Finance OKs rest of funds for downtown study as Walsh explains qualms
Updated 11:22 am, Thursday, October 3, 2013
The larger, $139,000 share of funding for a downtown master plan, derailed last week after the Planning and Zoning Commission chairwoman expressed reservations about the proposal her panel had already endorsed, won approval Wednesday night.
The traffic segment of the study -- costing $65,000 -- won final approval Tuesday from the Representative Town Meeting, which now take up the rest of the project at its next session.
Controversy ensued last week when Board of Finance Chairman Avi Kaner received a last-minute email from P&Z Chairwoman Cathy Walsh asking that the board approve only the $65,000 for a traffic study, but delay voting on the rest of the overall $204,000 request that had already been unanimously endorsed by the P&Z.
"This was a surprise to us," Kaner, the Republican selectman candidate in November, said Wednesday night, noting that the matter was continued from last week because "open questions remained due to the letter" from fellow Republican Walsh. Her email was sent only to Kaner.
The contents of the email, not made public at the time, prompted Louis Gagliano, chairman of the 2020 Downtown Committee that has been promoting the study, to resign his post at an emotional finance board meeting.
First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, who had appointed the Downtown 2020 Committee, said he received many phone calls and emails following last week's finance meeting "expressing frustration -- frustration with me, with the process ... One or two people dared to compare us with what's going on in Washington, D.C."
"Frankly, I share some of that frustration," Joseloff added, calling democracy "messy," but said that it is important to try to achieve consensus without the political maneuvering some contend has engulfed the process of creating a master plan for Westport's downtown.
Walsh came to Wednesday's finance meeting, she said, hoping to "clear up misconceptions" about her email to Kaner.
"You made the right decision last week," she said. "I had some concerns. Some other commissioners had some concerns."
She said that while she and the other commissioners were in favor of the overall master plan, they felt the traffic study needed to be executed quickly. "I was not comfortable with whether or not you or the RTM were going to pass the full request," she said, calling her email "a little bit vague and innocuous."
"Knowing that we needed to get the traffic study done," Walsh said, her hope was to table the rest of the funding request, as "we have a few more months to play with it."
She also insisted that the P&Z should play an active role in the project, which along with a traffic study, will largely involve polling residents, landowners and interested parties about the direction they hope to see the town take with regard to downtown development over the coming decades.
"All of us want to take over the project," Walsh said of the P&Z, defending the commission against critics.
"We're committed to planning and zoning for this town, and frankly speaking I take great umbrage on a conversation that I look on as only political, that we don't engage in planning ... We engage in planning every step of the way."
"This whole project originated with the Planning and Zoning Commission three years ago," she said, explaining that a master plan would make the town eligible for a variety of grants, as well as having other purposes.
"I do recommend supporting the full funding," Walsh said. "Planning and Zoning will have to be actively involved in the process."
Finance board member Tom Lasersohn was the only member to raise questions about moving ahead at this point.
"Common sense tells me that we should wait until there's a new first selectman to do this," he said, adding that he was "uncomfortable with the coordination of things."
At the request of Kaner, Joseloff said he would not move forward with any of the contractual work for the project without the consent of the candidate elected to succeed him in November.
"I certainly am not about to take any action ... that will not have the approval of the incoming first selectman," Joseloff said.
Not only did Joseloff advocate for the full master plan appropriation, but both first selectman candidates -- Republican Jim Marpe and Democrat Helen Garten, who is also vice chairwoman of the finance board -- also support the project.
"Hopefully by now we all recognize the town does need some master planning," he said.
RTM backs traffic study
On Tuesday, the RTM, by a 26-1 vote, gave final approval to a $65,000 contract with RBA Group for the traffic phase of the downtown master plan.
Prior to the vote, Joseloff told the legislative body that the traffic study, "alone does no good, " and expressed hope the Board of Finance would approve funding for the rest of the downtown plan at its Wednesday meeting -- which the panel did.
But RTM member Dick Lowenstein on Tuesday night wanted to know how P&Z members could "change their minds without holding a public meeting" and how they could seemingly overturn a public vote in private.
He asked that P&Z Chairwoman Walsh be present at the next RTM session to explain what happened.
G. Kenneth Bernhard, who took over the Downtown 2020 after Gagliano quit, said "time is of the essence" to get the traffic study done. He said it can be done only after summer and before the year-end holidays, or they will have to wait until the spring.
Among the residents who spoke Tuesday were Jeff Block, who wanted to know how much the entire project would cost, and Connie Greenfield, a 44-year town resident, who expressed concern about Westport remaining a "small town."
Staff writer Anne M. Amato contributed to this report.