I recently submitted this letter to the Westport News, which published it today, May 16, 2008
Process at the P & Z
As a Westport resident for the last 18 years, an attorney, and as one who served on both the Planning and Zoning Commission as well as the Zoning Board of Appeals, I can no longer stand by in idle silence when a Commission I had been proud to serve in years past has changed for the worse to become almost unrecognizable. I am speaking of our P & Z, which has been hated, loved and feared, but always respected.
In the past, the rule was that the political party who won the majority of seats chose the Chairman. The Chairman then permitted the minority party to choose among themselves as to who would be best as Vice-Chairman. Then the P & Z voted as a whole to elect that minority party member as Vice-Chairman. There may have been skirmishes about individuals, but on the whole this policy worked. It respected the fact that by law, no more than 4 seats out of 7 may be held by a particular political party. What goes around comes around as the majority of today could be the minority of tomorrow.
I have no idea exactly when or why this policy changed but apparently it has. The Chairman of the P & Z is a Democrat. The Vice-Chairman is also a Democrat. Not fair, and not respectful. For the record, I am now unaffiliated, having been both a Republican and a Democrat.
This lack of respect of P & Z members for one another has boiled over into public hearings. I attended two of the recent Mahackeno Y hearings. I was appalled at the treatment bestowed by Chairman Ron Corwin upon fellow P & Z member, Helen Block. By way of example, Ms. Block requested information on the historic nature of the Merritt Parkway because the land under review directly abuts the Merritt. Mr. Corwin made a public statement to the audience that he wanted it known that this information was not requested by the Commission as a whole but merely by one member. Why does this matter? Why belittle another colleague’s efforts to receive all pertinent information? Mr. Corwin’s attitude toward Ms. Block is condescending, dismissive, sexist and frankly, embarrassing. We in Westport deserve a lot better.
I served under chairperson Ellie Lowenstein. Did we always agree on the issues? Of course not. But never once did I nor any of my colleagues who sat on the P & Z with me ever have cause to complain that Ms. Lowenstein was highhanded, dictatorial, patronizing or exclusionary. And at that time Ellie and I were not members of the same political party.
The public does not elect the chairperson of the P & Z. The public votes for individual members, each of whom has equal power. The chairmanship role is administrative only. When real issues are decided, or information is obstructed under the guise of “administrative power”, then something has gone terribly wrong. Another example: To “increase efficiency,” Mr. Corwin has publicly proposed a new pre-application process by which only certain committee members of the P & Z will hear an application and then decide whether to send it to the full Commission for review. Disenfranchising the public and other members of the Board may be efficient but in the choice between efficiency and democracy, we have already determined that democracy is worth it.
Members of the P & Z as well as the public must speak up when an administrative role is being misused to unfairly control and set the agenda.
With all the substantive issues surrounding the Machackeno Y application, why am I writing this letter now? Because the proverbial straw broke my camel’s back when I read that the P & Z has decided to hold hearings from 6:30 PM to 11:30 PM to keep a deadline to close the hearings by a certain date, rather than extend the deadline as the Conservation Commission did. 6:30 to11:30 P.M.? Exactly who agreed to this? And why? Who does it benefit to hold interminably long hearings? Most people cannot be accommodated this way. Who does it benefit to rush the process? Not the citizens of Westport. Moreover, an unfair process could lead to legal action which would further delay the entire process.
Clearly, the only conclusion one can reach is that these hearings are being held for the benefit of the Y itself, the foregone winner of this battle, to enable them to get their first spade in the ground before the first frost.
Process is often used to subvert results. I am saddened to watch it here in the Town of Westport. I urge members of the P & Z to right itself to regain respect in the eyes of those who elected you. You owe us nothing less.
Lisa K. Wexler
Host, “Live!” With Lisa Radio Show
Former Member, Westport P & Z
Former Member, Westport ZBA