Town Council Candidates Discuss Transparency in Local Government at Debate

New Canaan’s strong zoning is one of its most important assets, according to one incumbent member of the town’s legislative body.

The zoning regulations are what underpin property values here, yet in recent years—considering the handling of applications for Merritt Village, Grace Farms, the Roger Sherman Inn, mixed-use on Forest Street and “Zone D” on Grove Street, New Canaan has been “managing by exception,” according to Town Councilman John Engel.

“The mere fact that we have 100 caveats to the Grace Farms approval, another 100 for the Merritt Village approval, shows that we have got to do a better job of getting in front of this and the evidence is, it is costing us money,” Engel, a Republican seeking re-election to the Town Council, said during a debate last week.

“When I talk to the developer [of Heritage Square] on Forest Street and I ask, ‘Would you do it again?’ and he said, ‘No, it’s far too risky to develop in this town not knowing after a two-year process whether your project will get approved or not.’ So developers are staying away and I don’t know if most people realize it, but building permits are down by 50 percent this year versus last year. It is costing us money. It is costing money to the grand list and our tax base.”

He spoke during the Candidates Forum, the League of Women Voters-run event held Oct. 23 at Town Hall before a standing-room only crowd. Moderated by Marianne Pollak, the event was co-sponsored by Channel 79 and the New Canaan Advertiser.

It included three segments for contested races in next Tuesday’s election—for Town Council, first selectman and town treasurer positions in municipal government.

Four Republican candidates are running for Town Council to fill seats current held by the GOP—in addition to incumbents Engel and Penny Young, Tom Butterworth and Rich Townsend will be on the ballot. The Democrats are putting forward three candidates—incumbent Sven Englund as well as Liz Donovan and Colm Dobbyn—in hopes of “picking up” a seat on the 12-member legislative body, whose members are elected to four-year terms.

During the debate, the hopefuls answered questions about local ordinances, lack of transparency in municipal government, text changes to the New Canaan Zoning Regulations and town-owned buildings.

A member of the appointed Inland Wetlands Commission, Dobbyn said he’s lived in New Canaan for 24 years and that in that time “there have been a number of occasions where” town government hasn’t been as open as it should.

“Decisions have been made behind closed doors and foisted upon the New Canaan public,” Dobbyn said at the debate. “I believe that we should have a competitive two-party system where we have full representation and I want to have a more active representation on this Town Council. I think that, again, things have been often swept under the rug.”

He referred to recent disclosures that a committee overseeing the track and fields upgrades at New Canaan High School had changed the project’s details after learning it wouldn’t have enough money to pay for the one that town funding bodies had approved—and did not immediately relay that information to those funding bodies.

The news “should have come out of left field,” Dobbyn said. “People shod have known about that all along.”

He was answering a question from the moderator, who said there’s a perceived lack of transparency among the public because it sometimes doesn’t learn about major issues until late in the process.

“How would you keep public informed and how would you ensure you have what you need to make good decisions?” Pollak asked.

Donovan described herself as a “certified project manager” and said: “One of the basic tenets of a successful project is communication and without that your odds of having things go wrong go up dramatically.”

Though there was nothing “nefarious” that happened with the Fields Building Committee, Donovan said, “there clearly wasn’t a process in place and the people involved went off and … didn’t keep stakeholders involved, and the stakeholders are us, the Town Council and the taxpayers, and they have a right to know.”

“And it should be two way, we should be, soliciting information as much as we are pushing information back out to our citizens.”

Englund responded to the question in strong terms, noting that town bodies undergo formal training in the Freedom of Information Act, or ‘FOIA,’ including how and when to hold meetings and record them. Every subcommittee must include a public session, England said.

“We should never take any action except in absolute public and every time we try to shortcut that or someone has tried to shortcut that process, we have ended up in trouble,” Englund said. “So the lessons have been learned. I believe your Town Council will be open and transparent.”

Townsend said he believes in transparency and “it comes down to what happens when we do not follow the rules.”

“I think that is what showed up in the fields deal and it shows up in most places,” Townsend said. “The meetings I have been [involved in], primarily the Charter review, they have been 100 percent open, they have been 100 percent on television and we have had comments to begin every one. So, I have not personally have not seen problem but I have heard stories about them.”

Young said that every Town Council opens with an invitation to hear from the public and that she gets “disappointed when I don’t see people coming but yet they are quick to say that we are not an open and transparent body.”

“So I invite everyone to make a little extra effort and to participate in the process,” she said.

Young also called the Fields Building Committee matter “an opportunity to look at what our policies and procedures are and develop better ones so we can operate in a more effective way.”

Butterworth noted that FOI law is at the heart of most transparency-related discussions and called the rules that the federal law spells out “quirky.”

“They do facilitate tremendous access to all of our activities of government,” which Butterworth called “phenomenal” and “a victory.”

“But it is not enough, because what happens is, for instance, there is an exception in FOIA that says people can meet in a political caucuses without noticing that as a meeting, and having people sit in on that. That can be important in certain settings but the way people execute that exception—whether in good or bad faith—can result in abuse.”

Several candidates weighed in on Butterworth’s assertion.

Dobby said he agreed with Butterworth and added that “the real issue is when decisions are not made in the Town Council or Board of Finance, they are made in a political caucus that is separate and they are not subject to the FOI Act.”

“I think a lot of decisions in this town have been made this way,” Dobbyn said. “And that is where we have not been open and transparent, and that should change.”

Young countered that the formal Republican caucus is only held in odd years in order to back party candidates for elected office.

“We do not caucus to discuss the topics that are before the Council, so there are no decisions made by the caucus, as is being spoken here,” Young said.

Dobbyn said that such decisions are made informally.

“I think we all know that a lot of decisions get made and they are brought to the Town Council as, ‘This is what way it is going to be,’ ” Dobbyn said. “That is what I am referring to—not a formal caucus.”

Butterworth echoed that clarification.

“I was not referring to things that we officially call a ‘caucus,’ ” he said. “What I am referring to is the exception in the law that permits the first selectman, for instance, to have a dialogue with the chairman of the Board of Finance or any number of representative members. So that is what permits them to not have it in public. They do not call it a ‘caucus.’ but that is the legal basis to have that dialogue.”

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