“Conflict Of Interest” Charge Roils Baron’s South Debate

As the RTM prepares to vote this Tuesday (April 28, 7 p.m., Town Hall auditorium) on whether to overturn the Planning & Zoning Commission’s decision to designate the Baron’s South property as protected open space, legislators have another issue to contend with.

Westport resident Valerie Seiling Jacobs sent this “open letter” to all RTM members:

As many of you know, I have been opposed to the proposed senior housing project on Baron’s South for many years. My view has long been that the deal proposed by The Jonathan Rose Companies was unfair to taxpayers since the town will get too little in return for donating such a valuable asset. And it has always puzzled me that Ken Bernhard, who co-chaired the Baron’s South Committee and is one of the project’s prime cheerleaders, seemed so determined to push ahead with the project—even in the face of growing evidence that the project was seriously flawed and could not meet the town’s needs.

I learned today [Friday] that Mr. Bernhard has multiple conflicts of interest that were never disclosed. First, Cohen & Wolf, the law firm in which he is a principal, is counsel to the Jewish Home of Fairfield, which stands to gain a lucrative contract for services if the Rose project goes forward. In fact, in a bulletin last summer, the President of JHF touted how great the business would be for the JHF. Second, Martin F. Wolf, another senior attorney at Mr. Bernhard’s law firm, sits on the Board of Directors of the JHF.

Mr. Bernhard’s failure to disclose these connections and conflicts is especially egregious given the sensitivity of this issue and Mr. Bernhard’s past behavior. At a Board of Finance meeting in October 2012, a number of members of the public complained that the RFP process appeared to have been rigged in favor of The Rose Companies—a suggestion to which Mr. Bernhard took extreme umbrage, demanding an apology. Nevertheless, in response to concerns about conflicts of interest, the members of the Baron’s South Committee were specifically asked to stand and state whether they had any financial interest in the Rose Companies. Mr. Bernhard did not stand. His failure to reveal his firm’s interest in this project may have been technically correct — since the financial interest was in another entity — but it was still materially misleading. As an attorney and a former elected official, Mr. Bernhard should know better.

A path in Baron's South. (Photo/Judy James)

A path in Baron’s South. (Photo/Judy James)

For Mr. Bernhard to have served on the Baron’s South Committee without disclosing these connections, which fatally compromised his ability to objectively evaluate the responses to the town’s RFP, violate fundamental principles of justice and fairness. This is the equivalent of a judge owning stock in a corporation that appears in a contested matter in the judge’s court. And I note that this is not the first time that Mr. Bernhard’s ethics have been called into question. In 2010, he was forced to pay a $3,500 penalty after his improper campaign contributions were discovered.

All of these facts bolster the conclusion that the Rose Companies’ proposal is a bad deal for Westport and its taxpayers. The Planning and Zoning Commission’s decision to designate Baron’s South as open space was the right thing to do. I hope that you will decide NOT to overturn that decision.

Thank you.


I asked Ken Bernhard for his side of the issue. He said:

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to Ms. Jacobs’ letter to the RTM. It distresses me that the discussion about a project designed to address the needs of hundreds of Westport seniors who require affordable housing options has devolved into the kind of ugly debate endemic in Washington — specifically, don’t discuss the issues; unleash a personal attack on your opponent.

Curiously, Ms. Jacobs appears to be guilty of the very offense that she charges me with, i.e. an undisclosed bias.  She does not divulge in her letter that she is the co-chair of a political party, Save Westport Now, whose agenda appears to oppose development in town regardless of its merits. Apparently, the unanimous consensus of the RTM sub-committee to overturn the vote of her party’s candidates has given rise to her invective.

I have lived in Westport for more than 40 years and for most of that time, I have been actively engaged in the community’s affairs. I have given of my time by holding positions on the ZBA and the Board of Selectmen. In addition to serving as town counsel for 3 administrations, I have represented Westport in Hartford. Throughout this time I did, and still do, provide free legal services to many of the non-profit organizations in town. I sit on multiple boards providing my time and energy helping our friends and neighbors. It’s all been a labor of love.

