Westport school board votes to search for new law firm

Interim Superintendent David Abbey speaks at a Board of Education meeting on Tuesday. Taken Sept. 3, 2019 in Westport, CT.

Interim Superintendent David Abbey speaks at a Board of Education meeting on Tuesday. Taken Sept. 3, 2019 in Westport, CT.

Lynandro Simmons /Hearst Connecticut Media /

WESTPORT — Instead of immediately firing its current law firm, the Board of Education voted unanimously Monday to put out a request for proposals for new legal services.

This comes after the Board of Selectmen and Representative Town Meeting both voted in favor of the BOE terminating its 30-year relationship with Shipman & Goodwin. The Hartford-based firm has recently been critcized by local officials because it represents both the BOE and a developer of a highly contested affordable housing application in town.

The project, filed by Summit Saugatuck LLC, was previously denied by the Planning and Zoning Commission but, per state statutes, was resubmitted before being denied again on Sept 19. The application looked to create a 187-unit housing complex on Hiawatha Lane.

However, First Selectman Jim Marpe noted the recent development was not about affordable housing, or the town’s commitment to it.

“It’s about the common-sense business relationship between a professional services vendor and its customer,” Marpe said. “Just because the vendor is a law firm does not diminish the expectation of respectful treatment of the town of Westport, who in the course of the 30-year relationship has spent millions of dollars of fees to that law firm.”

The votes by the selectmen and RTM were held following controversial remarks made by Tim Hollister, a Shipman & Goodwin attorney representing Summit, in a CTmirror article regarding affordable housing in Westport and touched on race.

Hollister then applied for a ruling to the state Department of Housing, claiming Westport’s moratorium points were incorrect.

“While Shipman & Goodwin has every right to represent their clients diligently, the town has every right to state the simultaneous representation of the Board of Education is no longer acceptable,” Marpe said.

While the BOS received a July 29 letter from Hollister expressing his regrets about the comments made, Marpe said, “you can’t unring a bell.”

Tom Mooney, a Shipman & Goodwin attorney who represents the BOE, said over the years he couldn’t recall a complaint his firm has received about the quality of its services. He added his firm took the town’s concerns very serious.

“I’ve had the privilege of working with the Westport community over many years and I’ve always been impressed with the civic engagement and compassion of Westport and its residents,” Mooney said. “The comment made by attorney Hollister was wrong and hurtful, and our firm has made an unconditional apology for that statement when our managing partner attended the Board of Seletmen meeting on Sept. 16.”

Mooney is offering concessions to address the concerns of the town, including supplementing a 2017 agreement that would ensure the firm does not represent cases that would be adverse to its representation of the town.

However, community members in favor of firing the law firm argued about the financial burden the conflict has created. Many town officials also expressed disappointment in the firm for what they believed was an apology that fell short.

“I feel really bad about the collateral damage to some that are here, but that apology letter was kind of a joke,” RTM member Greg Kraut said, adding the best practice was an RFP. “You never know what’s out there and a little competition never hurt nobody.”

Jimmy Izzo, an RTM member, said he had a hard time when people put slander in print.

“What Mr. Hollister did was unethical,” he said. “The way I look at this now is there is no harm in an RFP (request for approval). ... You live with your words and his words were bad.”

Calls for an RFP did not come without concern from some BOE members, however, who worried about potentially switching law firms amid issues like redistricting and the hiring of a new superintendent.

Despite this, BOE member Vik Muktavaram said with other town bodies unanimously questioning the law firm’s relationship with Westport, the matter needed to be addressed.

“Our position in defense of the relationship is not tenable,” he said, adding in the normal course of business re-evaluating a relationship with a law firm was a normal process.

Interim Superintendent David Abbey estimates an RFP would start when the budget process finishes around late March.

“I think it’s critical the law firm stays through the year,” Abbey said.