did were surprised he would put his hands on somebody. And in the weeks to come, so were many others who called and asked what happened or inquired. It spread and this is the first time I’m actually writing about it. Those who asked, I told. The fact is, some made it out to be a punch (which it was not) and others thought were were in a shoving match (which we were not). I’d prefer to clear the air.
People above me at the RJ were not pleased with the situation. Looking back, I was not. And people contacting me were upset. When somebody here investigated the situation, Lenny flatly denied it. Said it didn’t happen.
It wasn’t until another councilor, who witnessed it, explained what happened that Lenny acknowledged it happened. He was spoken to by Dan Brunet. And came up and apologized sometime the next week. He shook my hand and said he’s sorry if he did anything wrong.
The point is, it’s not the first time he has had to issue an apology. It’s not the first time he has done something causing some controversy. The situation could have been avoided, as could have others. But I guess because he’s “old school” or “unpolished” they keep happening.
Lenny has three more years in office. This situation isn’t going to force him to resign. He won’t do that. But there is a question, of how many more incidents could happen. His comments, right or wrong, lead to a heated meeting Monday night.
And the meeting, in general, looks terrible for the city. People made fun of the city. People questioned what the hell is going on in the city. And it didn’t cause anybody to say ‘Hey, that’s where I want to live.’ My personal friends made fun of Meriden in their Facebook feeds and in talking to me.
So when people sit and wonder why some might not want to live in Meriden - you can point them to the political climate, for one.
Where do things go from here? I’m not sure. Guess we need to find out what happens between now and the council’s next meeting Oct. 20.
Oh, by the way, the certificate of compliance program was changed and the anti-nepotism policy was passed. And the real kicker of that meeting? If the City Council didn’t pass a resolution at the request of the mayor earlier this year allowing people to discuss any topic they wanted to during public comment - nobody would have been able to speak about Lenny. Go figure.