Selectmen chide RTM members after lease vote

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p1-RTM-1-31It was expected that the Representative Town Meeting’s (RTM’s) consideration of the lease for the Mianus River Boat Club would be a simple affair. Instead, it has prompted some hard feelings between some members of the body and the Board of Selectmen.

The town has leases with several organizations in town whereby town property is given to them at below-market rates. The RTM has begun a review of these leases, and while it is expected that most renewals will go ahead without issue, as happened last year when the body strongly backed the continuance of a lease with Abilis for housing on town property, the consideration of the lease with the boat club was anything but smooth at the RTM’s Jan. 22 meeting.

By a 92-79 vote with two abstentions, the lease was referred back to the RTM’s Finance and Legislative and Rules committees for further review. This came after a sharp debate over what some members of the body said was the absence of a town policy governing such leases, as Mr. Tesei insisted a policy was in place but they just didn’t like it. The club’s lease approval is delayed, at least for now. Several RTM members accused the selectmen of not acting in a transparent fashion, an accusation that has been strongly denied.

At last Thursday’s Board of Selectmen meeting, all three members sharply criticized the RTM members who had made the approval into such an issue at the Jan. 22 meeting. Mr. Tesei singled out three members, RTM Moderator Pro Tempore Joan Caldwell, Lucia Jansen and Jill Oberlander, saying that their statements “added a degree of toxicity to the temperament” of the discussion.

“I for one have always emphasized that I think there’s no necessity to having to agree all the time, but you don’t have to be disagreeable and perhaps a little-acid tongued when doing so,” Mr. Tesei said. “I don’t think that speaks well for the individual, and I don’t think that speaks well for our town and our government going forward. If one has a disagreement or thinks we’re not performing our duties, say so, but say so with some dignity and respect.”

Mr. Tesei was not alone in his anger. Selectmen David Theis and  Drew Marzullo also offered sharp criticism of these RTM members.

“I thought this was a rather sad chapter for the RTM, which is a well-respected body in town,” Mr. Theis said. “We meet in open, fair and transparent fashion. We don’t call each other before a meeting and ask each other what we’re going to say and how we think about things.”

Mr. Marzullo rejected the accusation of a lack of transparency on the part of the selectmen, saying he didn’t think there was any board that was more transparent than the Board of Selectmen. He said that while the debate was centered around the lease and transparency, he feels it was really more about ‘the dollar sign.’”

“To make the accusation time and time again during the meeting that this board isn’t transparent is disingenuous,” Mr. Marzullo said.

Mr. Tesei added that he and his colleagues on the Board of Selectmen were some of the few town officials who were directly elected through competitive town elections.

“I find it somewhat insulting, and having served on both bodies in the RTM and the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET), that there’s such a condescension to us as individuals by a very few minority,” Mr. Tesei said. “If that’s the direction we’re going, then we’re basically become epidemic to what’s happened in Washington and frankly a little bit in Hartford. I for one don’t want to partake in those games. If you don’t think we’ve done something, then say it. We’re big enough people to accept it. We’re not perfect. But at the same time, stick to the facts.”

In an interview with the Post, Ms. Caldwell said her objection is not to the yacht club lease specifically but to what she sees as a lack of a policy. This lease just happened to be the first one brought up.

“My objection is to the lack of a lease policy,” Ms. Caldwell said. “I’ve been bringing this up for 30 years. Every 10 years when this lease comes up, I get up there and talk about the need for a policy. The town needs a policy. Right now we just have whomever is the first selectman and whomever is on the board telling us that this is a good deal and we should accept it, but we need more. I’ve discussed this with Mr. Tesei one on one, but it shouldn’t be just the two of us talking about it. It should be a group of us. Let’s get it all on the table and get views and opinions and see what we can turn into a framework for a policy.”

In an email to the Post, Ms. Jansen said she didn’t want to comment about the board’s remarks since she wasn’t present and hadn’t heard them in full. She said she did stand by her presentation to the RTM and noted that the body had voted twice “overwhelmingly” to implement a clear, written policy on all town-owned properties.

Ms. Oberlander could not be reached for comment.

At the Jan. 24 meeting, Mr. Tesei said it was his opinion and that of his colleagues that the best policy was to look at the leases and evaluate them on a case-by-case basis. He said that while this is “unacceptable to, I think, a vocal minority,” he noted that of the four RTM committees that reviewed the lease with the boat club, 48 people made a vote on it and of the 44 in attendance, 32 voted in favor of it.

“Clearly there is sentiment that this is a good value to the town,” Mr. Tesei said. “Yet in a society like ours, we have majority rule and minority right, and the minority viewpoint waged a very effective message that they thought there was something not right about this and it was predicated on this board, particularly me, not doing our job to come up with a policy, despite my response that the policy is to look at this on a case-by-case basis.”

Mr. Tesei said the board did take into account the RTM’s sense-of-the-meeting resolution calling for the review of all the town leases. Despite the resolution being non-binding, Mr. Tesei said that Town Administrator John Crary and the town legal department had put together abstracts about the town leases as asked for. Because of this, Mr. Tesei said, it was clear he and the town were respecting the wishes of the RTM and were conducting business in a transparent fashion. Mr. Tesei said it would have made more sense for the RTM, instead of referring the lease back to the Finance Committee, where it was not supported, as it was on other committees, to amend it on the floor to ask for a $14,000 rental fee for the property and see if the body supported it.

Mr. Tesei speculated that this might not have been done because the RTM members didn’t think it would pass, but said he couldn’t be sure. He did say that the selectmen would continue to move forward civilly. Mr. Tesei extended an invitation to RTM members Gordon Ennis, chairman of the Finance Committee, and Douglas Wells, chairman of the Legislative and Rules Committee, to the board’s next meeting, on Feb. 14, and at the Jan. 24 meeting, he said Ms. Caldwell, Ms. Jansen and Ms. Oberlander were all invited as well to “talk openly with us in a very transparent way about what they would like us to do in establishing the policy.”

“A lot was talked about lack of transparency,” Mr. Tesei added. “That’s their opinion and I beg to differ. … They can come to the meeting on the 14th and stand before us and tell us what they think we should do and why we should establish a firm written policy. I think that’s the most transparent way to do business instead of some off-line meeting in my office.”

Mr. Theis also offered strong support for continuing the lease with the Mianus River Boat and Yacht Club, saying the club members had worked hard to make something out of nothing. He said it served a purpose similar to the municipal golf course and it was unfair for the RTM to do this now.

“They took a wasteland, a fly ash heap that came from the power plant that was used for fill along the mud flaps, and made something out of it,” Mr. Theis said. “Not only that but it’s next to a waste treatment plant. This is not exactly prime property, but these folks took it upon themselves to get a building donated and make something out of it. This gives people who can’t afford to go a club for boating or yachting or a waterside experience a place to go. I thought it was really a sad chapter that now the RTM wants to reach in and exercise some control over this. Where were they 20 years ago?”

Ms. Caldwell said she would try to attend the meeting on Feb. 14 but wasn’t sure if she would be in town for it.

 

editor@greenwich-post.com

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