The risk, of course, in being so active is that occasionally there are instances where the roles may overlap. These instances are part of life in a small town and are not considered conflicts in the forums in which these things are adjudicated. A community cannot function without this reality of professional and personal overlap of its citizens’ talents and interests.

Early springtime at Baron's South. (Photo/Judy James)

Early springtime at Baron’s South. (Photo/Judy James)

Five years ago, I was asked by First Selectman Joseloff to give more of my time to Westport by sitting on the Baron’s South Committee. The 8-person committee was made up of volunteers serving in a private capacity. None of us had, nor did we ever have, any decision-making authority.

Since that time, I have donated at least 300 hours serving on this committee, a large portion of which was spent long before there was a proposal to do anything. When a concept for providing affordable housing for seniors was ultimately advanced, the town sent out a request for a proposal. Our committee of volunteers reviewed the proposals and made a unanimous recommendation to accept the proposal submitted by Jonathan Rose. The decision to work with Jonathan Rose was made by elected officials.

The substance of Ms. Jacobs’ letter is that she claims I have a conflict of interest in serving on the Baron’s South Committee because she has learned that one of the 50 lawyers at my law firm does work on totally unrelated matters for Jewish Senior Services, an organization that has joined with Jonathan Rose to provide services if and when the project is approved and built at some time in the very distant future. (Ms. Jacobs is incorrect when she asserts that Attorney Martin F. Wolf is a senior attorney at Cohen and Wolf in that he is “of counsel,” retired from active practice years ago, and has no financial interest in it).

Ms. Jacobs would argue that I should have conducted a conflicts check with my law firm. This would have been appropriate had I been serving as legal counsel or in any other professional role — but I was not. I was acting as a private citizen in a private capacity doing volunteer work for my community. Ms. Jacobs can spin the facts and connect the dots any way she pleases, but there is no legitimate substance to her point.  Her criticism is inflammatory and its purpose is more about advancing the political agenda of Save Westport Now than anything else.

We have an important issue confronting our community, i.e. whether to preclude the use of Baron’s South for any municipal purpose, even the expansion of the senior center, or to leave open the discussion on how best to use this valuable town asset for affordable housing or otherwise. Reasonable people can disagree, and Westport deserves a respectful exchange on this issue.


In a related development, RTM moderator Eileen Lavigne Flug will recuse herself from leading Tuesday’s discussion. She is of counsel to Cohen and Wolf. In a comment on a previous “06880” story, Flug wrote:

While Cohen and Wolf does not represent Jonathan Rose Companies, it has come to my attention that Cohen and Wolf represents the nonprofit Jewish Home for the Elderly of Fairfield County, Inc. on certain matters, although not on the proposal for senior housing at Baron’s South. While I myself have no connection with the Jewish Home for the Elderly of Fairfield County, Inc., and while I believe the connection to be attenuated since the matter before us is a zoning issue and not directly related to the proposed senior housing project, in order to avoid the appearance of a conflict and any concerns about the RTM’s process and deliberations, our deputy moderator Velma Heller will be running the meeting.

Baron's South, with the baron's Golden Shadows house in the distance.

Baron’s South, with the baron’s Golden Shadows house in the distance.

64 responses to ““Conflict Of Interest” Charge Roils Baron’s South Debate

  1. John Hartwell

    Ken Bernhard is a valued member of our community and personal attacks should have no place in our discussions.

  2. While I support the preservation of Baron’s South as beautiful open space and disagree with my friend, Ken Bernhard (full disclosure: Ken is my friend and I can attest to and completely verify his generosity and goodness of heart personally and professionally), I, too, feel that the focus should be on the issues confronting the town with regard to the Rose Group proposal, clearly outlined and detailed, not on personalities and arguments dug up in an effort to divert attention from the issues in order to focus on a particular individual. Ken gave a detailed presentation for his support of the Rose proposal. I wrote to the RTM and published the letter in the Minuteman and on the 06880 blog. That should be how issues are discussed.

  3. Larry Weisman

    It’s a shame that Ken Bernhard, after
    years of unselfish service to Westport,
    is obliged to respond to a baseless,
    scurrilous, politically motivated and totally irrelevant ad hominem attack by
    a dedicated opponent of all things progressive. For a responsible alternative to Save Westport Now, one
    could do worse than to review the substantive position papers which have been issued by the Coalition for Westport which values facts over personality.

