Despite date controversy, RTM meets, approves lease

After quickly disposing of the idea that the meeting should not be held at all, the Greenwich Representative Town Meeting got back to work Monday night and sent a strong message of support to Abilis.

The organization, which, among other services, helps people with developmental disabilities live independently and get jobs in the community, was seeking the renewal of a 10-year lease it has with the town for property used as a residence for several women. Renewal of the lease had already been strongly supported by the Board of Selectmen and the Planning and Zoning Commission, and Monday night the RTM gave its voice of approval by a nearly perfect margin. The end vote for the new 10-year lease was 183-0 with only one abstention.

But while the business before the body was relatively simple Monday night, there was a question of whether in fact it was appropriate to hold the meeting, which was the first after the RTM’s summer break. The Monday meeting was held in the middle of the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, which celebrates the Jewish new year. In recent weeks, once it was discovered that the dates conflicted, there were calls to postpone the meeting, and a motion was formally introduced Monday night by Christine Edwards, a representative from District 8.

“In order to do business in a community where we have great respect for the diversity we have here in Greenwich on every level, it is my desire and the desire of many people that got in touch with me this week that we put forward a motion that we respect the values of this high holy day for members in our community,” Ms. Edwards said.

Dozens of members of the 220-person body were not in attendance for Monday’s meeting, though it was unclear whether it was because of the holiday or other business. Selectman Drew Marzullo did not attend the meeting as a protest and told the Post in an e-mail that he considered it “disrespectful” to do government business on one of the most important days on the Jewish calendar and said that a meeting on Christmas would not be held. Town Hall was open on Monday but public schools were closed in town.

“This is not just about looking at numbers and say, ‘Well, we have a lot of people here,’” Ms. Edwards said. “We do have a good, substantial amount of people but there are a lot of empty seats and regardless of how many people are not here, this should still be about the respect we have to not hold meetings that require representation from our entire community on days that, for many of us may be, a very holy day, a very scriptural day or even just a day that does not befit people to come out because it is a celebratory day. There are others in the community who would not want to have a meeting on their celebratory days.”

Ms. Edwards asked the meeting be postponed until tonight, but RTM Moderator Tom Byrne said that neither he nor the town clerk’s office would be able to attend if it was and urged things go forward as planned. Mr. Byrne said that the only time there had been a postponement of an entire meeting had been when there had been a power failure at Central Middle School, where the meetings are traditionally held.

District 8 Representative Chris von Keyserling said he understood that people were upset about this and said he agreed with Ms. Edwards’ sentiments. But he said while it “troubled me deeply” it spoke to a larger issue of RTM member involvement in the process. He noted that the date for the meeting had been set since January and that all members should have been aware that this conflict was coming. If there was going to be a postponement, Mr. von Keyserling said, it should have been done a long time ago and that the fault in this lay with RTM members for not taking earlier action.

“There is a responsibility on we in the RTM to mind our own business,” Mr. von Keyserling said. “If I was aware of this, it would have been up to me to take care of my own planning and say there is a conflict and do something about it. To my knowledge, the first time this issue was raised was last week, which means to me that people got their [agenda] in the mail and looked at the date and said ‘Oh my God, this is next Monday and that’s a holiday.’ That was the first time people recognized this was a conflict. By that time you’re now asking the moderator to turn the Queen Mary around and you can’t do that on a dime. It’s not a speedboat or a private car.”

This put Mr. Byrne and Mr. von Keyserling, who have notably and openly clashed in the past, in the unusual position of agreeing with each other. Mr. Byrne even noted “This could be a first.” And ultimately the majority of the body agreed as well as the motion failed by an 18 to 157 margin with nine abstentions.

Once that was settled, the work began on the agenda and the Abilis matter was quickly decided. The vote makes the new lease official and secures Abilis at the 101 Orchard Street location for at least the next 10 years. The lease does not feature the kind of automatic trigger that this original 10-year lease did and also gives both the town and Abilis the ability to end the lease without cause with 120 days’ notice, but Thomas Heagney, an attorney representing Abilis, told the Post that there is “general language” in the lease about continuing it beyond the next 10 years and “we hope that will be the case.”

Normally a lease like this would not even have been news given Abilis’s sterling reputation in town and the praise from the selectmen and the RTM about how well they’ve improved and maintained the property, but the RTM has wanted to start reviewing the town’s leases with more thoroughness. The Abilis lease is one of 31 the body wants to review to determine if the deal was done properly, since town leases typically are given at far below market value. Previously RTM Finance Committee Chairman Gordon Ennis, who is spearheading the reviews for his committee, said the Abilis lease was an ideal way to begin the review because everyone was in favor of continuing the arrangement.

Mr. Ennis continued that support Monday night, stating in his committee report that Abilis “is a good tenant and this is a good deal for both the residents there and the town.”

Mr. Ennis also praised the town for working with the RTM in beginning the review of the leases.

“The town ought to be applauded for its effort to comply with the sense of the meeting resolution the RTM passed last spring,” Mr. Ennis said. “This is a good faith effort and while they have until December to comply with the whole thing I think they’ve made a good start, and as we continue down this road we’re going to be able to make good decisions about these leases.”

The new lease will go through September 2022. After the meeting, Abilis Executive Director Laurel Ross said the strong show of support from the RTM was meaningful.

“People see that our residents are citizens of Greenwich and they contribute so much to the community,” Ms. Ross said.

In other business, the RTM approved a new three-year labor contract between the town and school administrators, which includes principals, the high school headmaster and certain department heads in the schools. The $26-million contract with the Greenwich Organization of School Administrators (GOSA) was approved by a 177-7 margin with only two abstentions. The RTM also approved a land swap between the town and a private developer Putnam, 600 Acquisition, LLC by a 161-15 margin with eight abstentions.

Under the agreement, the town received three parcels of land along Holly Hill Road in exchange for 1.6352 acres of land at 600 West Putnam Avenue and Holly Hill Lane that the company will now use as part of an overall planned renovation of the building there and the construction of a parking garage. The developer is expected to make several improvements to the land including adding in a sidewalk.

 

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