After election wins, Republicans set new course for P&Z, Finance
Following their Tuesday election victories that clinched control of the Board of Finance and the Planning and Zoning Commission, elected town Republicans have begun to craft new policy agendas that aim to shape the town's fiscal management and economic development.
"The big advantage is that the Board of Finance will now have teeth," said board member Avi Kaner. "We do have a political majority different than the selectman's office. I believe we'll have more of a say and provide a much-needed check-and-balance to what comes before us."
New members Tom Lasersohn, Michael Rea and John Pincavage will join Kaner to form the finance board's Republican majority. Last re-elected in 2009, Kaner will likely succeed Democrat Helen Garten as the board's chairman, a position that goes to a member of the majority party in each elected town body.
"Was this a mandate for the Republicans? Absolutely not," he said. "What we all saw was a disappointing and negative message put out to the voters of Westport based on no facts."
Addressing the town's employee pension and health-care benefit obligations constitutes a top objective for the board, Kaner said. The town's liability for retired town employees' medical costs, known as Other Post-
Employment Benefits, totals as much as $120 million according to projections by the town's actuary, Pentegra Retirement Services.
"The (benefit) plans we have are not in line with neighboring communities," Kaner said. "And they're not affordable moving ahead. We must develop plans that would be a win-win for the employees, as well as for the taxpayers."
In the near-term, Kaner said he would push for the town to hire a new actuarial firm, which would review the town's OPEB and pension liabilities and provide consulting services.
"I have little confidence in their analysis," Kaner said of Pentegra.
The White Plains, N.Y.-based firm has faced heavy criticism from Kaner and other Board of Finance members after they discovered in June that the town's previous OPEB actuarial report had omitted more than 400 town employees from its calculations. The firm that conducted that analysis was acquired by Pentegra in 2008, but the report's error apparently was not discovered by Pentegra until this year.
The Republicans, meanwhile, take control of a P&Z whose agenda has frequently been overshadowed by contentious public debates during the last year. Since November 2010, four text amendments approved by the P&Z have been appealed to the Representative Town Meeting.
The first two amendments -- pertaining to new affordable housing regulations -- were upheld in December 2010 by the RTM. A month later, however, the RTM struck down a text amendment that proposed new building coverage regulations for residential properties. Another land-use controversy erupted last May when residents appealed a text amendment approved by the P&Z that provided the zoning framework for First Selectman Gordon Joseloff's proposed senior complex at the town-owned Baron's South property. The RTM upheld that P&Z verdict.
"What's really been objected to pretty strenuously is the process by which these projects are brought before us," said Republican commissioner Catherine Walsh. "We're going to look toward streamlining that process and having answers in front of us. It'll also help to guide the applicant and not take up so much time and not create controversy."
Walsh garnered more votes -- approximately 4,100 -- than any other candidate in Tuesday's election. She will serve her first full term, after being appointed to the P&Z in 2008 to finish out the term of another Republican, Helen Martin Block, who resigned.
As the only incumbent Republican P&Z member to win election, Walsh stands as a frontrunner to succeed Democrat Ron Corwin as chairperson of the P&Z.
She has not indicated whether she will seek the chairmanship. New Republican commissioners Chip Stephens, Al Gratrix and Jack Whittle are also eligible for the top P&Z post.
While Corwin's current term does not expire until 2013, Ezzes said Republicans had benefited from some voters' displeasure with Corwin's leadership of the P&Z.
"What we saw was a personal attack on one person," Ezzes said of Republicans' criticism of Corwin. "But he only has one vote on the commission."
Zoning issues related to downtown Westport will likely continue to figure prominently in P&Z deliberations. Walsh said a Republican P&Z will look to support merchants in the town center.
"Our job on the P&Z is to make sure that we always have a tax base," she said. "We will continue to be open for business. We want to increase the size of our tax base. We're going to do it within the confines of the current zoning."
Republicans did not wrest control of the Board of Education from the Democrats. Arguably the least politicized of the town's elected panels, the education board will likely continue to forge during the next two years a bipartisan agenda that could include negotiating with town officials the continued consolidation of municipal and education services.
Jennifer Tooker was the sole Republican candidate elected Tuesday to the education board.
The next municipal election will be held in November 2013, when the first selectman's seat will be on the ballot. Joseloff has not yet indicated whether he will seek a third term.
Joseloff was elected in 2005 and 2009 with Democratic majorities on the Board of Finance, the Planning and Zoning Commission and the Board of Education. Republican Town Committee Chairman Bob Zappi said, however, that Republican control of the finance board and the P&Z would not automatically improve the election prospects for a GOP first selectman candidate.
"It's a double-edged sword," he said. "It certainly is better for us, as long as our Republican elected officials perform. If they don't perform and don't do what the residents like and want, then it won't help us."