  4. Ken Bernhard is a great guy. Westport is very lucky to have him.

  5. Valerie Seiling Jacobs

    Mr. Bernhard is wrong: In a separate email to the entire RTM, I explicitly disclosed my connection and role in Save Westport Now. In fact, I signed that email as “Co-Chairman of Save Westport Now.” And, as far as sticking to the issues, I also sent another letter to the RTM that outlined all of the substantive reasons why the RTM should support the P&Z’s decision to designate the site as open space. Here is the text of that letter:

    Dear Members of the RTM:

    I am writing to urge you NOT to overturn the P&Z’s decision to designate Baron’s South as open space.

    • We Need Open Space. Westport has the least amount of town-owned open space in Fairfield County. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to preserve the green spaces that are so critical to our health and quality of life. In fact, our Town Plan specifically calls for us to preserve and protect open space. And the recent efforts by Staples students to preserve this valuable town asset demonstrate its importance to the next generation. Finally, given the reality of climate change, we need to pay even more attention to preserving the environment and open space.

    • Baron’s South is Special. According to arborists and experts, the Baron’s South property contains hundreds of trees and specimen plantings that simply cannot be replicated. The loss of this vegetation would be particularly devastating in light of all the mature trees that Westport has recently lost due to overdevelopment, age, and disease.

    • The Current Plan for Senior Housing is Fatally Flawed. While the idea of providing Westport seniors with housing is a good one, the following facts suggest that the current proposal is unwise and unfair to taxpayers:

    1. Due to federal “fair housing” laws, Westport residents cannot be guaranteed priority—which defeats one of the primary avowed goals of this project.

    2. The projected rents for the 90 assisted living units are so high ($6,400 to $7,200 per month), that only wealthy people will be able to afford them. (Contrary to what many people think, neither Medicare nor Medicaid pays for this type of housing.) What is the rationale for the town giving up such a valuable asset if only wealthy people can afford them? It’s one thing to subsidize a project for the truly needy, but completely unfair to ask taxpayers to subsidize this population.

    3. Only 25 of the entire 165 units will be set aside as “affordable” within the meaning of Section 8-30g. While Westport will gain some points toward a moratorium, the number of points will not be enough to actually stop other developers from using Section 8-30g. Again, why should the town give up an asset worth millions of dollars for so little in return?

    4. The proposed plan does not take into account the cost to the town of the myriad other improvements, including additional parking, new firefighting equipment, improved/widened roads, and an expansion of our already overcrowded Senior Center, that a senior housing project will necessitate. In other words, while the profit from the housing will flow to the developer, the cost of everything else that goes along with it must be borne by Westport taxpayers—a classic case of privatizing profit and socializing cost. It would be one thing if the town were getting something in return, such as a community center with meeting rooms, an event space, or a full-sized pool. But we are getting virtually nothing in return for turning over an asset worth millions of dollars. Worse, we may be opening ourselves up for a whole new set of liabilities, since no one has considered what will happen if the developer can’t make a go of it.

    5. Even if one were willing to overlook the foregoing problems, the units themselves don’t meet the needs of our seniors, who have repeatedly expressed interest in two-bedroom units (so that caregivers can stay overnight) and units with kitchens.

    I urge you to protect ALL Westport residents by standing behind P&Z’s decision. We need to preserve Baron’s South for our children and grandchildren.

  6. martha Hauhuth

    Ken Bernhard has been a valuable member of the Baron’s South Committee which I have co-chaired with Steve Daniels for five years. As highly as we value his wisdom and good judgement, his opinions were no more persuasive than any of ours. All our decisions were by consensus. To imply that he somehow railroaded a highly respected group of community volunteers into choosing Jonathan Rose or to work diligently to convince the appropriate town bodies to approve this important project diminishes us all. These kinds of personal attacks don’t belong in the Westport I have loved for all these years. We’re all neighbors. Let’s debate the issues with our usual passion and respect for each other.
    Marty Hauhuth
    Former First Selectman
    Co-Chair,Baron’s South Committee..

