As Baron's South battle heads to RTM showdown, members asked to step aside
Updated 10:40 am, Thursday, April 2, 2015
The chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission is demanding that two members of the Representative Town Meeting recuse themselves when the legislative body takes up an effort to overturn the P&Z's designation of the Baron's South property as open space -- an action that obstructs plans for a seniors' residential/care center on the site.
P&Z Chairman Chip Stephens, in a letter to Matthew Mandell, chairman of the RTM's P&Z Committee, requested that Mandell, District 1, and RTM Moderator Eileen Lavigne Flug, District 4, recuse themselves "in the best interest of a fair hearing" on the dispute.
The P&Z recently voted to designate the property known as Baron's South -- where others in town have advocated construction of housing and care facilities for senior citizens -- as an open space zone.
Baron's South Committee members, in a meeting last week, decided to stand their ground and fight to have the P&Z decision overturned.
The zoning commission's decision came a week after Jonathan Rose Cos., the project developer, filed a pre-application for the project with the P&Z.
Stephens said he's made the request because the RTM members have potential conflicts in the matter. Mandell, the executive director of the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce, and Flug, who works for the law firm of Cohen and Wolf, are "financially attached to the main petitioner and supporter of the issue." Baron's South Committee member Ken Bernhard "is a partner at Cohen and Wolf and chamber board member," he added.
Bernhard, at the committee's last meeting, handed out petitions asking the RTM to override the P&Z's decision and urged committee members to circulate them.
"In light of your financial relationships, this situation presents a certain conflict of interest under the (recently revised) Code of Ethics," Stephens wrote. "And at the very least gives the appearance of not being independent and impartial in this matter."
Mandell on Wednesday said that Bernhard is no longer a chamber member, and that was confirmed by Jonathan Baron, chairman of the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce's Board of Directors. Baron said Bernhard resigned at the end of December 2013.
Even if Bernhard was still a member, Mandell said, "I'm not financially beholding to anyone in this town." He declined further comment, including if he would recuse himself.
Flug, in an email response to Stephens, which was copied to the Westport News, wrote: "While I don't believe that I have a financial or other conflict of interest resulting from my employment at Cohen and Wolf or otherwise, in order to avoid even the appearance of a conflict, I will be recusing myself from voting on this item."
Stephens' recusal request came in response to a letter he received from Mandell.
In that letter, Mandell said the RTM has received petitions to review the zoning commission's decision. "The clock started on Monday, March 30, and the RTM has 30 days to render a decision," according to Mandell.
Mandell's committee will meet Monday and again on April 20. The committee will vote on a recommendation to the full RTM on April 20 and write a report, he said in the letter to Stephens. The full RTM will meet on Tuesday, April 28, to discuss and possibly vote on the matter, according to Mandell.
In fact, at the last Baron's South Committee meeting, Mandell said he had discussed the matter with Flug and said he would get the item onto the appropriate RTM agendas in order to make the deadline.
"You are invited to present your position on your decision," Mandell wrote to Stephens. " Please extend an invitation to any and all P&Z commissioners to attend the meeting and speak if they so wish. They will be accorded priority position."
Stephens said the action of the RTM in reviewing the merits of the petitioners and considering an overturn of the decision is allowed under the town charter and "is welcomed by the members of the P&Z as a democratic process."
"That being on the record, I request that all petitions intended for this process, no matter what side of the issue supported, be accepted, encouraged and considered by the RTM committee," Stephens wrote to Mandell. "Any incidence of petitions being suppressed or ignored will be called out as being inconsistent with this democratic process."
Besides Bernhard's petition, members of the Coalition for Westport, a minority party that previously has run candidates for the P&Z, have also circulated petitions urging the RTM to reverse the open-space designation.
"We believe the decision is troubling for a host of reasons, and its action says more about the commission's disregard for both procedural niceties and for the best interests of the town than it does about the issues surrounding the property itself," Denise Torve, the coalition chairwoman, said in a statement.
Monday's meeting of the RTM's P&Z Committee will take place at 7 p.m. in the Town Hall auditorium.