RTM, selectmen continue dispute over authority on town leases

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A dispute between the Board of Selectmen and members of the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) over a policy toward leases of town property is continuing as both sides met separately on the issue.

The disagreement was spurred when the RTM decided in January to refer back consideration of a lease arrangement between the town and the Mianus River Boat and Yacht Club in Cos Cob. The lease had come up for renewal and the selectmen had approved renewing it. However, members of the RTM objected, not to this specific lease they insisted, but to what they perceived as the lack of a policy for dealing with all leases of town property. Several members criticized the Board of Selectmen and said it was not acting in a transparent fashion and was ignoring the RTM’s call for a universal policy in a sense of the meeting resolution.

The lease was then referred back to the RTM’s Finance and Legislative and Rules Committee for further examination, where it currently remains.

At the Jan. 31 Board of Selectmen meeting, the selectmen fired back angrily, saying the RTM members were acting in a “disagreeable” fashion, with First Selectman Peter Tesei going so far as to say that certain members had “added a degree of toxicity.” The three-person board rejected the idea that it had not acted in a transparent fashion and invited the chairmen of the two committees and several other members, including RTM moderator pro tempore Joan Caldwell, who had been a sharp critic of the board before the RTM, to its Feb. 14 meeting to discuss the matter in open session.

However, the invitation was declined and the RTM instead formed a new joint committee to present recommendations to the selectmen. The committee is made up of members of the Finance and Legislative and Rules committees as well as Ms. Caldwell, who had asked to be on it. RTM member Erf Porter is chairing the committee and at its second meeting on Monday, it focused on crafting its mission statement.

No language has been approved yet, but in its current draft, the committee is looking at language that would create a policy for all town-owned or leased real properties between the town and individuals and/or non-governmental entities. Committee members had said they wanted to get their proposals in order before meeting with the selectmen.

Additional committee meetings are set for today, Feb. 21, and then Feb. 25 in the Gisborne Room at Town Hall.

Even without the invited RTM members, the lease dispute was a major point of discussion at the Board of Selectmen’s Feb. 14 meeting. Once again the selectmen insisted that there was a policy in place to deal with town leases, it just wasn’t one that some members of the RTM agreed with. Mr. Tesei said the policy of the board, with which his colleagues showed their agreement, is to consider the lease arrangements for below-market-value property on a case-by-case basis because a more universal policy would be impractical due to each lease’s distinctive circumstances.

Mr. Tesei discussed both the yacht club, which offers rates to residents far below those of other yacht clubs and therefore is heavily used by town boaters with more modest incomes, and the recent town lease extension with Abilis for a residential property in Cos Cob. He said both arrangements were done for the civic good by leasing groups in town property at below-market value, but that there were too many differences between them and all the other leases for a universal policy to work.

“No two leases are exactly the same,” Mr. Tesei said.

That was echoed by Town Administrator John Crary, who has been looking at all town leases on an ongoing basis and said both the Abilis lease and the one for the yacht club were still determined as things the town wanted to do as a benefit to the community.

“We submitted it to the RTM and the RTM felt we did not, in their opinion, meet their requirement for some policy that would go across all leases,” Mr. Crary said. “We object to that because we do not think there is a policy that fits the Mianus Boat Club or the Garden Center or Abilis. They’re all different. They all provide different benefits. … This is not something that should be a one-size-fits-all policy.”

Mr. Tesei said he would be consulting with the town’s legal department as well as reviewing old minutes to make sure the proper process was being followed and that the RTM was not taking authority that belonged to the Board of Selectmen.

“There are many legal instruments that are involved here, and it really comes down to authorities and we want to make sure we get it right,” Mr. Tesei said. “If we’re going to have this type of forensic review of process, let’s look at authority.”

He added that the work of the new RTM joint committee was “fine” but “… at the same time we are going to endeavor to formalize our policy so that it’s clear we will not cede authority for what we have an obligation and responsibility for.”

Consideration of leases has long been an issue in town. One of the committees working on the Plan of Conservation and Development examined the leases, an effort Mr. Tesei once again said had his full support last week, and Mr. Crary said the first selectman’s office had been looking at all the current leases and reviewing them with the town attorney’s office while also setting up a “better filing system” than had existed prior to now to help future boards.

“We’re looking at these all on a case-by-case basis,” Mr. Crary said. “We look at the terms and do generic language changes with the law department, but we also look at it from the perspective of what is the benefit to the community of leasing this particular property to this particular organization and is it still in the best interests of the community to proceed?”

Mr. Crary said the board would continue to work as “collegially as we can but also firm in how these leases should be considered” with the RTM on this and noted other leases, including the Arch Street Teen Center and Greenwich Adult Day Care, were coming due soon.

“Those are all different, special populations that provide services and activities and make our community much richer than it would be without,” Mr. Crary said. “How do you come up with a policy that says one mentally disabled adult at Abilis is worth 40 families at Mianus River boat club versus 30 individual participants at the garden club? How do you compare the values and make a determination of what that number should be?”

Mr. Crary said the response from the RTM’s Finance Committee had been that those leases should all be generating revenue for the town and the selectmen “disagree” because they serve special roles in the community.

“These public/private partnerships are invaluable to the community and it would be a terrible shame to go back to a different formula for determining if we should lease with one property versus another,” Mr. Crary said.

In an e-mail to the Post on Wednesday, Gordon Ennis, chairman of the Finance Committee, said that he never said that and that he did not agree with it. He said he would speak with Mr. Crary about where he had heard that.

Mr. Tesei agreed with Mr. Crary, saying the board was “sensitive to economics” but wanted to respect the traditions of Greenwich for philanthropy and public service.

Selectman David Theis added that it was important to protect “the spirit of Greenwich.” Selectman Drew Marzullo said he believed this was all about money to the RTM and said the deliberation and new committee was unnecessary because of the unique aspects of each lease.

“This is being monetarily driven and that’s OK, but I wish people would just say it,” Mr. Marzullo said.

At Monday’s meeting of the joint committee, there was no response to any of the selectmen’s remarks. Mr. Porter did address the members of the yacht club who attended, telling him that the RTM’s action was not meant to be a personal reflection about the merits of their lease with town but rather to address the policy issue. Mr. Porter noted that he, as well as other members of the committee, had voted against referring the lease back for further consideration.

“I know some of you feel as if you’ve been singled out, but it’s really the luck of the draw,” Mr. Porter said. “You happen to be coming up at a time when this was an issue.”

 

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