OLD LYME — Ahead of a January meeting of the Board of Selectmen to decide on appointments to town boards, Democrats and Republicans have been maneuvering for partisan advantage before local leaders face potentially momentous decisions in 2024 on future development and town finances.
Part of the jockeying is over the appointment of alternates to Planning and Zoning Commissions who last year voted against plans to encourage retail and residential development of the town’s commercial district along Halls Road.
On Zoning, Sloan Danenhower and Michael Barnes, both unaffiliated alternates, were critical of plans submitted by the Halls Road Improvements Committee
On Planning, newly elected Selectman Jim Lampos, who serves as an alternate on the Planning Commission, has told CT Examiner he would like to continue on as an alternate, citing the recent example of Matt Ward, who sat as both selectman and planning alternate. Ward ran as unaffiliated on a ticket with Republican Tim Griswold.
But this time Republicans are pointing to a state statute that seemingly prohibits municipal employees from sitting on the more powerful town boards – and selectmen, though elected, receive compensation from the town:
CGS Section 4-721(e) “Any municipal employee shall have the right to serve on any governmental body of the town… [except] (1) no such employee shall serve on any of the following unless such employee is permitted to serve pursuant to the provisions of a municipal charter or home rule ordinance or serves . . . . (A) any board of finance, (B) any body exercising zoning powers (C) any body exercising land use powers (D) any body exercising planning powers…”
It’s an issue that’s not merely academic.
Last year, Planning played a crucial role in the defeat of the Halls Road plan with a unanimous negative referral – meaning the proposal would need at least 4 out of 5 votes in favor from Zoning to pass. It didn’t, falling short by one vote with Danenhower and Barnes, seated that night, against.
Barnes and Danenhower faced harsh criticism from local Democrats, who questioned the legitimacy of their votes.
Meanwhile in the last election, Democrats gained seats on both Zoning and Planning, with Democrat Michael Aurelia unseating Republican Barbara Gaudio on Planning, and Democrat Denise Savageau unseating Republican Tammy Tinnerello on Zoning. Savageau’s term will begin in 2024.
The year-end maneuvering has raised questions also about other board roles.
On Lyme-Old Lyme’s Board of Education, newly elected First Selectman Martha Shoemaker, a Democrat, has opted to remain and take an officer role as board secretary – a decision that while entirely legal, has Republicans questioning the proprietary – and excessive concentration of power – of the dual role with dual budget roles.
On Board of Finance – which has oversight of the town’s budget – Republican Jude Read resigned from Board of Finance to take her new seat on the Board of Selectmen – making the switch after the election but before the swearing in would give Democrats a say in her Republican replacement.
This proved prescient when days later Republican Matt Olsen, an alternate, who took Read’s full seat on Finance, was replaced as alternate by Fred Behringer, a Republican chosen by Democrats Shoemaker and Lampos. The Republicans on the board nominated Maria Marchant.
With Finance split three-three, and a tie yielding a down vote, nothing will get done without cooperation. Notably, the Board of Finance so far doesn’t have a track record of close partisan votes.