John McCarthy: Baron’s South, Consultants And Ethics

Today, RTM district 9 member John McCarthy sent this letter to the Board of Finance:

The recommendation of the Baron’s South Committee to negotiate a lease with the Rose Group for the development of Baron’s South brings up serious issues of ethics which I believe need to be addressed before you take any additional steps.

As the facts clearly show, a consultant who actively worked for the town to shape the zoning and limit the future use of Baron’s South is a member of the Rose Group’s winning proposal for use of Baron’s South.   I believe that this type of behavior clearly violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the State of Connecticut Ethics codes, specifically the code’s discussion of “Side Switching”:

“A former state official or employee may never represent anyone other than the state regarding a particular matter in which he or she was personally or substantially involved while in state service and in which the state has a substantial interest. This prevents side-switching. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 1-84b (a).” Page 8 under Lifetime Ban

Part of the Baron’s South land.

I acknowledge that this state statute does not apply to Westport. But applying this concept, which seems to me to be a bedrock principle of  government ethics,  to Westport and its officials, employees and consultants, I believe that the Baron’s South Committee should not have considered the Rose Group proposal without first publicly disclosing that there was potential conflict of interest, and getting and publicizing an opinion from an independent ethics committee.

A few questions which could have been addressed by such an independent ethics committee include:

  • Could the participation of this Consultant as a member of the Rose Group team have deterred other potential bidders from submitting a proposal?  Was this a reason why only 3 bids were received from the 30 bid packages requested?
  • Was the Consultant chosen by the Rose Group because of benefits it expected to derive from the Consultant’s  material involvement in setting the explicit direction for the development of Baron’s South?
  • Was the Consultant chosen by the Rose Group because of benefits it expected to derive from the Consultant’s ongoing relationship with members of town government and member’s of the Baron’s South Committee?
  • What ongoing activities does this Consultant have with the Town of Westport and should they have been publicly disclosed by the Baron’s South Committee? (Note that this Consultant has been publicly identified as being a Consultant to the Westport Housing Authority for an unrelated project as recently as last month.)
  • Could the participation of this Consultant as a member of the Rose Group proposal been expected to  create the appearance of a conflict of interest which could harm the public’s perception of the fairness of the bidding process?

The entrance to the Baron’s South property.

As a body, should you continue to discuss and consider the Rose Group bid, I believe you will be sending the deliberate message that this is acceptable ethical behavior for dealings with the Town of Westport.  As a citizen and elected member of the RTM I believe that this message will not be well received by the citizens of Westport, and will have a very negative impact on the overall level of trust people have in our town’s governmental process.

In order to maintain the public’s trust, I believe you should tell the Baron’s South Committee that you will not discuss any proposal for Baron’s South at this time.

I would personally like to see any future discussion and process related to the use of Baron’s South be done through a special  committee made up of the 1st Selectman and elected members of the BOF, P&Z and RTM. But this should be addressed at a later date.

29 responses to “John McCarthy: Baron’s South, Consultants And Ethics

  1. Good move!

    Strong letter to follow?

  2. A. David Wunsch

    Excellent work, Dan.

  3. Bart Shuldman

    John. Can I share your letter with others?

  4. Well said, Mr. McCarthy! Thanks for writing this letter. You’ve nailed it.

  5. I don’t know all of the facts here but, if John’s description of what transpired is accurate, the town of Westport has a real problem that needs to be addressed–and I’m not simply talking about the specifics of this situation. I say this as an attorney who worked in NYC government for a number of years and was governed by a very strict code of ethics.

    If Westport does not have conflict-of-interest guidelines and rules governing this type of situation, it should have–if for no other reason than to make sure there are no appearance-of-impropriety issues.

    Furthermore, I guess I would like to know why was an outside consultant hired in the first place for this project? The town of Westport has two full-time land-use experts in its planning department, not to mention an outside/town attorney with land-use expertise whom the town retains for significant legal work. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have long known the outside/town attorney and went to law school with him.)

    Looking at a somewhat comparable scenario, would anyone think it’s OK for this outside/town attorney to represent the Rose Group after first advising the town on the project?

    Again, I am writing this on the premise that John McCarthy has described the scenario accurately. If so, this project should be scrutinized right away before anything is finalized and, more importantly, there need to be some kind of conflict-of-interest rules if the town has none in place.

    • Fred, I don’t think this Consultant was ever hired or paid by the town. He was working on a pro bono basis as I understand it. I don’t believe my conclusions are dependent on whether the work was done as a volunteer consultant or as a paid consultant. Especially as our town government is so dependent on volunteers. Others may disagree.

    • John McCarthy

      Fred, I don’t think this Consultant was ever hired or paid by the town. He was working on a pro bono basis as I understand it. I don’t believe my conclusions are dependent on whether the work was done as a volunteer consultant or as a paid consultant. Especially as our town government is so dependent on volunteers. Others may disagree.

      • Yes, John, potential conflict issues remain in my opinion even if a consultant works with the town on a volunteer basis on structuring some kind of zoning change or a related matter pertaining to a property and then works with a developer in making a bid for that property. Obviously it depends on the facts of a given situation but, the bottom line is, if there are no guidelines/rules currently in place, there should be some implemented.

