Lawyer: P&Z members voted improperly
Board rejected plan to install health center on Main Street
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-
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.