Request for BOE to address use of law firm approved
WESTPORT — The Representative Town Meeting unanimously backed a resolution for the Board of Education to address the relationship with its law firm, Shipman & Goodwin.
This followed a recommendation on Sept. 16 by the Board of Selectmen that the BOE cut ties with the firm that has long represented them.
“This goes back 12 years when then RTM member Dick Lowenstein brought this concept to a number of us that Shipman & Goodwin was the law firm for the Board of Education, as well as a developer seeking to develop in town,” RTM member Matthew Mandell said during the Tuesday night meeting. “It dawned on us we’re paying this law firm money to represent us and now we have to endure a lawsuit and pay to fight against it.”
Mandell said since Lowenstein first raised the issue, he has subsequently talked to every BOE chair and Westport Public Schools superintendent in hopes of having the problem addressed.
This changed when an attorney representing the firm alleged racial implications in the town’s housing practices, Mandell said.
This comment was in reference to a CTmirror article published on May 22, which addressed affordable housing in Westport and included comments from Shipman attorney Tim Hollister.
“They weren’t just representing their clients, they were actively and aggressively attacking the town,” he said.
He also questioned why the law firm was suing the State Housing Authority to remove Westport’s moratorium. The moratorium was earned in March and prevents developers from using an affordable housing statutes to bypass zoning regulations for four years.
“The moratorium is important to us,” he said. “It’s a badge of honor for the town. We earned it.”
Louis Mall joined in requesting the RTM to approve the request. Mall noted he was at first hesitant in addressing this issue due to the numerous challenges the schools have faced in the past year. However, he said the habitual line-stepping by one of the firm’s attorneys led to a change in spirit.
“We gave Shipman & Goodwin a chance. I’m all in favor of this resolution,” Mall said.
In attendance for Tuesday’s meeting included First Selectman Jim Marpe, Selectwoman Jen Tooker and BOE Chair Mark Mathias.
Mathias noted a special meeting will be held on Oct. 14 by the BOE and include Marpe, as well as Shipman & Goodwin attorney Tom Mooney.
“We will have the conversation before the Board of Education in public,” he said.
Marpe said while he respected the quality of work done for the town by the law firm, he and the community took great offense to the allegations.
“We as a community are proud of what we have accomplished for affordable housing, and not since 1990 when 8-30g came into effect, but many decades before that,” Marpe said.
Viewing the choice to part ways with Shipman & Goodwin as a business decision, Marpe noted in his previous career at a professional services firm speaking out to the public about a client would have gotten him reprimanded.
“For whatever reason, Shipman & Goodwin chooses not to take that direction, so therefore we have to help them take some direction to satisfy us as one of their major clients,” he said.
RTM member Christine Meiers Schatz said while she supported the resolution, it was important anger and emotion be taken out of such an important decision.
With the financial implications the BOE’s legal representation plays a part in, she said, it’s important the board reviews all options.
“I’m going to vote in favor of this resolution with an important caveat and recommendation. I think it’s OK to send an RFP to see what comes back, but let’s see what comes back,” she said. “If those shoes can’t truly be filled, then we need to reconsider, and I hope we would reconsider.”