Lawyer: P&Z mem­bers voted im­prop­erly

Board re­jected plan to in­stall health cen­ter on Main Street

The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT) - - FRONT PAGE - By Ben Lam­bert wlam­bert@registercitizen.com @WLam­bertRC on Twit­ter

WINSTED >> An at­tor­ney rep­re­sent­ing the Com­mu­nity Health & Well­ness Cen­ter of Greater Tor­ring­ton is claim­ing that mem­bers of the Plan­ning and Zon­ing Com­mis­sion im­prop­erly voted on the group’s ap­pli­ca­tion to move to the Winsted Su­per Saver on Main Street.

At­tor­ney Joseph Wil­liams of Ship­man & Good­win wrote in a let­ter to zon­ing com­mis­sion Chair­man Craig San­den that com­mis­sion mem­bers Ge­orge Clos­son and Bar­bara Wilkes should have re­cused them­selves from the vote on the well­ness cen­ter’s ap­pli­ca­tion, be­cause both pre­vi­ously served as mem­bers of the Winsted Health Cen­ter Board of Direc­tors.

This, Wil­liams said, vi­o­lates Con­necti­cut Gen­eral Statue 8-11, which reads, in part, that “(n)o mem­ber of any zon­ing com­mis­sion ... shall par­tic­i­pate in the hear­ing or de­ci­sion of the board or com­mis­sion of which he is a mem­ber upon any matter in which he is di­rectly or in­di­rectly in­ter­ested in a per­sonal or fi­nan­cial sense,” as well as the Town Char­ter.

Clos­son, ac­cord­ing to the let­ter, is a cur­rent mem­ber of the Winsted Health Cen­ter Board of Di-

rec­tors.

He is listed as a di­rec­tor of the non­profit in­sti­tu­tion in its 2014 Form 990, which in­come tax-ex­empt or­ga­ni­za­tions file an­nu­ally with the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice.

“Clos­son must have known that his vote could fi­nan­cially ben­e­fit or harm Winsted Health Cen­ter, and he there­fore had a clear con­flict of in­ter­est,” wrote Wil­liams. “He should have dis­closed his con­flict on the record and re­cused him­self, but he did nei­ther.”

Clos­son did not im­me­di­ately re­turn calls seek­ing com­ment Wed­nes­day.

Dur­ing his com­ments at the hear­ing, he voiced a de­sire to keep the down­town de­voted to re­tail space. He said the pro­posal was “not in har­mony with the re­tail en­vi­ron­ment” down­town and that it was not a suit­able lo­ca­tion.

Wilkes said Wed­nes­day that her vote against the ap­pli­ca­tion was based on lan­guage in­cluded in the town Plan of Con­ser­va­tion and De­vel­op­ment, and on past stud­ies in­di­cat­ing that re­tail space was needed in the down­town.

She has not been a mem­ber of the Winsted Health Cen­ter board for a num­ber of years, she said. “There is no con­flict of in­ter­est,” said Wilkes.

Both Clos­son and Wilkes, in Wil­liams’ let­ter, are said to have demon­strated that they “pos­sessed a bias against the ap­pli­ca­tion and had pre­de­ter­mined to vote against it” be­fore the pub­lic hear­ing.

Wil­liams also claims that al­ter­nate mem­ber Lee Thom­sen, who dis­cussed, but did not vote on, the ap­pli­ca­tion, should have re­cused him­self be­cause he has a re­la­tion­ship with Char­lene LaVoie, listed as the “agent” of the health cen­ter on the Sec­re­tary of the State web­site.

The at­tor­ney also crit­i­cized LaVoie.

“Ms. LaVoie ex­plained that if health­care be­gins to be frit­tered and dis­bursed through­out the com­mu­nity, and the Spencer Street fa­cil­ity is lost, it will be the end of emer­gency care and LifeS­tar ser­vices in the area,” the March 27 min­utes read.

Wil­liams in­cluded a por­tion of those min­utes in his let­ter.

In a phone in­ter­view Wed­nes­day, LaVoie said “I have not see the at­tor­ney’s let­ter, but so what?”

“The com­mis­sion didn’t use any tes­ti­mony on their de­ci­sion and they cer­tainly didn’t say any­thing about the Winsted Health Cen­ter,” she said. “The Plan­ning and Zon­ing Com­mis­sion’s de­ci­sion is the law. As far as my tes­ti­mony goes, I have a First Amend­ment right to say any­thing I want at the pub­lic hear­ing. Whether it’s rel­e­vant or not is for the com­mis­sion to de­cide; just like ev­ery­one else who tes­ti­fied had a right, who said things that weren’t rel­e­vant at all.”

