GROTON — Councilors used meeting procedural rules at least 20 times to halt debate about two town property reuse policies at Committee of the Whole meeting on June 27.
In the same discussion, councilors and the audience broke meeting protocol by talking or yelling over one another, forcing the chair of the meeting Mayor Juan Melendez to admonish them at least 10 times to not speak unless they had the floor.
Technically the council follows Robert’s Rules of Order – formal procedures intended to bring order to meetings – but in the case of the Groton these rules often are used instead to cause delay and have led to chaos. And more than a year after the council considered hiring a mediator to help members get along, the council continues to struggle for maintaining civility in its public meetings.
At a recent meeting, a row between members ensued when Councilor Melinda Cassiere moved immediately to adopt the 2021 draft of policies governing the reuse of town property, followed by Councilor Scott Westervelt’s motion to adopt a newer policy drafted by the council’s Property Reuse Committee.
“[I] knew this was going to happen,” said Melendez, who advised members that the council should address the motions in order – citing Robert’s Rules.
Councilor Portia Bordelon interjected, telling Melendez, “This seems very staged to me, I’d like a recess to discuss this.”
“That’s not in order,” responded Melendez, citing Robert’s Rules, but Bordelon continued to speak. She said that she had requested that the Property Use Committee’s document be included on the agenda as a topic for council discussion because the previous policy was “doing nothing.”
Melendez admonished Bordelon that the topic had nothing to do with the discussion at hand, but Bordelon insisted, “It does have to do with the discussion.”
Westervelt interrupted, asking for clarification from the attorney about how to proceed with multiple motions on the floor. Town Manager John Burt answered that the first motion needed to be addressed first, followed by the second.
When it was Bordelon’s turn to speak, she said the Property Reuse Committee had been formed in 2022 to create a new policy following the town’s failure to conduct sufficient background checks of Jeff Respler, developer of the Mystic Oral School, who was later found to have a criminal record.
She reiterated that the vote for the 2021 policy was staged and that it represented a “huge disrespect” to the experts and town commission members who contributed their time to the development of the new policy.
Melendez told the council that while he believed both policies had merit, it was important to proceed with approving one or the other so the town could move forward with conducting business.
“From my perspective, I hear the Department of Planning and Development Services has delayed a lot of their efforts in marketing our properties because this [policy] has been delayed,” he said.
Bordelon called a point of order, saying, “I think that’s unfair to say that they could not still be showing – it was stated that they could still show the property.”
“That’s not a point of order,” Melendez responded.
“It is a point of order because what you’re saying is not true,” Bordelon said, asking the town manager to confirm Groton could not show or market its properties during this time.
“They came here and told us that,” Melendez said, warning Bordelon that she did not have the floor.
“That was a choice … so they should say they ‘chose,’” she said. “That’s my point of order. … I understand that [I do not have the floor] but … you [should] say the right word.”
Melendez again told Bordelon she was out of order.
“You’re out of order by saying they chose to wait,” she retorted.
A point of order followed from councilor Edward Jacome, citing “decorum” as “absolutely disgusting,” and Bordelon interjecting that she agreed.
Melendez reiterated to Bordelon that council rules dictated she could not speak when she did not have the floor.
“Then speak the truth,” Bordelon said.
Cassiere, who later resigned from the town council at its July 3 meeting, called a point of order, citing decorum, followed by Melendez warning Bordelon again about council rules.
Councilor Rachael Franco later called point of order on Councilor David McBride, chair of the Property Reuse Committee, after he described the changes the committee made to the 2021 draft that involved consulting with experts and town commissions in order to increase transparency. Franco said the discussion was not focusing on the 2021 policy.
McBride responded that the new policy was created because the 2021 document was not sufficiently transparent and did not include enough community input.
Franco called another point of order after Bordelon said the 2021 policy did not have enough teeth and questioned why there had been no council feedback on the newest policy draft.
Later, Franco said she gave the Property Reuse Committee feedback only at the Town Council meetings rather than through emails, because she said using email could be a violation of Freedom of Information laws.
Bordelon said Franco was implying the committee was operating outside of FOI rules.
When asked, the town manager explained that business needed to be conducted in the Town Council chambers and to avoid a potential quorum created through email.
The meeting continued with council members calling for points of order – and with Melendez stopping and restarting the proceedings for each one, and repeatedly warning the audience and council that no one was to speak unless they had the floor.
Toward the end of the discussion, Westervelt yielded his time to Genevieve Cerf, a former council member, in the audience, who reminded the council that “hundreds of citizens” had organized a campaign to protest the Mystic Oral School and had asked for a more transparent process.
Melendez ultimately called for a vote on the 2021 policy. Those in favor were Franco, Cassiere, Melendez, Jacome and Bruce Jones. Those opposed were Bordelon, Westervelt and McBride.
At the Town Council meeting the following Monday, members of the public objected to the ongoing “squabbling” of the council, calling their behavior “embarrassing.”