Saying they felt bullied after fellow members of New Canaan’s legislative body took an unusual step to force a specific item onto their meeting agenda, two officers of the elected Town Council on Wednesday night abstained from voting on it.
Ultimately, the Town Council voted 7-0 in favor of establishing a “land acquisition fund”—a state law-sanctioned vehicle that’s designed to allow New Canaan to purchase property and use it for open space, recreation or housing.
Yet the Town Council’s secretary, Penny Young, and chairman, Bill Walbert, abstained from voting.
Originally discussed in January after councilmen John Engel, Kevin Moynihan and Cristina A. Ross argued in favor of its immediate creation, the land acquisition fund item was to be taken up again in March, according to Young, under an agenda set by herself, together with Walbert and the Town Council’s vice chairman, Steve Karl.
Under the Town Council’s own rules, if five members of the body sought to add it to the agenda for this month, they could have done so, according to Young.
“Resorting to—and I will take some liberty in using this term, a ‘nuclear’ option of driving around town and securing a petition of registered votes, in my mind, was a little bit extreme,” she said at the group’s meeting, held in Town Hall.
“Forcing the item onto the agenda is kind of a ‘My way or the highway’ mindset, and breaches the bounds of collegial interaction. Outrageous accusations in the newspaper as to the improprieties of the agenda-setting process, which has been followed for decades, is destructive to respectful group dynamics and certainly incompatible with the way the Town Council has historically solved problems. I will not be harassed nor bullied into voting for an agenda in this manner.”
She referred to a process described in the Town Charter (see Section C4-7 on page 9 here) that says if 50 local electors sign a petition requesting that the Town Council consider a specific matter, then the legislative body must meet within 21 days to consider do so.
A petition with 54 signatures seeking a Town Council vote on the land acquisition fund arrived Monday in the Town Clerk’s office—meaning that, if those who signed it could be verified as electors, the Town Council would’ve been forced to meet no later than March 6 to take it up.
Walbert could have called a special meeting to do so, but decided instead to include it in Wednesday’s agenda.
Young outlined several reasons for putting it off a bit further, such as input should be had from the Board of Finance (currently mid-budget) and that data soon will be had that gives a fuller snapshot of open space in New Canaan right now.
“I for one would like to know that data and let that understanding serve as the parameters for a fund, not the fund influencing strategy, as money talks, sometimes— kind of a ‘cart before the horse’ concept,” she said.
Referring to the way the land acquisition fund item ended up on the Town Council’s agenda this week, Young said: “I think it is really a most unfortunate and deeply disturbing situation and I am sorry the public has to witness disrespectful behavior among our elected officials.”
Saying he was proud of the Town Council and noting that he himself never interfered with subcommittee agenda-setting, though he’s been tempted, Walbert also abstained.
“This is America and people shouldn’t be bullied, shouldn’t be harassed, shouldn’t be coerced into making votes,” he said. “They should not be penalized, beaten for disagreeing with people. I think we should all offer each other professional courtesies.”
Meanwhile, the fund itself is expected to give New Canaan more nimbleness when desirable properties become available for purchase.
In addressing the Town Council at the meeting, Conservation Commission Chairman Cam Hutchins noted that other towns already have land acquisition funds in place and “New Canaan is already late to this game.”
The fund’s establishment appears to have wide support across a good cross-section of New Canaan, he said, and may have served the town well in preventing the water company from positioning itself to sell to developers an 18.7-acre wooded parcel on Indian Waters Drive.
“Looming on the horizon, it is entirely possible that our town might soon find hundreds of acres of water company land at risk for development, so our time to act is now,” Hutchins said.
Engel, a board member with the New Canaan Land Trust, also abstained from voting on the item. Those casting votes in favor were Moynihan, Kathleen Corbet, Sven Englund, Christa Kenin, Jim Kucharczyk, Joe Paladino and Ross. Karl and Ken Campbell were absent.