P&Z threatens lawsuit: At what price?
We were disappointed last week to hear certain Planning and Zoning Commission members' proposed to sue the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) for its decision to overturn a P&Z decision regarding the property at the Inn at National Hall. So were many Westporters, including other commission members themselves (see accompanying op-ed and related story) -- who reportedly found out about the plan less than an hour before the actual vote.
This nation and its municipalities were founded on the principles of checks and balances. This system, which has served us very well, was put in place to restrict certain parts of our government from becoming too powerful and from making self-serving decisions.
Also, during a financial low-point in history, is a lawsuit of this nature really the best use of the taxpayers' money?
Town Attorney Ira Bloom advised commissioners against this lawsuit, and apparently had made his concerns known before last Thursday night's P&Z meeting.
What he recommended instead, and what we agree with, is to re-examine the RTM standards and procedures for overriding board and commission decisions going forward. There are many reasons to re-examine the policies that were set in the town's 1957 charter.
Bloom said last Thursday that he has proposed changing some of the stipulations in the town charter, and would be willing to explore that option further.
"[The RTM is] reviewing the action of the commission, so [it] ought to be looking at similar standards [i.e. town plan, regulations]. We will clarify that if that needs further discussion," he said. Isn't that really what is at the heart of this?
We also agree with Bloom that the P&Z does tremendous amounts of work, and the commissioners do their work very well.
However, there are procedures in place -- granted procedures that merit re-examination -- to govern Westport.
Is the 20-signature minimum for bringing petitions before the RTM too small a requirement? In our opinion, yes. But again, these are issues that can be discussed, debated and hopefully corrected in the future without resorting to a lawsuit.
The RTM is the town's legislative body. It is charged with representing the final voice of the people. Its members should be voting according to what their constituents want. If they are not, the repercussions are that they should not be re-elected.
Corwin himself said it best in a statement: "[This issue] is about due process for all applicants before town bodies that are empowered to decide land use issues. It is not about the outcome of a specific decision."
If this is the case, then work on changing the policies. Instead, a proposal for a lawsuit automatically indicates that the commission views itself as an "injured party," which Bloom also pointed out.
"How have you been hurt?" he asked. "This is not your property."
A Sept. 4, 2009, a New York Times article essentially teased Westporters for their propensity to sue each other.
In the article, First Selectman Gordon Joseloff remarked to the Times, "In Westport, the people are very wealthy, and at the first indication of anything, they'll threaten or file a lawsuit."
This latest proposal does nothing to improve that opinion, especially when there are better ways to spend money and time.
More recently, Joseloff said in a statement: "Not only is it embarrassing to have one elected body seeking to sue another, it reduces confidence in our overall government process. That is not good." How true.
We applaud the commission's tenacity in following through on its work. Unfortunately sometimes hours and hours of work eventually gets discarded, and that is just part of the job.
We hope that, going forward, the commission will work in cooperation with other town officials and install positive change outside a courtroom.