Westport school board should cut ties with law firm, selectmen say

Westport Town Hall.

Westport Town Hall.

/File photo

WESTPORT — The Board of Selectmen has unanimously recommended that the Board of Education cut ties with Shipman & Goodwin LLP, after residents and elected officials questioned a conflict of interest between the law firm and town.

“In my view, this is about a business relationship between an entire professional services firm and the taxpayers and residents of the town of Westport,” First Selectman Jim Marpe said during a special meeting Monday. “The taxpayers and residents in the end are the real clients of Shipman & Goodwin.”

The Hartford-based law firm currently represents both the BOE and a developer of a contested affordable housing application in Westport.

The project, filed by Summit Saugatuck LLC, was previously denied by the Planning and Zoning Commission, but per state statutes was resubmitted. The application looks to create a 187-unit housing complex on Hiawatha Lane.

Marpe, who served as an education board member for eight years, said he had great respect for the firm but was concerned by some behavior from its representatives.

Tim Hollister, the Shipman & Goodwin attorney representing Summit, applied for a ruling to the state Department of Housing on June 4, claiming Westport’s moratorium points were incorrect, Marpe said. Though the appeal was denied, he said Hollister filed another suit in August against the DOH and named Westport .

“The outcome for Westport if that moratorium is overturned is significant from an economic standpoint and, frankly, from a reputation standpoint,” Marpe said. “For me, it was the strictly the final straw.”

Hollister’s comments in a CTmirror article published on May 22, which addressed affordable housing in Westport and included comments regarding race, also drew backlash.

Marpe later received a letter from Hollister expressing his regrets, but said “you can’t unring a bell.”

“It’s one thing to represent your client in the normal process of planning and zoning issues,” he said. “It’s something else to speak out publicly and name a town that your partners are practicing in.”

Selectwoman Melissa Kane echoed Marpe’s sentiments, adding town officials have to constantly think about perceptions of conflicts of interest.

“I think we should be holding anyone who represents us legally to the same standards as any one of our employees and public officials,” Kane said.

Board of Finance Chair Brian Stern said he was also insulted by the comments in the CTmirror article, and that he expected a public apology to Westport.

“I do think in addition to a public apology we should also ask for some of the money back from Shipman & Goodwin,” Stern said, adding it would be a goodwill gesture for future clients of the firm.

Matthew Mandel, a Representative Town Meeting member, said an RTM sense of the meeting resolution will be heard on Oct. 1.

“The people of Westport have lost faith in Shipman & Goodwin and (the Board of Selectmen’s) call for an immediate termination is absolutely correct,” Mandel said.

Shipman & Goodwin managing partner Alan Lieberman, who was also in attendance, apologized on behalf of his firm for the comments made by Hollister in the article.

“It was incorrect. It was undoubtedly deeply hurting and obviously very inflammatory,” he said. “We understand the reaction of the town.”

Lieberman said the firm sat down and tried to figure out what could be done, given the ethical obligations to all their clients. Ultimately, a second letter was written, in which the firm offered to not represent any third party against the town as long as it represented the Board of Education.

Lieberman said his firm took the unprecedented gesture because “we felt it was important to make a statement beyond the letter of apology.”

“We don’t take this lightly,” he said. “We felt in light of the Connecticut Mirror article, it was important to do something above and beyond what we would do elsewhere.”