Middletown Common Council chambers were packed Monday night, mostly by supporters of the St. Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchen, and the concept of feeding the hungry. Sympathetic residents, member of the faith based community, and patrons of the local soup kitchen gathered for an agenda item upon which no action would need to be taken.
Ron Krom, director of St. Vincent dePaul, and Kokomo Rock, of 191414 Ministries served as spokespersons for the contingent.
Krom explained that while a new state law, passed Friday by the State House and Senate, and signed by the governor today, allows charitable organizations to distribute food prepared in kitchens which are unlicensed, there were some outstanding issues to be addressed in town.
"The bigger question is how did we find ourselves in a place where we needed the entire State of CT to bail Middletown out of a situation that it should never have found itself in," Krom asked. "There are many laws on the books that are foolish and that are ignored by local governments across our State. Many other cities and towns in CT have soup kitchens, shelters, transitional living facilities, church outreach dinners, or similar charitable activities, and it is a well known, common practice for people of faith to participate by donating food that is prepared in their homes. Middletown is not unique in this, but somehow only our City Health Department has decided that this is a legal battle worth fighting.
"These last few months during the country’s worst economic calamity - where friends and neighbors are losing jobs, income and security – Middletown is prohibiting its citizens from sharing food with one another. The City, through its health department, is sending memos to its faith communities to “remind” them that the only food that is safe to share with the poor is food prepared in kitchens that the Health Department has licensed.
The problem is that this is not about food safety. This did not begin because someone got sick at a soup kitchen or shelter in town. This came about because of a legal problem. In an effort to be consistent, to appear as if they are not selectively enforcing the law, the Health Dept. feels compelled to curtail the food sharing practices at the Soup Kitchen that the faith communities have been engaged in for many, many years. The City looks to the faith communities and non-profits to provide many services for its citizens. It is shameful to ask us to do that and then to limit our food resources."
Krom asked the elected officials in attendance to take a stand for charitable giving by assuring that ordinances are interpreted and enforced in the way they are intended.
"For me, this has been an issue of faith," Krom said. "I think there are many more in this room tonight who are also here because of their faith. It is common in the Christian tradition to affirm a statement with a simple 'AMEN.' For those of you here tonight who have listened to my testimony and wish to affirm what I’ve said, at this time I’d ask you to please stand and say 'AMEN.'"
At his request, nearly the entire room stood and responded with a resounding 'amen.'
Rock echoed Krom's sentiment and enthusiasm for the cause of fighting hunger.
"I've seen some sorry messes in my time, perpetrated agains the interest of the poor," Rock said. "But this is one that fairly takes the cake. Let us resolve to go forth resolved to not let another sun set when we have to ask, 'Will I fear to feed the hungry from the resources of my own table.'"
When Council members asked Assistant City Attorney Tim Lynch, and Health Department Enforcement Code Officer Sal Nesci whether the new state law would put an end to action at the state health department, Lynch indicated that it was Food Not Bombs which requested the hearing, and it would be their decision to call an end to the hearing. Lynch also indicated that Food Not Bombs, which is suing the city on a perceived first amendment violation, has not given any indication whether they will withdraw that lawsuit or not.
In other business, the Council voted to fund a new electronic scoreboard at Palmer Fields with state money from the Local Capital Improvement Fund. The $165,000 state-0f-the-art scoreboard would replace a much older model currently used, which is in need of repair. Advocates for the scoreboard indicated that Palmer field was used frequently by city teams, and generated income through state, regional and national tournaments held there.
The Council also voted $30,000 to fund continued pick-up of bulky waste throughout the city until a study is done of the recently-passed ordinance which required a fee for each pick-up. That ordinance was criticized after city streets, especially in the downtown 'sanitation district' became lined with bulky waste over the summer.
Council members quizzed Public Works director Bill Russo about the situation, and why bulky waste had not been removed immediately. He, and Nesci explained that the new ordinance required them to cite property owners first, and only then remove the waste.
Council members urged Russo and his department to pick up waste immediately, record information about property-owners who were violating the code, and pursue reimbursement later.
Later in the meeting Council members voted to re-examine the bulky-waste ordinance after it had been considered by the Ordinance Study Committee, the Health Commission, and the Public Works Commission.