    • And if your premise is wrong, and the described scenario is not accurate, what does that say?

  6. This process and project is now tainted. This in addition to having the entire project rammed down our throats.

  7. Ethics not only involves how things are, but how they appear. As my former administrator used to say, “Things not only have to be right, they have to look right.” When POSSIBLE conflicts of interest are addressed up front, the appearance of impropriety is avoided.

  8. I learned a great deal about Westport’s town government while serving on the BOE. I know this to be true…John McCarthy is a smart guy who does his homework. I trust his judgement.

    • …for example, how many former BOE chairs now work for the BOE?

    • John McCarthy

      Don, I appreciate your kind words, but this really didn’t require too much homework; the facts are in broad daylight.

  9. It’s no secret that the best way to win municipal RFP’s is to influence the design of the RFP to your favor. Not sure if that’s what happened with the outside consultant in this case, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t. It could be that more firms didn’t even bid because they knew the RFP process basically predetermined who would win. While it’s probably not illegal, it’s certainly unethical or naive for the town to allow an outside consultant to provide so much “free” RFP advice (the town would be been better served paying a consultant).

  10. John McCarthy

    JD,
    too many people fall back on the “it’s probably not illegal” defense to excuse this type of behavior. Which as we know is one of the many vestiges of scoundrels and one of the last steps on a very dangerous path. Many, many elected officials have know about this and have said nothing. They all agree that “it looks bad” but that’s about all I get from my fellow RTM members and none of them have said anything publicly. Either because they were afraid of hurting their “political careers” in town, they were afraid of repercussions or they support seniors and see this as a case where “the ends justifies the means.” And of course, the ever popular “This may come before the RTM some day and I can’t prejudice my vote.” That is actually the real story here. And this is not how I want MY town run. We can and must do much better.

    Is it time to have us all sit down for a review of “Ethics 101, A Basic Review of Good vs. Bad?”

    Not sure how much of this rant is related to how poorly the Yankees are doing right now; probably just a little.

  11. I totally agree with you, John. While the BS committee may have been naive to take input from the outside consultant, town officials who have any potential say in the matter are behaving unethically if they turn a blind eye to this situation.

    I hope you keep up the pressure even if the Yankees win it all this year.

  12. Time to start laughing at the lame excuses that will follow…
    Naive, pro bono, no contact, well intentioned, didn’t realize, no ethical guidelines, reviewed by Town Attorney, followed the regulations/RFP/guidance/rules of someone/something.
    It’s a DUCK!

  13. The appearance of a conflict of interest is really just as bad as a conflict itself. The waters of Baron’s South are so muddied now, I think it’s hard to believe any of its proponents. That’s what comes from closed door meetings and pro bono consultants who turn up in the winning bid.

    How ironic is it that Westport is so eager to avoid an 83O-g developer coming to Westport that we’re now giving away our own $29M property to an 83O-g developer? Go figure.

  14. One additional conflict – among the many great comments above is that the town/facility CAN NOT name one “health care provider” for any facility. The JHE CAN NOT be a sole health care provider for residents of this building – even if the builders deem it to be so. It is a free world and ANY HOME HEALTH CARE COMPANY CAN PROVIDE SERVICES TO ANYONE no matter where they live.

  15. Again, I ask…where is the overall community support for this proposal? Only, but, a few really think this is a great use of this property. Most everyone I have spoken with seemed challenged to support such a proposal and many are convinced that a masterplan for the property, with public input, is the right approach. Why is this administration challenged to embrace this concept?

  16. Mary Ruggiero

    It’s called the legacy factor – the previous administration was similarly afflicted with building the senior center and removing BS (and Winslow) from the Y’s potential use. And (although the senior Center is a worthy use somewhere) it’s not too far to look back and see where that plan got us.

    • This is exactly why such a piecemeal approach to any land use matter is all wrong. It’s been Westport’s chronic problem for decades – no real planning and rushing to get one’s legacy built at any cost – and why we’re stuck with such a hodgepodge of buildings and uses all over town.

      Can we actually get a professional town planner in… besides Rick Redniss?! The 2OO1 Downtown Plan created by pre-eminent planners Buckhurst, Fish & Jacquemart was terrific and made perfect sense… which is, of course, why it never came to fruition. Westport keeps spending a lot of money on professional planners, and then leaves the actual planning and creation of its town projects to amateurs and appointed committees. Crazy.

      • A plan merely reflects the biases of the planner and his/her sponsors. We are better off with no plan than we are with a plan that caters to the narrow interests of those who support any given plan. What we are seeing now is not the result of a lack of plan, but the result of the triumph special interests, the same sort of special interests that would drive the formulation of a “plan.”

  17. A professional town planner typically takes all interests and all the stakeholders into account. A good plan should reflect what makes the most sense given the space, needs, traffic patterns, transportation, uses, green areas, etc. But it needs to be undertaken in toto and not in bits and pieces like Westport is so famous for. It’s called a master plan… and they work.

    • That makes absolutely no sense. “takes all interests into account”, really, and then what? The planner and his toadies choose the interests they want to serve. No plan serves all interests. Master plans “work” for those who draw up the master plan.