GROTON — In an unusual procedural move, the Town Council rejected two pre-screened candidates and narrowly reappointed a third after removing their names from a list of 10 people recommended for seats on the town’s boards and commissions.
At the council’s Dec. 6 meeting, councilor Melinda Cassiere proposed pulling three names – John Goodrich, Bruce McDermott and Michael Kane – from the list of 10 candidates that the council’s Personnel and Appointments Committee had recommended for positions on the Historic District Commission, Planning and Zoning Commission and the Inland Wetlands Agency.
The appointee approval process is normally done by consent agenda but it is within Robert’s Rules for councilors to pull out names for separate votes.
Cassiere said that she had singled out the candidates because she had noticed a “trend” toward candidates for town positions taking strong positions on town projects or topics, especially without being fully briefed.
“These are supposed to be apolitical entities making incredibly important decisions regarding topics that are often controversial, polarizing and crucial to making decisions to Groton,” Cassiere told the council. “To me, the utmost importance is for members of these apolitical bodies to remain as neutral and impartial as possible, yet I am increasingly seeing the assertion that applicants need to take stands on topics without the full scope of the information.”
Cassiere said she wanted to fill the vacancies with candidates who were committed to drawing from educational, career and life experiences, “volunteer work, morals, values, ethics, respectfulness, and proof of responsible decision-making,” as well as learning and researching about town projects to “arrive at a prudent decision based on the totality of circumstances.”
Councilor Aundré Bumgardner, who chairs the Personnel Committee — which includes councilors David McBride and Scott Westervelt — replied that all ten candidates had been approved unanimously by the committee. He warned against setting a precedent of rejecting volunteers who do not align with a councilor’s political beliefs or point of view.
“I’ve voted for members to serve on our boards or commissions that have demanded my resignation. I have voted for people who have opposed me politically for positions I’ve ran before. And that’s okay, because as was mentioned, serving on boards or commissions, it’s a volunteer position. It isn’t a political position.”
McBride told the council that while he had voted in favor of moving the slate to the council, he was in favor of voting individually on the three candidates singled out by Cassiere.
The council voted 6-3 to remove the three names from the consent list, with Cassiere, McBride, Rachael Franco, Bruce Jones, Juliette Parker and Mayor Juan Melendez in favor, and councilors Portia Bordelon, Bumgardner and Westervelt against.
The council voted unanimously to approve the remaining seven candidates.
Experience, passion, neutrality,
The council then turned to votes on the three remaining candidates.. First was Bruce McDermott for a position on Planning and Zoning.
Westervelt said McDermott had been involved in town politics for many years and had served well on the Zoning Board of Appeals and the Beautification Committee.
“Everything he’s done, he puts his whole heart into it. I mean, we all have things that we feel strongly about, but I believe that he has the ability to be bipartisan or nonpartisan, and he will support what’s best for the town, as he always has for many, many years,” said Westervelt.
McBride said that while he respected McDermott as a person, he was concerned about McDermott’s ability to make unbiased decisions on controversial planning and zoning topics.
“He seems very passionate about what he does, but I do have concerns over his ability to be unbiased because I believe he is extremely opposed to short-term rentals … I believe his passion may be too far, too one-sided and that his opposition may be a little too extreme for what I would recommend individuals sitting on this committee,” said McBride.
In a 5-3-1 vote, McDermott’s appointment was rejected by councilors Cassiere, McBride, Rachael Franco, Bruce Jones, and Mayor Juan Melendez. In favor of McDermott were councilors Portia Bordelon, Bumgardner and Westervelt. Councilor Juliette Parker abstained.
Concerns not made public
The second vote was on the appointment of John Goodrich as a full member of the Historic District Commission, where he currently serves as an alternate.
McBride said he had been made aware of concerns about Goodrich “in numerous areas.” McBride said that he did not think the concerns related to the Historic District Commission and that after reviewing Goodrich’s resume, skills and experience, he would support Goodrich’s appointment.
