In a dispute reminiscent of a partisan spat in January over board procedures, Republican Planning and Zoning Chairwoman Catherine Walsh and Democratic member Ron Corwin clashed Thursday night after Corwin questioned the integrity of Walsh in rescheduling a meeting.
The conflict flared near the end of the meeting, when Corwin asked Walsh why a commission hearing originally scheduled for May 16 had been pushed back to May 30.
"Very simply, I wasn't going to be here and I wanted to sit on the applications," Walsh replied. "I'm trying to be here as much as I can. That's the reason. I'm making the best effort to be here."
That explanation did not appear to satisfy Corwin, who described the meeting's rescheduling as a "dangerous precedent" and a "very questionable practice."
"I know that all the time I was chair[man], we were very clear that it was inappropriate and unfair to applicants and inconsistent with blind justice to allow commissioners to cherry-pick the applications that they wanted to sit on," he said. "Therefore, if someone wasn't there, they weren't there. There are vice chairmen and they chair meetings when the chair[man] is not there."
He said he expressed the same concerns to Walsh during a Wednesday phone conversation. Walsh acknowledged that the two spoke about the May 16 meeting during that call.
Walsh and her Republican colleagues, Vice Chairman Jack Whittle and Secretary Chip Stephens, countered that the May 16 meeting was pushed back to also accommodate the schedules of Stephens and Republican member Al Gratrix.
"Ron, there you go again," Stephens said. "This is nothing but grandstanding, Ron. We have held certain things when you have been away. You've been away recently quite a few times. Also this is not just Cathy; Al and I were not sure we could make it."
Whittle said he objected to Corwin's references to "cherry-picking."
"I would probably refrain from referring to what she did as cherry-picking as to what she was to sit on, because it has an extremely negative connotation, which is not supported by the facts," he told Corwin.
The bickering between Corwin and his Republican counterparts echoed a clash at a Jan. 10 meeting when Corwin accused GOP board members of discussing a straw vote on a text amendment during a caucus hastily called during the meeting. The Republicans reacted angrily, with Stephens describing that claim as "slandering."
The tension between Corwin and the board's Republicans also raises questions about his future on the commission. A two-term member, Corwin is up for re-election in November. He has not announced whether he will seek a third term. If elected again, he would serve with a Republican majority until at least 2015. All four of the P&Z's Republican members were elected in 2011.
The May 30 meeting will not be changed back to May 16 because a legal notice for the latter date would need to have been submitted Thursday to the Westport News, according to P&Z Director Larry Bradley. He said the meeting was delayed, after he contacted all the commissioners, as well as all the applicants on the May 16 agenda, to confirm that they could attend on May 30.
Corwin, nonetheless, pressed his argument.
"How would it be if a judge came and said, `This crime that was done out there, I want to sit on this case. Send it to me,' " he said. "That's not the way it's done."
He added that Walsh's rescheduling of the meeting did not conform to the parliamentary-procedure guidelines Robert's Rules, because he said she had not secured a supermajority to change a "common practice" of the board.
Democrat Howard Lathrop, the other P&Z member present during the conversation between Walsh and Corwin, did not comment during the exchange.
The meeting concluded without an apparent resolution of Corwin's complaint.
"If I were cherry-picking applications to sit on or not sit on, I wouldn't be here half the time," Walsh added. "Let's adjourn."
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