  7. Mr. Bernhard’s contention that the Jonathan Rose Company proposal will provide housing for “hundreds of Westport Seniors who require affordable housing options ” is pure hokum as Mr. Bernhard well knows …and oh, by the way, speaking of hokum, the 3.3 acres that Mr. Bernhard has continually cited as the amount of space needed for the project is inaccurate as well…183,400 square feet as outlined in the latest proposal translate into a minimum of 4.2 acres. The taxpayers of Westport deserve to know the facts.

    Rob Corona

  8. Bart Shuldman

    Ken. In due respect to your work and commitment to the town, nobody should every be afraid to discuss what could be a conflict of interest. All you have to do is convince people there is none, even though your law firm ‘could’ benefit.

    In addition-you say hundreds of seniors could benefit from the barons south project. Really? As a lawyer you should know that any unit designated as state sanctioned affordable housing cannot be guaranteed to a town resident. In fact, the basis for someone getting an affordable home can not be based on local residency. It is sad that this fact continues to be ignored.

    What we have is a very emotional project that is moving forward which many Westport residents are against. It is our tax payer dollars that bought the property and some of us feel it is wrong to give it away with such little benefit to all of us.

    And finally the project is based on allowing a 99 year lease. We have no details to understand the impact and what happens if things go wrong. You have to admit that many issues exist in our state and town where programs were started without truly understanding the long term costs. Westport has hundreds of millions of dollars of liabilities and debt (OPEB, pension plans) that we now have to tax the homeowners to cover. The state has over $100 billion and is basically bankrupt. We should have a better understanding of the risks and liabilities this town will undergo before anything should move forward.

    Ken. You have been a big cheerleader for this project. With many against it you should understand the questioning.

    • Ken Bernhard

      Burt, the issue on Tuesday isn’t whether there will be senior housing on Baron’s South; it is whether the town, and not just four people on the P&Z, will decide what municipal uses are appropriate for an asset appraised by the BOF for $11,000,000. Maybe the decision will be to do nothing, but do we really need four people to dictate that outcome? We made promises to taxpayers when we bought the property that it would be available for municipal uses. At the time, it was controversial and was approved on the representation that it could be used for municipal uses. As an example, if we had bought it for only open space alone, we wouldn’t have a senior center today. Ask yourself, if the property were to come on the market today, would you be able to convince taxpayers to spend millions of dollars (add to the debt service and increase our taxes) to buy it for only open space and for it to remain vacant, inaccessible and unused except for a few neighbors. The vote on Tuesday is to allow the community, not four people, to decide how to best use this remarkable property. Other communities should only be so fortunate. Ken Bernhard

      • Ken. Thanks for your response and let me say once again, I truly appreciated what you did for the town.

        However, I found your response somewhat evasive and troubling. Let me explain.

        You have insinuated that the 4 people who voted did it as a ‘personal’ vote. You could not be more wrong, and you know that. They are elected officials who represent the voting public. They made a decision that they felt was in support of their constituents. Their vote supported my interests. You were an elected official-when you voted, was it a personal vote or did you represent the interests of the people who voted for you?

        In addition, you now bring up a topic of whether we would buy the property now? Why bring up this hypothetical question?

        As for evading the topic of conflict of interest, I have to ask, will your law firm receive any benefit from the Baron’s South project, should it move forward?

  9. While the property was purchased for municipal use the refusal of the police Department, Fire Department and other Town Departments to relocate to Baron’s South shows just how inappropriate it is for municipal use. The site conditions are challenging at best. However, the site conditions are ideal to serve the community…not just seniors…the entire community when it is put to the greater use of open space.

  10. Betsy Pollak

    If we don’t learn from the past we are destined to repeat it…

    • Oh…and still nobody can answer, definitively, that Westport seniors are going to be first in line to benefit… Seems all the supporters of Senior housing on Baron’s are taking an expensive gamble on this costly proposal and it is never any good when Government gets into the real estate game. the decision to purchase this property for municipal use, based on the sites topography, was a mistake that does not need to be compounded by a bad deal that has little upside towards truly benefiting Westport Seniors exclusively and the entire Westport community as a whole.