“So, I take a different approach in that if people have concerns with this individual in other areas outside of the Historic District Commission, that’s one item of concern, but it’s not, in my opinion, particularly related to this commission. So I will be supporting the Historic District Commission for John Goodrich because I think he has the skills and the experience to add value to the town.”
Bordelon asked what the concerns were about Goodrich.
McBride said they were not made public and were “nothing earth-shattering… just that there were questions asked.”
Westervelt said that Goodrich’s qualifications include a degree in art history and preservation from Boston College and that he’s a history buff who is restoring a 1745 house. He said Goodrich had worked with the state archaeologist on the Mystic Oral School.
Westervelt said he believed that singling out Goodrich was “personal in nature” but that he expected a councilor would call a point of order for questioning the motives of others.
Cassiere immediately called a point of order.
Melendez told Westervelt to limit his comments to the merits of the candidate.
Westervelt repeated that Goodrich was the most qualified person for the position and emphasized there was no reason to vote against him.
“I know I can’t question motives, so I’m going to try to frame what I need to say: Unless you have a reason to doubt his qualifications, I find it unfathomable that you would not support someone with these qualifications,” Westervelt said.
Bumgardner asked Cassiere why Goodrich had been removed from the full slate recommended by the committee.
Cassiere replied that her motion “spoke for itself.”
The council then voted 4-4-1 — a tie resulting in the rejection of Goodrich — with Cassiere, Franco, Jones and Melendez voting no, and Bordelon, Bumgardner, McBride and Westervelt voting yes. Parker abstained.
A question of motivation
Westervelt further criticized Cassiere’s amended motion to separate the three candidates from the roster of 10 as the council discussed the reappointment of Michael Kane to the Planning and Zoning Commission,
“There was nothing of substance, it was just innuendo and I don’t think that’s fair to the candidates that we removed,” Westervelt said.
Cassiere made a point of order, noting that Westervelt was “questioning councilors’ motives, again.”
Westervelt replied that there was no question of motive.
“All I said was innuendo. There was no substance to it.”
Melendez warned Westervelt to limit his comments to the merits of the candidate.
Bordelon said that Cassiere’s amendment “basically inferred character or lack thereof of these people’s motives. It had motive in the intention, in the motion.”
Melendez attempted to steer the discussion back to a narrower discussion of reappointing Kane.
But Westervelt reiterated that Kane was outstanding as a candidate and asked the councilors to state their reasons for rejecting Kane.
“I think it’s a disservice to dismiss him in this fashion. And, again, unless there’s a question about his qualifications or his ability to do this job, why would we not keep him on Planning and Zoning? There’s got to be a reason but nobody wants to say it.”
Franco said she would not provide reasons against voting for a candidate.
“I think [Cassiere] made a lot of good points and I agree with her on a lot of them and I have watched numerous planning and zoning meetings. And,I take the stand of I don’t want to speak negatively about any volunteer in the community, so I’m not going to put it all out there exactly my thoughts at this time because I will not speak negatively about a candidate,” Franco said.
McBride said he agreed with Westervelt that “you can’t look beyond the expertise of this individual.” “It’s unfathomable, as you said, that this would be considered,” said McBride.
Franco called “point of order” complaining that McBride’s comment was “again going toward the motives of councilors and our thought processes on how we vote.”
McBride pointed out that the personnel committee spent a lot of time on the applications and chose to present these 10 recommendations to the council for review. He said he wanted to hear councilors’ reasons for voting for or against the candidates.
“Unfortunately, what I thought would happen was anyone who’s going to vote for or against these individuals would actually speak as to why they wanted to vote for or against. I have expressed my concerns about each individual whether or for or against and I would really appreciate it if other councilors would express theirs – for or against.”
After further discussion and further points of order, the council voted to approve Kane 5-3-1, with Bordelon, Bumgardner, McBride, Melendez and Westervelt voting in favor and Cassiere, Franco and Jones voting against. Parker abstained.
CT Examiner contacted Cassiere, Franco, Jones and Melendez find out why they had voted against the candidates — none of the four councilors responded in time for publication.