P&Z commissioners clash over GOP's closed-door caucus
The Planning and Zoning Commission's officers were re-elected Thursday to new one-year terms during a meeting overshadowed by intense partisan arguments bickering among board members.
P&Z Chairwoman Catherine Walsh, Vice Chairman Jack Whittle and Secretary Chip Stephens -- all Republicans -- retained their posts without facing any other nominees. The GOP holds a 4-3 majority of the commission's seats.
The discord among board members instead broke out over an unrelated matter: the P&Z's four Republican members' brief adjournment of Thursday's meeting to hold a closed-door caucus in another room while the panel was debating a proposed text amendment on new zoning review procedures. When the Republican commissioners returned from their caucus, Democratic member Ron Corwin contended that they had discussed the amendment during the caucus.
"I think we should declare a mistrial," Corwin said. "I have a reason to believe that an open application in front of this commission was discussed at a caucus among you folks and that is contrary."
Corwin's claim was vehemently refuted by Stephens.
"Mr. Corwin is questioning us -- it's pure conjecture -- and I'm offended by it," Stephens said. "You don't know what the hell we were talking about in there. And you are alluding to that we did something illegal and wrong and I don't think we should be addressing this ... You're slandering us is what you're doing."
Whittle also denied that the Republican commissioners had discussed the amendment during their caucus.
"There was no debate, discussion or consideration of the matter," he said. "It was just referred to in passing in connection with a broad spectrum of things."
Walsh had a similar rebuttal.
"The greater issue had absolutely nothing to do with what we spoke about tonight," she said. "There was something that Chip needed to get off his chest; it had nothing to do with what was going on tonight."
Ironically, both Republican and Democratic commissioners voted to approve the amendment that sparked the row among the commissioners. But that bipartisanship agreement failed to quell the tensions at the meeting.
"You do have to be careful in the middle of a discussion to all of a sudden caucus when there's a vote and have someone come in and change what was their position," said Democratic member Howard Lathrop, referring to Republican member Al Gratrix. "It really looks bad. And, from my point of view, I like Al and I trust him. But you simply cannot do it ... It comes across as shady things are going on, even when they're not."
Corwin also argued that his Republican counterparts had not reached out to Democratic commissioners to serve as one of the P&Z's officers -- an assertion that Stephens rejected.
The incident marked arguably the most acrimonious exchange among P&Z Commission members since the November 2011 town election when Republicans regained a majority on the seven-person board. Public deliberations among the seven commissioners have generally been cordial and cooperative since then, but Thursday's quarrel may have fractured the P&Z's solidarity. Later in the meeting, Corwin declined an offer by his Republican counterparts for him to serve as the chairman of a new commission subcommittee because he was "so sickened by what went on here."
The squabbling continued even after Thursday's meeting ended. Corwin asked Gratrix to "look me in the eyes," as he pressed Gratrix to promise that the caucus had not influenced his vote on the text amendment.
Corwin then walked out of the meeting room without having appeared to resolve his dispute with Republican board members.
Gratrix responded to Corwin's grilling by pledging that the caucus had not swayed his position on the text amendment the P&Z had been considering.
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