Updated: Oct 6, 2021
What has happened since 2009?
In November, 2009, for the first time in Watertown’s history, the voters elected three Independents to serve on the Town Council and one Independent to the Board of Education. The Republicans won the majority, and the Independents won all the minority seats. No Democrats were elected.
Because the Independents did not have the majority on the Town Council, we could not make the changes we had planned. The Town Council continued business as usual. Our power was limited further the following January when the Republicans refused to recognize us as the minority party and gave all our appointments on Boards and Commissions to the Democrats.
Over the years there have been many conflicts of interest issues with members of P&Z. A Town Council member was trying to sell his property for retail development when it was not zoned for retail. His son-in-law was on Planning and Zoning. A realtor, on Planning and Zoning, represented a third party before Planning & Zoning, in violation of state statute. Another P&Z Commissioner developed 2 subdivisions while serving on P&Z. While Independent Party members brought these issues to the Town Council, they refused to exercise their responsibility to oversee boards and commissions and did nothing.
Rather than address the problems with P&Z, in June 2009, the Town Council voted to pass a regulation to make it extremely difficult for citizens to file a complaint against P&Z (and only P&Z) and to make it almost impossible to remove a P&Z commissioner from office.
We did not win any seats on the Town Council in the 2011 election.The voters had expected us to make changes without winning the majority. We realized that Watertown voters leaned Republican, and it was highly unlikely that we would ever receive a majority on the Town Council. Our focus needed to change. We could not make changes from the inside, but we could be watchdogs and push for changes by alerting citizens and putting the spotlight on issues.
Since 2011, the Independents and their supporters, as private citizens, attended more Town Council and Commission meetings than members of any other political party. We observed what worked and what didn’t work. We challenged inappropriate actions at Town meetings and publicized what we saw in letters to the editor, flyers, and in discussions with citizens. Whenever citizen rights and Town government performance came into conflict, Independents offered their expertise and advice to the citizen on actions they could take. This continues today.
Some of the issues that we focused on were:
P&Z seemingly approved applications from political “insiders”, regardless of the impact to the Town.
In 2009, the process was started to approve a medical building for a political insider. A fast approval could be achieved by adding medical facilities to the permitted uses in the business park, but P&Z stalled the process. They used the medical building as a tool to bring retail into the business park, even though there was overwhelming evidence that retail is not a compatible use for the area. Several former P&Z Chairmen who were Independent Party supporters paid $500 to file an application to add medical to the permitted uses in the entire business park. The Chairman of P&Z refused to consider this application. Instead, he processed an alternate proposal submitted by friends and waived their application fee. This allowed them to have a monopoly for free.
In 2011, P&Z wanted to create the medical zone without requiring any studies or even a standard application fee. Then they asked the taxpayers to fund studies to help the developers market their properties. We publicized this for the voters.
On Falls Avenue, businesses abutting residences were allowed to change their zone to industrial from residential. At the Falls Avenue hearing, evidence was presented from the Town Assessor that the resident’s property values would be negatively impacted. Nevertheless, the P&Z Chairman said he was disregarding the evidence from our Town’s expert because she did not appear in person at the hearing. We worked with the Falls Avenue residents and attended the hearings. Ultimately, the Falls Avenue residents were unable to raise the funds to file a lawsuit against P&Z.
Transition zones ensured that businesses that looked like homes would be built as buffers between areas zoned residential and areas zoned for business. A decade ago, P&Z eliminated all transition zones. We opposed the change and publicized the problems this change would cause. P&Z ignored us, and because of their change, there are more conflicts over issues like the Shaker car dealership which was to be located in what was a transition zone.
It was apparent that in some instances, public officials were supporting developments that would cost the Town more than we would receive in taxes. We decided there was a need to educate people about fiscally responsible development, which we call, Smart Development. In 2011, we organized a symposium where the State Economist explained the types of developments that provide a financial benefit to Towns and the ones that take more resources than they pay for. No elected or appointed officials chose to attend
Many Planning and Zoning decisions ignored the evidence and the experts. “Outsiders” were prevented from developing their property as it was zoned. Citizens were forced to sue the Town to get fair treatment. Even though the courts presume the Commission is acting within its authority, by 2011, the Town lost three consecutive lawsuits against P&Z. We publicized the actions of P&Z and Town monies wasted defending P&Z’s improper actions.
In 2012, a businessman filed an abuse of power complaint against the Chairman of Planning and Zoning, and the Council was forced to remove the Chairman. Thankfully, this was possible because of a 2010 modification to the Charter that was proposed by the Independent Party’s nominee to the Charter Revision Committee, Rachel Ryan.
Over the years, P&Z harmed many residential property owners by allowing business to be put in residential areas. The residents who could afford it, sued the Town. Many of them endorsed the Independent Party after being harmed by P&Z and finding no help from the Town.