    • I am following this issue with interest, and concern.

      Betsy, thank you for posting the link to 06880’s 2012 post titled “Baron’s South: Dueling Proposals”. I have carefully read that piece, including the many comments offered at that time. With that as historical context, and while I appreciate and applaud Mr. Bernhard’s decades of involvement with, and service to, the Town of Westport, I am uncomfortable what what is now surfacing.

      From what I have been reading, it seems to me that the fact that Mr. Bernhard chose not to disclose his, and his firm’s, potential conflict of interest (or simply identify the possible appearance of a conflict if, indeed, he did not feel he had one) with respect to this matter, and during these many years, undermines the confidence we all reasonably expected to have with respect to the legitimacy of the Baron South Committee’s process and resulting decision.

      By failing to fully disclose his multiple roles and relationships there exists, at a bare minimum, the appearance of potential conflict. This is not an attack on Mr. Bernhard personally. Rather, it is giving voice to legitimate questions people have, and have had for years. Unfortunately, key information that should have been disclosed was not, and now the applicant’s proposal appears to be tainted.

      What a sad and regrettable state of affairs to be in after these many years. To me, the person who is best modeling the behavior and values that can help the town focus on the merits of the debate is RTM Moderator Flug. Ms. Flug, upon learning of the potential conflict, or “the appearance of a conflict” within her – and Mr. Bernhard’s – law firm, immediately recused herself from any further involvement. Imagine how different today’s conversation would be if Mr. Bernhard had done the same.

      • Thank you, Ian, you’ve echoed my thoughts exactly. I respect and appreciate Eileen Flug putting the town before herself. The conflict of interest with Mr. Bernard’s firm seems obvious, but that aside, there isn’t enough open space left in this town. Let’s cherish it and think carefully about any more development. We need more green and less greed.

      • Judith Guthman

        What is sad and regrettable is that the issue of whether or not to overturn the decision made by the P&Z on Baron’s South has become a vicious attack on an individual because of his support of a project that he believes in.

  11. The question before us at the moment has nothing to do with any of the three Baron’s south proposals in particular, including who will benefit (Westporters vs. non-Westporters, however that very tricky question is resolved), The question is whether any further development will be allowed on any part of the parcel, and how that decision is decided.

    I believe that we can reach a compromise which protects the vast majority of the parcel for open space while permitting future expansion of the senior center and/or the construction of some sort of senior housing. The vote in the RTM on Tuesday will be solely about that possibility, not the details of any specific proposal. This is a vote on process, not substance, and even if the P&Z is overturned they still will have control over any future proposal.

    • I believe John Hartwell’s point is right on. The question before the RTM is whether to allow the P&Z’s decision precluding ANY development on this property to stand. I hope the RTM overturns it. I thought the Rose plan for senior housing was deficient in many respects and was properly rejected. But let’s not stop another developer from coming up with a better proposal, one that both serves the housing and recreational needs of seniors AND is a smart investment for the town.

  12. “Westporters vs. non-Westporters” Is that what this is really all about?
    If so, I hope to never hear or read about “entitlement” angst here again.

  13. The comments from Mr. Bernhard (in his response from Dan’s initial request) strike me as what used to be called a “non-denial denial.”

    And, I know none of the parties involved, and have no financial interest in any decision. I have lived here for 10 years, and am interested in the decision, which should be made on its merits, not on any other basis.

    But, in Westport, we know that rarely occurs.

  14. If I recall correctly, Ken bypassed town regulations to slip the Illegal naming of the “Ruth Steincraus Post Road Bridge” past the voters in a back room deal with Diane Farrell, so as far as I’m concerned, he has no claim to high ethical behavior. I believe he also urged our disgraced Govenor Rowland to take paid sick leave when under investigation to avoid the mounting pressure.

    I’m with Valerie on this one, despite all the folks rushing to his rescue.

    Challenging or pointing out a persons conflicts of interests is in no way a personal attack and it’s a foolish defense which begs the questions raised.

    • Tom, that is a serious allegation. How specifically did Ken Bernhard “(bypass) town regulations to slip the illegal naming of the ‘Ruth Steincraus (sic) Cohen Post Road Bridge past the voters…”? And if it was truly illegal, how has the naming held up?

