Stephens holds P&Z chairmanship as Democrat breaks ranks
The Democrats may have won a majority on the Planning and Zoning Commission in November’s municipal election, but Republican Chip Stephens held onto the chairman’s seat Thursday with support from a Democrat who broke ranks with his partisans.
Democrat Alan Hodge voted with the P&Z’s three Republicans to keep Stephens as chairman, nullifying Democrats’ new 4-3 majority on the board.
“I move that the chairman continue,” Hodge said, offering no more explanation as he nominated Stephens.
Democrats tried to replace Stephens, with Andra Vebell and newly elected Paul Lebowitz, in separate motions, proposing that David Lessing take the seat, paired with different vice chairmen from the GOP. Both motions, however, failed.
Stephens was then re-nominated as chairman, and won on a 4-3 vote as Hodge provided the winning margin.
Lessing was elected vice chairman in a 5-to-2 vote, although he and Lebowitz voted against his appointment. Lessing, however, did agree to serve.
Vebell was elected unanimously as secretary of the commission.
Stephens continued role as chairman sparked frustration among the three Democrats who tried to replace him.
“The nomination by Mr. Hodge … seems out of balance with what the recent election results show,” Lebowitz said, asking that it be discussed before the vote. Lebowitz’s election in November had tipped the the partisan lineup in favor of the Democrats, and the new majority has been expected to elect one of their own to the chairmanship.
“Mr. Stephens, no disrespect whatsoever to your ability to do the chair, but I believe that the voters who came to the election, came to the polls, gave a clear signal that change was what they desired, and I believe they also voted for change in the leadership as well as the actually members who make up this body,” Lebowitz.
Last month Republicans Stephens, Walsh and Whittle were re-elected, while Lebowitz beat the fourth Republican on the commission at the time, Alfred Gratrix. Three other candidates from the Coalition for Westport ran unsuccessfully for the commission.
Lebowitz pointed out, however, that Stephens was the lowest vote-getter among the four winning candidates, with Walsh receiving the most votes, followed by Whittle and then himself.
“The results themselves speak that loudly,” Lebowitz said of what he felt is voters’ message for a change in P&Z leadership.
“Mr. Chairman, you were bringing up the rear … I believe by putting you in again as chairman might be disrespectful to the views of the voting public,” he said.
“The positions of chairman, vice chairman and secretary are not intended to be chosen by a popularity contest,” Whittle responded.
Lessing disagreed. “The election is about who people want to serve the community … The people that care spoke. They told us something and maybe we should take them at that response.”
“As top vote getter once again, two times in a row,” said Walsh, who participated in the meeting via speaker phone, “I think probably it would be a really good thing for the town to have you two as a team … The two of you could team up and make a great impact.”
Lebowitz noted it was tradition for the board’s majority party to hold the chairmanship. “What we’re looking for is we’re looking for that bipartisan spirit, that moderation of tone, if you will, where we ask one of the minority party to step up,” he said before the vote
“I’m honored,” Stephens said after winning the chairman’s seat. “I’m humbled.”
“This room has been very bipartisan,” he said. “We’ve worked very well together and I’ll do my best to keep it that way and keep it going.”
The commission also approved both Gratrix and Carolanne Curry, a current P&Z alternate member, as two alternates.