Dell’Abate criticism spurs call for more RTM civility

The renomination of Gary Dell'Abate, seen here speaking to the RTM in earlier hearing, is once again mired in controversy.

The renomination of Gary Dell’Abate, seen here speaking to the RTM in earlier hearing, is once again mired in controversy.

The nomination of longtime resident Gary Dell’Abate to the town’s Board of Parks and Recreation has again become controversial after a comment last week by a member of the Representative Town Meeting (RTM).

Mr. Dell’Abate, who is a parent and coach in town, was renominated in March by the Board of Selectmen for a second term on the Board of Parks and Recreation. When this was first considered three years ago, despite strong support from the selectmen and from members of state government, Mr. Dell’Abate was criticized by some members of the RTM for his continued role as producer of the Howard Stern Show. Mr. Stern’s show has often been a lightning rod for controversy, and several RTM members spoke out against the nomination because of the show’s content, but ultimately Mr. Dell’Abate was approved by a 119-64 margin.

After a three-year term that has been soundly praised, Mr. Dell’Abate’s second nomination was expected to sail through reconsideration by the RTM. And it had been a quiet process until his appearance last week before the body’s Appointments Committee, where Mr. Dell’Abate was reportedly personally criticized by committee vice chairman Wilma Nacinovich because of his role on the Stern show during what was supposed to be a question-and-answer session about his performance as a board member.

Ms. Nacinovich did not respond to a request for comment from the Post.

The committee ultimately endorsed Mr. Dell’Abate’s nomination by a 10-1 vote but town officials say they are concerned that this is part of a trend where nominees to volunteer boards and commissions are being treated discourteously by members of the RTM.

At the Board of Selectmen’s May 22 meeting, Selectman Drew Marzullo, who nominated Mr. Dell’Abate both times, was particularly upset about the comments. He said he had no problem with someone voting against Mr. Dell’Abate but felt the comments were completely out of line.

“This was an inappropriate and rude statement made to embarrass and malign a Greenwich volunteer because, in my opinion, she doesn’t subscribe to what he does for a living,” Mr. Marzullo said. “It’s my understanding that Gary did not entertain this but I have contacted the RTM’s moderator and asked that this type of behavior warrant, at minimum, a rebuke from him. Gary has received the endorsement of the Board of Selectmen, the unanimous endorsement of RTM’s Parks and Recreation Committee and had a 10-1 vote at the Appointments Committee. But this is more than just about Gary. We need people like Gary who are talented and good-hearted and willing to give their time.”

Mr. Marzullo referenced an email by Leslie Lee, the former head of the Selectmen’s Nominations Advisory Committee (SNAC), that was sent out to the selectmen and others involved with the nominations and appointments process. The letter, which was written prior to Mr. Dell’Abate’s consideration, expressed similar concerns to Mr. Marzullo’s about the process.

“These are volunteers,” Mr. Marzullo said at the meeting. “They should never be subject to ridicule. Period. And it’s not just about ridicule. What Leslie was talking about was the appropriateness of the line of questioning. I’m fair game and Peter [Tesei] and Dave [Theis] are fair game because we are elected officials. But volunteers are not fair game.”

In Ms. Lee’s email she said that a SNAC review of volunteers had found they considered the review of the nominees to be the hardest part of serving the town and that one volunteer even called it harder than getting a job.

“One woman reported that she found the line of questioning by the Appointments Committee to be out of line with a professional interview,” Ms. Lee wrote in the email. “She was asked if she had a family, and when she replied in the affirmative, she was asked if that would interfere with her carrying out her volunteer responsibilities. She thought about refusing to answer such questions, since they related to her personal life, not her “job” interview, but felt she should not if she wanted the position.”

Ms. Lee also cited a nominee who was asked if he could handle the duties of the job because he was disabled.

