The board held its second regular February meeting as a full Zoom session due to the snowy weather. The board approved the minutes of the Feb. 4, meeting and approved five tax refunds as recommended by Krista Kot, tax collector.
Resignations and Appointments
The board acted on several resignations from and appointments to boards and commissions. Lisa Keane resigned from the South Park Avenue Advisory Committee because her family is moving out of town. Although officially received two weeks ago, the board was formally advised of the resignation of Tara Donnelly Gottlieb from her alternate seat on the Board of Finance.
The board considered two well-qualified applicants for an open alternate seat on the Easton Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. The board appointed Hilary Desmond to the seat which runs until Jan. 2, 2022. The board also considered two outstanding candidates for the alternate seat on the Board of Finance created by the Gottlieb resignation. After spirited debate, the board voted two to one to appoint Ira Kaplan to the seat which runs until Jan. 2, 2027.
The board also was advised of the resignation of the assistant tax assessor, Launa Riley. This is a paid town employee position and the opening will be advertised soon.
The board is considering holding a Town Meeting on March 15 at 7:30 p.m. with any votes adjourned to a machine vote referendum to be held at Samuel Staples Elementary School on March 23 from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. There are a number of items that need to be addressed by the Town Meeting before the final budget for the coming fiscal year is approved.
Given that budget season for the Board of Finance begins in earnest on March 2, time is somewhat of the essence for these matters. The issues that need to be resolved at a town meeting are 1) whether to join the Westport Weston Health District, 2) whether to approve funding to purchase body cameras for the Police Department, 3) whether to approve a new senior tax relief ordinance and, 4) whether to approve the stipend program for the volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel.
The major concern regarding holding a Town Meeting at this time is, of course, the pandemic and how to accommodate voter participation in a safe manner. While the governor anticipates allowing gatherings of up to 100 people as of March 19, it is not clear the town has a location with the appropriate capacity limits and ability to maintain social distancing limitations regardless of the expanded number of people allowed at gatherings.
Accordingly, the board will consider whether to hold the meeting as a full in-person session, a full Zoom session or some type of hybrid session. There are questions about whether rules implemented by the governor for the pandemic apply to government meetings such as this planned Town Meeting and referendum. A final decision by the board will be made at its March 4 meeting.
Selectwoman Kristi Sogofsky suggested adding to the Town Meeting agenda reconsideration of the resolution unanimously adopted by the Board of Selectmen last year declaring racism to be a public health crisis.
Second South Park Avenue Bridge Repair/Replacement
First Selectman David Bindelglass notified the board that bids for the second South Park Avenue bridge repair/replacement have been prepared and will be formally opened on March 10. The expectation is that the work will be completed before next winter so there will not be a work stoppage during the cold weather season. This is the bridge south of Buck Hill Road on South Park Avenue.
Dispute Concerning First South Park Avenue Bridge
The first selectman informed the board that the dispute concerning the first bridge repair/replacement job will go to arbitration at a session scheduled for Feb. 24.
Lawsuit Claiming FOIA Violation
The board authorized the hiring of the law firm of Berchem and Moses to represent the town, the South Park Advisory Committee, and the chair of the committee in an action brought by Christopher Michos, claiming a violation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) rules. The claim concerns the committee’s decision to honor the request of a potential buyer/tenant not to disclose their identity or the contents of the letter describing the proposal at this time.
General Wage Increase
After some discussion, the board adopted a 3% general wage increase for non-union employees and elected officials of the town for the next fiscal year.
The first selectman reported that Covid 19 numbers for the town and state are moving in a good direction now. The vaccination process is going reasonably well. He is pleased with progress toward normalcy at the schools, the senior center and the library. Meetings are being held now to consider how to move to reopen the town hall. Employees will soon begin to work full time in Town Hall rather than from home.
The board heard public comment at the beginning and the end of the meeting as is our custom. The following is a summary of the comments received.
Jeff Becker expressed dissatisfaction with the tree work being done by the utility company. He complained that workers seem to spend too much time not actually cutting down trees and limbs. He said some of the workers have been rude and look like members of the Proud Boys. He suggested that town meetings might be held outside or votes held on a Saturday in order to increase participation and avoid the pitfalls of a Zoom town meeting. He reminded everyone that before anything is built on the South Park Avenue property, approval from the gas company will be needed because of the presence of a major gas line through the middle of the property. Finally, he said he is pleased with the Board of Selectmen’s habit of allowing more open public comment and said that open civil dialogue is a good thing.
Sherry Harris said that all public meetings should now be in person and open to the public to attend in person. She noted the governor’s plan to allow up to 100 people at meetings is beginning soon. She suggested that, although somewhat inconvenient, a Town Meeting could be held at the Joel Barlow High School auditorium which can hold 500 people, intimating that attendees could more easily spread out. She urged the board not to have a Zoom or hybrid Town Meeting. Moreover, she urged the board to push for more opening of the town in general. She cited Florida and South Dakota as places that did not crush their economy and are doing okay in terms of the pandemic.
Harris described Governor Ned Lamont as a dictator or as dictatorial several times in terms of his approach to handling the pandemic — a three-week shutdown has become one year. She also said the resolution declaring racism to be a public health crisis was ill advised. She realizes not only Easton adopted the resolution which she said was written by a group out of Hartford. She said we should pull it back and re-think it. She fears what is being taught in schools as a result of this resolution. She says that as a Christian she never wants anyone to die, but George Floyd was a criminal. She urges the board to check out “critical race theory” as a basis for the highly unfortunate racism resolution.
June Logie agrees with the speakers who object to a Zoom town meeting. She thinks the governor’s order 7B does not apply to the Town Meeting since the legislative body of the town is not a governmental agency. She detailed the problems she sees with using Zoom to conduct a town meeting. She feels we should wait until the spring to hold a Town Meeting in the hope that the pandemic numbers will have declined enough and vaccination rates will have increased enough to permit more opening up as a consequence of decreasing positivity rates.
Logie suggested the FOIA complaint regarding the South Park Avenue Committee could go to mediation and this might save the town some money in defending the action. She challenged the first selectman’s statement that there had been two public hearings on the question of joining the Westport Weston Health District. She says that there is a distinction between an annual Town Meeting versus a special Town Meeting versus a regular Town Meeting and different rules apply. In response, the selectmen pointed out that there are only two types of Town Meetings — annual and special — and that special Town Meetings are not the same thing as special meetings of standing boards and commissions. She thanked the board for allowing open dialogue at its meetings and for allowing the public to speak.
Wendy Bowditch pointed out that holding a referendum on a Saturday would avoid any concerns about interfering with school. A Saturday vote might reduce the costs and the number of hours for voting.
You can watch the video of the Feb. 18 Board of Selectmen meeting here.