In 2015 when Hawk Ridge Winery was being built, we alerted P&Z and the neighbors that what was being proposed would not provide adequate controls on the number of events, music, and hours of operation. We suggested approving the winery under special permit where limits could be easily set and enforced. P&Z ignored our suggestion. The neighbors were unable to raise the funds for a lawsuit, and are currently having noise issues with the winery.
When Starbucks was proposed, we alerted P&Z to the traffic problems a drive though would cause on the Main St location. Despite our warnings P&Z approved the drive through anyway, resulting in traffic issues frequently requiring police support.
In 2019, P&Z passed B-O zoning regulations for a business area on Main St which abutted a residential zone. These changes were proposed by a citizen, who an insider. The Town elected to take over the applicant’s petition, eliminating the applicant’s need to comply with the requirement of identifying and addressing the environmental impacts concerns. The neighboring property owner’s concerns could be ignored.We surfaced the problems this would cause and publicized the issues, including the lack of standards for setbacks, building heights, and pavement. Instead, this was left to “commission discretion.
Shaker car dealership:
A few years ago, in order to approve a car dealership on an unsuitable lot, P&Z rewrote their new regulations to allow smaller lot sizes by special permit, changed a residential zone to shopping center, and approved a car dealership on 3 acres instead of the 5 acres required under their regulations.
Independent Party members informed the neighbors about the proposed change and attended the hearings. Residents were concerned about what this would do to the value of their homes.
While the application was under consideration, the Planning and Zoning Chairman, who was also Chairman of the Republican Town Committee, was found to be collecting petition signatures in favor of the Shaker application. This was clearly a violation of his duty to remain impartial.
Independent Party supporters formed the Backyard Preservation Coalition to collect signatures on a petition objecting to the change and raise funds to sue the Planning & Zoning Commission. The people who lived in the immediate area of the car dealership filed suit against P&Z because their property values would be harmed by P&Z’s actions. More than 50 Watertown citizens financed the lawsuit.
State law requires that the property of those bringing the suit (plaintiffs) must be within 100 feet of the disputed decision. The people who brought the suit lived in the neighborhood but were more than 100 feet away.
Unfortunately, our state laws assume that Boards and Commissions act appropriately. They assume that the Town Council will police their Boards and Commissions to ensure we are protected. When this does not happen, the system fails. There is no oversight or policing by the state. The only option that citizens have is to use their own money to file a lawsuit.
The applicant ultimately decided not to build the car dealership
The Town Ethics Ordinance had serious flaws. For example, a Town Official decides for himself whether he has a conflict and whether he will vote on an issue. In addition, we are the only Town in the state where ethics complaints go to a subcommittee of the Town Council for resolution. Since the Council appoints the people with the conflicts, the Council has never found a conflict of interest. Realizing our ordinance was inadequate, in 2015 members of the Independent Party researched best practices in other communities and rewrote our Ethics Ordinance. We proposed that ethics complaints be reviewed by an impartial panel (not the Town Council), that candidates must tell the Town Council about their background and potential conflicts of interest BEFORE they are appointed to boards and commissions (as opposed to the current process where the Town Council can claim they had no idea), and that members of boards and commissions must certify annually that they are complying with the Code of Ethics (as opposed to not knowing about non-compliance until there is a complaint). We petitioned the Town Council to adopt the new ordinance. They refused. Instead, in 2017, they made a few minor changes to the existing Ethics Ordinance that never addressed the identified problems.
In 2015, members/supporters of the Independent Party questioned the actions of the Chairman of P&Z. He voted to approve zoning applications then was hired to build those buildings. He ultimately resigned after this became public.
Of the 34 appointments the Town Council made to boards and commissions in January, 2018, only two were new appointees. Approximately 70% of the appointments were husbands and wives or a relative of a Town employee. Many of them serve on more than one commission. While it was pointed out that one P&Z appointee had a conflict with a business he has in town, no one cared. The appointees were not voted on individually, but presented as one “take it or leave it “package of 34. 47% of the voters, the unaffiliated who are not members of the 2 primary parties, are excluded from serving on boards and commissions by the major parties.
A few years ago, the Town paid $41,000 to Hartford so they could hire the wife of the Republican Town Committee Chairman as a Police Officer. The police union spoke out against this hire, but it was approved anyway to please a Republican friend. This officer was subsequently suspended for 5 days for a serious violation of police policy just before the probationary period ended, but the problem was not discovered until the probationary period was over.
Several years ago, when the Fire Marshall position was open, former Fire Chief/Fire Marshal Larry Black asked the Town Council to keep politics out of the hiring for the position. He asked that his Deputy Fire Marshal be immediately awarded the job. She had impeccable credentials, and had been our Deputy Fire Marshal since 2014. The Council decided to ignore his request, and formed a search committee to fill the position. They had hoped to put a crony in this position, but the Ethics Ordinance stopped them. The Deputy was finally awarded the position, but at a below average salary. Since then, the Town Council weakened the Ethics Ordinance to facilitate cronyism.