“I heard these comments with some trepidation, since there are strict guidelines for what questions are appropriate and legally permissible during professional interviews,” Ms. Lee wrote. “Any deviation could possibly leave the town vulnerable to litigation. Hopefully, this would never be an issue, but better safe than sorry. Since membership in the Appointments Committee changes every few years, we suggest that you consider setting up a bi-annual briefing of the committee by the HR or legal department on interview procedures and guidelines.”

Mr. Marzullo, himself a former RTM member, suggested that RTM Moderator Tom Byrne attend an Appointments Committee meeting and then hold an internal meeting among the members to discuss decorum and improving the process and the line of questioning.

“I have attended countless meetings, and in Tom’s defense, he never allows for attacks when he is there,” Mr. Marzullo said. “He needs to be made aware of this and publicly condemn it.”

Mr. Byrne was not present at the committee meeting and told the Post that he would be meeting with Mr. Marzullo on Tuesday night, after deadline for this week’s edition, to discuss the issue. He said that while the RTM and the selectmen are united in the desire to recruit good, qualified candidates for town boards and commissions and while they all wanted respectful treatment of those candidates, he felt the process worked.

“When the RTM considers making an appointment, the very issue at hand is the individual nominee,” Mr. Byrne said. “If a member has an objection to the appointment of that individual, the member has the right (and some might say an obligation) to speak out against the nominee. It is very easy for those who do not understand the rules to interpret opposition to a nominee as an impermissible personal attack. I have repeatedly stated that I consider my most important function as moderator to be to ensure that RTM members cast informed votes. That goal requires encouragement of the expression of opposing views. I welcome dissenting opinions and get uncomfortable when votes on complex issues are unanimous.

He added, “Based on everything that I have heard to date, I expect that the Dell’Abate nomination will receive overwhelming approval. But I must make it clear that dissenting opinions can be expressed, without fear that the dissenter will come under personal attack.”

Mr. Byrne said that Ms. Nacinovich’s objection was based on the process from three years ago, an interpretation confirmed by Appointments Committee Chairman Candace Garthwaite, who told the Post that when she saw that Ms. Nacinovich’s comments “clearly upset” Mr. Dell’Abate she moved the discussion to other topics. Ms. Garthwaite stressed to the Post that a “strong majority” of the committee supported Mr. Dell’Abate’s renomination, as evidenced by the 10-1 vote.

Mr. Byrne praised Ms. Garthwaite’s “professionalism and her determination to insist upon courtesy and respect for all while promoting full and fair debate on all nominations.”

Mr. Marzullo’s concerns were backed up by his colleagues on the board. First Selectman Peter Tesei called the situation “unfortunate.”

“These are volunteers, and the health of this system of government that we have is predicated on getting volunteers,” Mr. Tesei said. “If volunteers feel they’re going to be subject to scrutiny beyond what is pertinent to the job they are seeking to apply for, then we’re essentially not going to get people willing to volunteer. This is for the Board of Parks and Recreation and what’s pertinent there is one’s knowledge of the community and the natural resources and the activities in town, not what they do professionally or what their spouses or children do. I think this is of a toxic nature that society has gone down where people are trying to get their point across at all costs through whatever way you can and hope it sticks. We’ve seen it before and we can’t tolerate this.”

Selectman David Theis, a former member of SNAC, added, “We were discussing this just a month ago at a SNAC workshop. We need to not resort to personal attacks on someone willing to serve in a volunteer capacity. If you don’t have a valid argument, people are too often willing to resort to personal attacks. Gary has actually been a very fine member of the Board of Parks and Recreation, and when we went through this three years ago with a lot of personal attacks, what stands out in my mind is that when they did the final vote on his appointment, he brought his children to the meeting to hear and see local government in action, not knowing what the final result of the vote was going to be. Fortunately, it sailed right through, but that’s the kind of guy he is and he doesn’t deserve to be treated this way.”

Mr. Dell’Abate’s nomination is set to be heard at the June 9 meeting of the full RTM.

 

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