      • Fred, it’s all in the RTM minutes. I studied the regulations when I was on the RTM and pointed out the deception. Ask around. It was a friggin (sic) travesty.

        • Well, if it was illegal, did you and/or the RTM challenge it? And, if so, what happened? I was here when the naming happened and I do recall there were some people in town strongly opposed to it, but the fact that there were some people strongly opposed is a different scenario than the characterization you used above. I don’t feel strongly one way or the other about the current disagreement over Baron’s South, I don’t know Ken Bernhard, and there may or may not be a conflict of interest here–but I feel strongly that if people are going to make the kind of very specific allegation you did above, they should be able to substantiate it, that’s all.

          • Fred, read the friggin (sic) RTM minutes and also Dan’s blog back then. It was challenged, the proposal on the first RTM meeting was cancelled so more “ethical” votes could be garnered from the “Farrellettes” Diane’s “bobble heads.”
            Read the RTM minutes, then have an informed opinion.
            I was there in the middle of it.

            • Tom, I will look for the minutes. But really, your characterizatons seem to border on, if not outright constitute, character assassination. If people voted against your position, you question their ethics and call them “bobble heads?!!”

              • 😉

                • Tom, I did read the online minutes for March and April 2003. I also have some familiarity with town naming policies because I had to go through that as part of a group looking to have the Staples soccer field named for Albie Loeffler–which, as you know, is a town property (not a state-owned one as the bridge is).

                  I saw the final resolution supporting the naming of the bridge was a bipartisan 26-5 in favor, with one abstention. Here’s the April link I read: http://ecode360.com/documents/WE0657/public/22502269.pdf

                  I feel even more strongly that your characterizations above are totally uncalled for, but I’ll let others draw their own conclusions if they wish to read the minutes. And, quite frankly, I think you owe Ken Bernhard an apology (and, again, I don’t really know him). There doesn’t seem to be anything remotely illegal about what he did.

    • Tom, “if I recall correctly” and “I believe…” statements carry no weight when one makes accusations. Fred’s point is clear and correct.

  15. Is there to be anything green left of Westport at all?

  16. Anthony Dohanos

    In 1969 I worked as A Gardener on the Baron’s South Compo estate .. It is a rare and beautiful property .. Does every bit of old Westport have to be Developed? Did Gorham’s Island really need an “Office Building”? And that Eyesore off Wright Street? Put the housing somewhere else give our grand kids a friggin’ park.. Would it kill you?

  17. Kathryn Sirico

    Although I once met Valarie Seiling Jacobs, I don’t know her or would even recognize her on the street. However, living in Westport 40 years and having owned several properties, she is one of the few people I have found to be able to back up her researched facts; presents those facts “on target” and has been 100% correct in each and every instance. To my knowledge, she has no vested interest, personal or financial motives in any issue she speaks for. When we are fortunate enough to have her input, I listen …..as she has it as it is.

  18. The fact that there are so many opinions expressed on this site about the best use of the Baron’s south demonstrates that the P&Z did the town a disservice by predetermining the outcome of the debate. Neither side should have anything to fear from continuing the conversation in an open, democratic forum.

  19. kevin hickey

    OT…As a resident in Wilton, I am amazed at the countless conflicts of interest that go on and the skirting of the Town Charter. Mr. Bernhard, town counsel rarely complies with any request for full disclosure of documents and we constantly have to FOIA. He even twisted the Town Charter following a petition of 1,100 voters for a revote on a dubious referendum calling for $50,000,000.00 to renovate a pre-k school(renovate not new!). Enough said.

  20. Bart Shuldman

    We face a critical vote. The big decision and the only decision is keeping Barons South as open space. And we have to make sure we focus on this one issue and make sure the RTM does the same.

    Barons South was bought years ago. At that time is was purchased for what was titled as municipal use. But many decisions in the past can be changed, as we know. That is why we have boards to look at the current environemt and make new rules and regulations.

    While baron south was bought for municipal reasons, the town residents could decide, now, that the municipal use should be as simple as open space. We have the right to voice our desires and wants and have the leadership make the appropriate changes. It is our town and our tax dollars. Period.