The Watertown Housing Authority demonstrated questionable ethics. This was disclosed to the public in letters to the editor by Independent Party supporters:
On 3/13/19, the Watertown Housing Commission, which was then chaired by our current Town Manager, adopted a procurement policy that conformed with state statutes, requiring competitive bids for professional services.
On 10/30/20, the WHA Chairman and the Commission fired all the WHA employees and hired Propertyworx, owned by the son of one of the WHA Chairman’s friends on P&Z, where the WHA Chairman was P&Z’s Vice Chairman, as the WHA property manager. He did not use the approved competitive bid process. All this occurred without any oversight from the Town Council.
On 10/30/20, the WHA attorney contacted the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority about the improper procurement of Propertyworx management company. After CHFA told them that their actions were improper, the newly hired Town Manager quickly and quietly changed Propertyworx to “interim” manager.
Shortly after starting his Town Manager job on November 2, the newly hired Town Manager advertised for bids for the permanent WHA property manager. The advertisement did not state the number of hours the company was required to be on site, but included unnecessary requirements that kept qualified businesses from bidding.
While the “interim “company was working on receiving approvals and learning the job, an already approved and experienced company submitted a lower bid (by $10,000) to perform that management function. Even though the Town Manager had resigned from the Housing Authority, he participated in the 2/10/21 meeting where the bids were opened. The commission hired Propertyworx in spite of the additional cost.
In 2013, both the Town Manager and the Finance Director expressed concern that the Town’s General Fund balance was dangerously low. This impacts our bond rating. Rather than explaining the budget numbers to residents, the Council indiscriminately made cuts or used questionable methods to reach a budget number they perceive to be “acceptable” to the voters. This budgeting practice continues today.
From 2015 to 2019, the Town deliberately underfunded medical expenses in the budget to keep the tax rate low. When their budgeted amount proved to be deficient, they claimed they were “surprised” and “forced” to take millions to cover the deficit from the General Fund without voter approval, which is required for withdrawals exceeding $25,000. They did this for a number of years, blaming “the actuaries” for the underfunding. The Town’s insurance broker explained that the Town had had never asked for an actuarial review, but the brokers had advised the Town Council that the budgeted amounts were deficient. It was the Town and the Board of Education who decided to underfund the medical expenses. While the General Fund is supposed to be 7-12% of our budget, during this period, the fund balance was as low as 1.38% of the budget. Even though the Town Charter requires the Council to replenish withdrawals drawn from the General Fund in the following year, the Council neglected their responsibility to do this. We exposed this deception and poor budgeting in letters to the editor and in Town Council meetings.
Construction of the Town Hall:
Audio Visual equipment was included in the original bonding for the Town Hall. In February, 2021, the Town Council appropriated $56,000 in AV equipment for the Town Hall. When questioned about why monies were being spent on AV equipment when the AV equipment cost was part of the original amount bonded, we were told that the AV funds had been removed from the original amount bonded. We were unable to locate any meeting where this occurred. It is unclear what happened to original AV funds included in the Town Hall bonding.
During construction, the Town Council Chairman requested that a newly built wall, including pipes and wiring, be torn out and rebuilt. He was concerned that a room planned and built for the Republicans to caucus (meet) was too small. This request was unanimously turned down by the Public Building Committee, but the Town Council Chairman had the Council vote to approve the expense anyway. The total cost was $25,000, and we were to spilt the charge with the contractor.
The Town Attorney:
Watertown’s Town attorney is a political appointee who is an active member of the Republican Town Committee. We believe a Town attorney should be an impartial person who represents the best interests of the Town, rather than the interests of the Republicans. In our revised Ethics Ordinance, we proposed that the Town Attorney live out of Town. The current system has caused a number of problems, including the following:
When the Town Council received 311 requests which call for the Town Council to investigate something, they have passed these requests on to the Town Attorney, costing the citizens thousands of dollars and increasing an insider’s billable hours.
When a Republican citizen sought out advice from the Town Attorney regarding his ineligibility to apply for a Town position, the Town Attorney billed the Town and was paid by the Town for this private citizen’s consultation time with him.
The Town Attorney’s clients have been on opposite sides of citizen complaints. Most recently, the Town Attorney is representing Hawk Ridge Winery in their application to obtain a liquor license while advising the Town on the noise ordinance which goes against the interests of Hawk Ridge. After this conflict was made public, the Town Attorney recused himself from representing the Town on the noise ordinance, forcing the Town to hire another attorney to advise them on the noise ordinance.
In 2017, we attempted to inform the public of the upcoming election by holding a forum where the public could ask questions of all the candidates of all parties who were running for Town Council. While the other parties were invited, despite numerous follow-ups, they did not respond and did not attend. Members of the public were disappointed. Nevertheless, the event was held, informative, filmed, and shown on TV.
In 2017, we participated in the development of the Plan of Conservation and Development which serves as a plan for the Town. We publicized the process and encouraged citizen participation because the Planning and Zoning Commission was allowing businesses to encroach into residential zones.