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Editorial / Caucus before P&Z vote undermined public trust

Published 4:57 pm, Thursday, January 24, 2013
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You may not be able to judge all books by their covers.

And things may not always be as they appear.

But in conducting the people's business, there are two areas where town officials should be as vigilant about appearance as they are about reality -- conflict of interest and secret back-room deals.

The mere appearance that a public official -- or an associate of that official -- might gain privately by the official's public action is enough to undermine the public's trust.

Similarly, officials should avoid even the appearance of a back-room deal -- a perception that instills doubt about the integrity and honesty of the process.

The public's business must be conducted in public.

Sadly, the Planning and Zoning Commission's Republican majority seems undaunted by public perceptions of secret dealings behind closed doors.

This month, the commission took up discussion of a proposed amendment to the town's zoning bylaws. One provision of the amendment would require a new zoning permit be obtained anytime the occupant of commercial property changed.

In practical terms, it meant that if Walt's Widget Shop on Post Road went out of business, a new zoning permit would have to be obtained before even a similar business, such as Wayne's Widget World, could move into the space.

At its meeting Jan. 10, the commission decided to take a straw vote on that provision -- a non-binding "yea" or "nay" that would indicate who stood where.

Four seats are held by Republicans, three by Democrats.

In the straw vote, three Republicans voted to remove the new-permit provision from the amendment. But the fourth Republican, Al Gratrix, sided with the three Democrats in voting to keep it.

So by the non-binding vote, the panel favored keeping the new-permit requirement, 4-3.

Then a curious thing happened.

When the meeting reconvened after a routine break, the Republicans promptly announced they were going to caucus, and they stole away to a side room to huddle behind closed doors.

When they returned to the meeting, the GOP members called for another straw vote. And voila! -- Gratrix had suddenly changed his mind, got in step with his party and the vote was 4-3 to remove the permit requirement.

Democratic commission member Ron Corwin was outraged, saying he "had reason to believe" the Republicans discussed the issue privately. Gratrix said it had been discussed "briefly."

The public should be equally outraged -- if only by the appearance of shady, back-room arm twisting.

In the heated exchanges that followed, the Republicans -- Chairman Catherine Walsh, Chip Stephens, Jack Whittle and Gratrix -- denied they had gone into a caucus to get Gratrix in line.

Why, then, did Republicans suddenly need to talk privately?

Because, Walsh said, Stephens "needed to get something off his chest."

If not the Gratrix vote, then what was weighing so urgently on Stephens' mind that it had to be discussed privately and immediately? Allowing that Stephens may be among the most sensitive of men, was it necessary to interrupt the entire commission?

The GOP commissioners had the right to caucus. But on a small panel like the P&Z, a majority party in lock step can dictate decisions. So caucuses -- depending on their timing -- have the potential to pervert a process that is supposed to involve free and open debate of issues in full public view.

What really went on in that P&Z Republican caucus? The public may never know. But the incident looks and smells fishy. And fishy is not something the public should not accept.

How property and land are used is the issue of the 21st century -- particularly in places like Westport, where developable land is scarce and residents have both financial and emotional investments in the character of the town.

So the public should keep a spotlight on the Planning and Zoning Commission. But that spotlight can't shine through a closed door.