    As we know the town has made many changes despite past decisions. We turned pensions into 401k plans as a great example. What seemed right a few years back was wrong for today’s work environment and financial health of Westport.

    We can do the same for Barons South. If more residents want it kept as open space then keep it as open space.

    The past should not dictate the future.

  21. Keep looking Fred. I’m done 🙂

  22. Anne Pfeiffer

    Will the Baron’s housing really be affordable? to whom?

  23. The fact that Mr. Bernard should have disclosed the (multiple) conflicts of interest that have been found to exist here is beyond dispute. His own professional obligations notwithstanding, the Town’s ethics policy is quite clear. It matters not that he is a volunteer any more the length of time he has resided in Westport. If he saw no particular problem which what is absolutely a problem then he should have simply disclosed it. Years ago.

    But here is the bigger problem: this individual, as an agent of the Town and a political appointee, serves at the pleasure of the First Selectman. So here is my question: for the love of God, Mr. Marpe, how could you have let this happen? Knowing as you did, days ago, that the controversy was bound to end this way, how could you have permitted a situation where we find this man, Mr. Bernard, flopping and flailing around in the town square? This man represents you, and his actions, for better or worse, reflect on you and your administration. You could have easily asked for his resignation and thanked him for his service. You could have acknowledged the seriousness of issue and stressed that you didn’t want Mr. Bernard’s conduct to become a distraction. But for you to have stood silent as this played out publically is very disappointing and, if I may say so, injurious to the fabric of our community.

  24. Julie Belaga

    What is it that makes people think that slinging ugly and untrue accusations makes people change their minds? Westport can be better than that. The vindictive comments being made about the remarkable Ken Bernhard boggles the mind. Here is a man who gives enormous amounts of his time and energy to this town and to important causes. Disagree with him…that’s your prerogative. But ugly and untrue accusations is a dark mark on Westport. Such vitriol should not be allowed to prevail.

    But I guess people just don’t like change and don’t know how to debate issues with real facts. I know this well. When I served as chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission from 1971-1975 the big challenge was to move from a town of exclusively single family homes to a community that offered alternative housing options. I was castigated and accused of turning Westport into the BRONX! My husband and I stopped attending parties because people were so vindictive that it became frightening. And what was the result of this “horror”? We ended up with Harvest Common, Lansdowne, and Regents Park. Hardly the Bronx.

    People are afraid of change. I understand that. But when you have seniors who are frail and elderly and want to stay in their home town, how can you turn your back on them? And when the proposal calls for 16 acres of Open Space in addition to the senior housing, how can you, in all conscience, forbid our own citizens from living in a town where they have spent their lives.

    The vitriol is disgusting and diminishes the quality of life for all of us in this town. It is truly disheartening.

    • Bart Shuldman

      Julie. You fail to understand 2 points:

      1) the issue the RTM will be voting on is whether we want to protect Barons’s South from any development and leave it as open space. This is a change, so clearly those that are in favor of the change WANT Barons’s South to be left alone as open space. period. We are dealing with the facts.

      2) however, if you want to talk about senior housing, the so called proposal is flawed. Seriously flawed. Westport CANNOT guarantee any unit that the town wants to designate as affordable, to any senior living in Westport. It is against the regulations and even federal regulations. You fail to understand this critical issue and these are the facts.

      But let’s stick to the current issue facing the RTM. Do we want to maintain Baron’s South as open space. I do. And so do many in Westport.

    • Ms. Belaga…. Do you know how many Westport, seniors that want to continue to stay in town, will be allowed to benefit from this project? Maybe 5, 10, 20, or 30. Seems like a lot of money, time and resources for such a little return to the community as a whole. I am a proponent of this property being used as open space because this is not the right location and I am also opposed to using town owned property to build senior housing. Initially, this project was proposed and touted as a place where Westport seniors could age in place. If this was the intent….seems everyone is back peddling…on this issue. Who can answer this question? The answer is clear…no one …because public funds will be used. How will this benefit the greater Westport senior community as a whole? It will not!

    • Well said, Julie, well said on all counts.
      Hopefully, the vitriol here does not represent the majority of the community.