In min­utes of the March 27 meet­ing of the board, LaVoie tes­ti­fied against the ap­pli­ca­tion.

Re­quir­ing Com­mu­nity Health & Well­ness to stay at Spencer Street, Wil­liams wrote, would prompt the group to in­vest $1 mil­lion in grant fund­ing into their cur­rent lo­ca­tion. Much of the ben­e­fit of this in­vest­ment, Wil­liams wrote, would be owned by the Winsted Health Cen­ter at the end of the well­ness cen­ter’s lease.

Com­mis­sion mem­ber Arthur Me­ly­cher is also listed as a past mem­ber of the Winsted Health Cen­ter Board of Direc­tors in its 2009 Form 990, along with Wilkes.

Wil­liams does not sug­gest that Me­ly­cher had a con­flict of in­ter­est in his vote as part of the let­ter, but claims that he was likely in­flu­enced by Clos­son’s ar­gu­ment, not­ing their com­mon party af­fil­i­a­tion.

Me­ly­cher said he is a for­mer mem­ber of the health cen­ter’s Board of Direc­tors, but that he did not con­sider whether that would rep­re­sent a con­flict of in­ter­est. If he had a mon­e­tary in­ter­est in the matter, Me­ly­cher said, it would rep­re­sent a con­flict of in­ter­est, but he does not. The let­ter, he said, would not sway his opin­ion. “It’s not go­ing to change my vote,” he said.

San­den said Wed­nes­day that he had re­ceived a copy of the let­ter, and that it had been dis­trib­uted to board mem­bers.

A fu­ture course of ac­tion, he said, would be based on the opin­ion of Town At­tor­ney Kevin Nel­li­gan. He de­clined to com­ment on the al­le­ga­tions made by Wil­liams at this time.

LaVoie called the let­ter and the at­tor­ney’s claims “a stretch.”

“This is a stretch — to try to deny cit­i­zens the right to speak in front of a pub­lic body,” she said. “This is an in­tim­i­da­tion tac­tic, which chills free speech be­fore gov­ern­ment en­ti­ties. Speak­ing at a hear­ing is ev­ery Amer­i­can’s First Amend­ment right.”

Wil­liams sug­gested that San­den strike Clos­son’s and Wilkes’ votes from the record, which would prompt the ap­pli­ca­tion to be ap­proved by a 2-1 mar­gin, with San­den and com­mis­sion mem­ber Jerry Martinez in fa­vor and Me­ly­cher against, or al­low those three mem­bers to vote again on April 24.

“Clearly a se­ri­ous le­gal er­ror has oc­curred,” Wil­liams wrote. “We strongly en­cour­age you to con­sult with your town at­tor­ney to eval­u­ate ac­tions your Com­mis­sion can take to cor­rect this er­ror be­fore CHWC (Com­mu­nity Health & Well­ness) must de­cide to bring le­gal ac­tion against the Town of Winchester.”

A cor­rec­tion to the com­mis­sion’s vote, Wil­liams wrote, is re­quired.

“Timely adop­tion of ap­pro­pri­ate cor­rec­tive ac­tion is re­quired to rem­edy a grave er­ror and re­store the pub­lic’s con­fi­dence in the in­tegrity of the Com­mis­sion’s de­ci­sions,” wrote Wil­liams. “We hope that you will make the right de­ci­sion.”

The com­mis­sion voted 3-2 to re­ject an ap­pli­ca­tion for a spe­cial per­mit by Com­mu­nity Health & Well­ness of Greater Tor­ring­ton on April 10, which would have al­lowed the group to move into the Winsted Su­per Saver space on Main Street.

John Dwan, owner of the Su­per Saver, plans to re­tire and close the busi­ness af­ter more than 30 years.

Last Satur­day, a group met at the com­mu­nity book­store in Winsted to dis­cuss open­ing a co-op gro­cery store in the Su­per Saver. Dwan first broached the sub­ject of open­ing a coop, with hopes of keep­ing a gro­cery store down­town af­ter he was un­able to find a com­pany to pur­chase the prop­erty.

Com­mu­nity Health & Well­ness Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer Joanne Bor­daus did not re­turn a mes­sage Wed­nes­day.

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