MIDDLETOWN — Land Use Director Marek Kozikowski was reprimanded this past summer by city officials for drafting and advocating for a zoning code change that would allow a political supporter to open a bottle redemption facility in Middletown.
The code change, which the Planning and Zoning Commission approved in October 2022, allowed Priyal Garala, owner of CT Redemption Center, to petition for a special exemption to open a bottle redemption facility on East Main Street.
In a January memorandum to Kozikowski, obtained by CT Examiner, Mayor Benjamin Florshiem noted that Garala had donated $500 to Kozikowski’s campaign for state representative of South Windsor in September 2022, a month before the commission approved the zoning amendment.
Kozikowski was also reprimanded for rude conduct toward a city resident who was also attempting to open a bottle redemption facility in Middletown, according to the mayor’s memo.
The resident, Steve Gomes, who is also the chair of the city’s retirement board, brought the allegations around Kozikowski’s involvement in the zoning text amendment to the mayor in early November.
According to an October 2022 email exchange shared with CT Examiner, Garala, who at the time owned four bottle redemption centers across Connecticut, sent an email to Kozikowski, saying he was interested in opening a bottle redemption facility in the East Main Street building.
The building was not zoned for a bottle redemption facility, and Garala asked Kozikowski if there was any paperwork he needed to fill out.
At the time of the email exchange, Kozikowski was in the middle of a campaign for state representative in his hometown of South Windsor — where Garala owned one of his businesses.
On Sept. 16, 2022, CT Redemption Center reposted a photograph on its Facebook page of one of Kozikowski’s campaign signs, with a message from Kozikowski encouraging residents to “help spread the word” about his campaign.
In the January memorandum, Florsheim said he had been unaware of Garala’s donation to Kozikowski’s campaign, and that the information was not disclosed to the Planning and Zoning Commission before the meeting.
“It is not my belief that you intentionally tried to mislead the Planning and Zoning Commission or use your position to obtain a benefit for a political supporter; I understand the legitimate reasons for the text amendment and why you authored and supported it,” Florshiem wrote. “Nevertheless, the timing and the details of the transaction are concerning. The last thing you want as a department head is to engage in a conduct that may be construed as improper or unethical, and now more than ever, even the appearance of such conduct must be a consideration for those of us serving in public roles.”
Kozikowski told CT Examiner on Wednesday that he considered the donation “irrelevant” and that Planning and Zoning commissioners “should be voting on the merits of an application.”
Garala told CT Examiner last week that he had not contacted any city official besides Kozikowski about his proposal to open a bottle redemption facility. He explained that his decision to reach out to Kozikowski was only because of Kozikowski’s role as land use director, and had nothing to do with personal connections.
In the email exchange, Kozikowski told Garala he would write and sponsor the zoning code changes that Garala would need to get a special exemption for his facility.
“I’ll write and bring forward the text amendments. I’ve learned that the commission will be more receptive if I do it,” Kozikowski wrote in an email to Garala and Gary Middleton, the town’s assistant city planner.
At a Planning and Zoning Commission meeting on Oct. 26, 2022, Kozikowski made the argument to change the zoning codes to allow for redemption centers in certain areas of the city.
“Over the last year or so in the land use office, there have been many and frequent inquiries about bottle redemption centers,” Kozikowski told the commissioners, noting that a 2021 state law, known as the “bottle bill,” would drive interest in redemption facilities, as it increases the bottle deposits from 5 to 10 cents beginning in 2024.
Kozikowski told CT Examiner he supported the zoning changes after recognizing that Middletown did not have a redemption center, which he said would be “supported by the 2020 Middletown Plan of Conservation and Development.”
“It is common for planning directors to petition for amendments to the local zoning regulations, that may help a particular applicant, but should generally provide benefit to the greater community,” Kozikowski said.
After the commission voted 5-2 to approve the change, Garala’s attorney, Timothy Lee, requested that the committee approve a special exemption for Garala’s business.
Gomes, who was also present at the meeting, asked the commission to reject Garala’s application and the proposed zoning change, and noted that his own facility had already received grant money from both the city and state. He also pointed to DEEP guidelines, which recommended that the ratio for a bottle redemption center was one center per every 72,000 residents.
“They have data that suggests, if you have redemption centers sitting on top of one another, one of them will fail. And in this case, I’ll probably be the one that fails,” Gomes said.
Lee disagreed, arguing that the increased deposit amount and expansion in bottle types accepted at bottle facilities would provide more than enough work for both Gomes and Garala’s businesses.
“Quite frankly … if my clients get approved and Mr. Gomes’ facility goes forward, I think you’re still going to need additional redemption centers within town to accommodate the demand and the need you’re going to experience based on the changes in state law,” Lee said.
While he was aware Gomes was also trying to open a bottle redemption facility in Middletown, Kozikowski told CT Examiner it “had no bearing” on his motivation for requesting a change to the zoning code.
“Later that summer, as I presume more people were interested in the bottle refund increase set to double in 2024, there were many inquiries on where a redemption center could be located. It forced us to reflect more on the land use and operation of that type of business,” he said. “Upon more critical thought and analysis, I grew more and more wary about interpreting it as similar to a warehouse use. Then when I received an inquiry from an agent with a client looking to open an establishment at 373 East Main Street, it provided an opportunity and a catalyst to codify a use that I felt was consistent with the Plan of Conservation and Development and the general initiatives to promote recycling and sustainability in the city.”
During the October 22 meeting, Gomes also brought up Kozikowski’s candidacy for state representative in South Windsor, but Kozikowski strongly denied it had affected his support for Garala’s proposal.
“When I see a good project, I’ll support it and do what I can to help move it forward,” Kozikowski said. “So to Mr. Gomes alluding that there’s some sort of quid pro quo with this applicant, I find that extremely disgusting.”
But Republican commissioner Sebastian Giuliano did not appear convinced.
“I am disturbed by the fact that the subject was broached by Mr. Gomes and it was not brought up and brought to our attention by Mr. Kozikowski himself at the outset, in full disclosure, so we would be in a position to understand what to make of this relationship — if any,” Giuliano said.
Giuliano said he didn’t see why there needed to be a special exemption created for a bottle redemption facility when Gomes’ had already been approved.
“We’re being asked to exercise our legislative authority in a matter that is not consistent in guidelines articulated by Connecticut DEEP to benefit a single entrepreneur. To take such a course of action under such circumstances smacks of cronyism and privilege,” Giuliano said. “For the land use department to be the applicant in such a scheme is both egregious and surprising.”
Other commissioners disagreed. Commissioner Richard Pellitier said he was in favor of multiple sites as a way of encouraging competition.
“If we have a variety of redemption centers, it will encourage redemption. I think that having one that is preferred by the state … is against competition,” he said. “I think competition is a good thing and I think competition should be encouraged whenever possible.”
The commission ultimately voted 5-2 to approve Garala’s facility, which opened in January.
Kozikowski was given a verbal warning as part of the reprimand. Gomes told CT Examiner he has not yet filed a complaint with the city’s Ethics Board.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story stated that Garala lived in South Windsor, but he is only a business owner there, not a resident. Also, Kozikowski did not waive Garala’s $160 application fee as was earlier reported. In addition, when he asked the commission to reject Garala’s application, Gomes noted that his own facility — not Garala’s — had already received grant money. This story has been updated.