P&Z majority: Was Baron's South open-space petition politically squelched at Staples?
He made the announcement at the start of Thursday's meeting where the commission was discussing, and later voted to approve, an amendment designating the town-owned Baron's South property as open space.
The property, over a period of several years, has been considered as the site for a housing and care complex for senior citizens. Proponents of the latest version of that plan had filed a pre-application for the complex at the P&Z's meeting a week earlier.
"I've got a story to share with everyone," Stephens said. "We were accused last week of not being open minded and that we already made our decision" on the amendment.
"All I can do is assure you this commission is open minded to the end," he said. "We believe in a democratic process and we believe everyone should be heard and we will hear everybody."
On that note, he said was called that afternoon by "someone at Staples, who will remain unnamed, informing me that the environmental class put together a petition," which since it was an environmental class, he assumed the students "were backing" the open-space designation.
"But the petition was pulled and confiscated and students weren't given any reason why," he said. "They were rather upset and left with the illusion that their teacher would be in trouble if (the petition) got here" and so "many of them" decided not to show up for the P&Z meeting when the amendment was to be considered, Stephens said.
"This bothered me quite a bit," the P&Z chairman said, and he called Superintendent of Schools Elliot Landon about the matter. "I expressed my dismay and asked what was going on," he said. Landon's answer, he said, was that "petitions are not allowed in school."
Stephens said that wasn't the case when he was a student at Staples. He said there were petitions circulated for a number of causes "and kids were signing them. It's a constitutional right."
He said he was "further troubled" when Landon told him that "an elected official called him and asked him to have this petition pulled."
"I am very concerned about that, but there's not much I can do. That's (Landon's) department," said Stephens.
"To confiscate" a petition and "threaten kids is wrong," Stephens said. "Something is rotten in Westport."
But Landon said the issue wasn't the petition itself, but the way it was done.
"I received calls from several people about a petition being circulated in class to students," Landon said. "I checked with" John Dodig, the Staples principal, "and we both spoke with the teacher who was passing the petition around in class."
He said they felt that since the petition was about a "controversial issue that was mired in politics," and since "we have a captive audience" as far as the student/teacher relationship is concerned, "we felt we needed to show both sides of the issue."
He said there would have been no problem if the petition was initiated by the students and not the teacher. "We had to stop something we felt was influenced by a member of our staff," Landon said.
"No one confiscated anything," said Dodig.
"What happened in this case is that a petition was available to students in school during the school day having to do with a political point of view regarding the town," Dodig said. "The teacher is certainly allowed to let students know that they can sign a petition in front of Stop & Shop if they want to, but facilitating such a political statement in school is prohibited by the school system."
Selectman Avi Kaner said officials received a call raising concerns about the petition "and passed it along to the school administration as is the case with any school-related matter."
He said it's then "up to the school administration and Board of Education to address the issue per their policy and guidelines."
P&Z member Cathy Walsh also had something to say on the matter at the start of the meeting.
"We have town employees out there stirring it up and having everyone under God's creation sign petitions" in support of the senior housing project," Walsh said. "And there have been mass mailings by town employees to support" the senior housing project, she added.
"And those who don't agree with them get squashed," she said, referring to the pro-open-space petition.
"As for as I'm concerned those 80 signatures" on the confiscated petition "are valid" even though the commission members didn't see it, she said.
Walsh, later in the meeting, said she was "disgusted" by what happened, noting that high school students have "always come in" to meetings, like those lobbying to keep the skate park at Compo Beach.
Stephens, at that point, said he planned to "investigate" the matter.
But on Tuesday, he said he decided not to pursue an investigation "right now." Instead, he's preparing for what he expects will be a move to have the P&Z's vote to approve the open-space amendment overturned.
"That's from what I'm hearing," he said. "I have to concentrate right now on the opposition."
Stephens said he's gearing up for a fight over the issue at the Representative Town Meeting where he expects the matter to be taken up. "They need a two-thirds vote to overturn" the P&Z vote, he said.
And at least one campaign to overturn the vote was launched this week by the Coalition for Westport, a minority party that previously has run candidates for the P&Z.
In a statement urging the RTM to reverse the open-space designation, coalition leaders said they have begun circulating a petition to bring the issue to an RTM vote.
"We believe the decision is troubling for a host of reasons, and its action says more about the commission's disregard for both procedural niceties and for the best interests of the Town than it does about the issues surrounding the property itself," Denise Torve, the coalition chairwoman, said in a statement.
"The CFW is in favor of open space and, in this case, the amount of space being suggested for senior housing is small -- 3.3 acres -- while 15 acres would remain as open space," Torve said. "As the P&Z refused to postpone the vote as requested by the first and second selectman and other residents, the CFW believes its vote must be challenged in the RTM and is collecting the signatures to do so."