A Boy Scout Friday the 13th tour of the Sterling Opera House without formal permission from the city sparked a debate during the Jan. 26 meeting of the Derby Board of Aldermen.
The opera house on Elizabeth Street is on the National Register of Historic Places. It used to be a performing arts venue, then it was used for government offices. It’s best known these days for its 2011 appearance on “Ghost Hunters.”
Hence, the Scouts’ tour of the building the night of Friday the 13th. The walk-through happened during a sleepover the scouts were having at a church next door.
At the Derby Aldermen meeting Carmen DiCenso, president of the Board of Aldermen, said Derby Fire Marshal Phil Hawks contacted him about the matter because a “fire watch” was not posted at the opera house during the scouts’ visit, which took place at night.
A “fire watch” refers to assigning firefighters to stand by at the opera house while the public enters because the building doesn’t have a certificate of occupancy, nor any fire protection system.
Local groups often come to the Derby Board of Aldermen in advance to get permission to tour the opera house. The groups then work with the fire department to arrange for the fire watch.
DiCenso questioned why the protocol wasn’t followed this time.
“I would think that any use of the opera house would have to get approved by the Board of Aldermen,” DiCenso said.
“Who gave them permission?” First Ward Alderman Thomas Donofrio asked.
“I have no idea,” DiCenso replied.
Mayor Anita Dugatto clarified the mystery, saying she took the scouts into the opera house. She said a last minute request came to her, and she cited the educational purpose of the tour.
“(The fire marshal) has a standing regulation with the use of the opera house where there has to be a fire watch,” she told the board. “The adult to child ratio was sufficient I thought.”
The mayor said she also brings potential investors to look at the opera house.
First Ward Alderwoman Barbara DeGennaro said the city has to follow the rules.
“It’s a city building,” DeGennaro said. “Use of a city building, it’s city property, use of city property usually comes before the board and do to the condition of the Sterling Opera House — there’s no CO (certificate of occupancy), there’s no electricity . . .”
Dugatto asked whether she should hold off potential Sterling Opera House buyers for a month to wait for permission from the Aldermen to show the property. The Aldermen only meet regularly every 30 days.
Second Ward Alderman Art Gerckens warned against micromanaging the mayor, saying she needed the flexibility to deal with people interested in doing business with the city.
“Don’t handcuff the leader of this city,” he said.
DiCenso indicated the Boy Scout tour and an investor checking out the building are not the same.
“I think the whole problem was that it was at night, in the dark. And it was kids that are 10, 11, 12 years old. I think it was just a safety issue,” he said.
DiCenso suggested if kids are going to tour the opera house, it should be done on a Saturday when the sun is up and people can see.
DeGennaro asked Thomas Welch, Derby’s attorney, to weigh in.
He said the Aldermen control city property. He suggested that if the policy needs clarification, the issue be sent to an Aldermen subcommittee for review.
Click play on the YouTube player at the top of this story to listen to the full, 8-minute discussion from the Jan. 26 Aldermen meeting.
The fire marshal declined to comment.