  25. Sandy Soennichsen

    Now that the Ruth Steincraus (Steinkraus) Bridge came up, what a ridiculous decision that was. People won’t remember who she is or was and why should they, it should have been the Westport Post Road Bridge from the gitgo. Too many egos here in town, mostly with our politicians.

    • Ruth Steinkraus Cohen spent decades involved with Westport’s UN efforts. She was responsible for all the flags that flew every UN Day on that bridge. That’s why it’s named for her.

      • … and still fly every UN Day (Oct. 24) AND on jUNe Day, which this year is celebrating its 50th anniversary. jUNe Day is always the last Saturday in June, this year June 27. Westporters are invited to come out and meet people from other countries who work at the UN and bring their families to enjoy Westport’s hospitality. Stay tuned to 06880 for more about this special day.

    • Sandy, I didn’t remember the specifics of why the bridge was named for her. But looking at the link to the RTM minutes, as recommended by Tom Feeley, showed the various reasons that decision was made–and those reasons seemed perfectly valid at the time and also stand the test of time. Furthermore, this decision was overwhelmingly endorsed by your fellow citizens who serve on the RTM by a vote of 26-5 (with one abstention).

    • I was trying to be polite, Nancy. There are some very clear regulations for the official naming of state bridges and also town regulations for naming. Check all the dates and see who skirted the legal process.

    • Hi Sandy,
      U da best !
      When this BIG vote first came up, I was on the RTM and had to vote, so I went around my district and asked everybody I knew and met or bumped into in a store if they knew who Ruth Steinkraus was.
      So I wrote an email to the full RTM and told them that I thought that this was a really inappropriate name selection since nobody that I know in my district knew who she was and I didn’t know who she was and by this time I think I had lived in Westport over 10 years. So they cancelled the vote and started a full court press to get the necessary votes. But the fix was in from the in crowd and now folks who have no clue but a blog comment are defending the indefendables. Go figure. See ya soon. 🙂
      Maybe I should bet some serious cash with these folks and we could buy a bridge?

    • WestportNow frequently misnames the other bridge over the Saugatuck as the William J (not F) Cribari Memorial Bridge.

      • For those who don’t know, Bill Cribari — for whom the bridge is named — was the traffic cop who stood at its foot, in front of what is now Rizzuto’s, directly traffic with magical motions for many years.

  26. Judith Guthman

    When my husband and I moved here eleven years ago, we were delighted by the spirit of volunteerism that abounded in the community. Nothing in Westport was done without input, participation and support of citizens. While issues were often contentious and decision-making was sometimes heated, there was respect and civility shown to those with contending opinions.

    Sadly, the decision of the P&Z about the Baron’s South property has changed all this. The real issue of whether or not the decision prematurely ended discussion on a subject of importance to the entire populace, as well as to other governmental bodies in town, is the real issue. The lack of understanding of exactly what the RTM vote to overturn the P&Z decision will do is not about open space but about governmental process — not ultimate outcome.

    The proponents of senior housing on Baron’s South will feel that they have been respected and given a fair chance to make their case in support of the project. Other government entities will be allowed to respond to the proposal and its impact on the town, if they wish. And Westporters will be able to make their feelings known. No decision-making ability will be taken from the Planning and Zoning Commission. But those who feel that the NEW senior housing proposal was not given a fair hearing will be given the opportunity for one.

    I hope that civility, mutual respect and a sense of fairness will return to Westport government and to its citizens. And I hope that the name-calling and defaming of honorable individuals, who have given a great deal of service to this community, will end.

  27. Sandy Soennichsen

    Well, it’s all well and good that she did a lot of work with the UN, so did thousands of others, but just to name a state bridge after her seems a bit excessive. Should be named after the designer, the builder, a town founder, a war hero, even the Minute Man Bridge, or just The Bridge! It is just another example of someone’s over-inflated ego thinking they are a town savior and their self serving friends perpetuating the thought.
    As to the Barron’s Property. I would personally never approve anything that did not result being beneficial to the current (not the future) town residents by a vast margin. If it’s on that lot, it should be for the people of Westport to enjoy, and the issue shouldn’t be used by some politician to try to garner more votes for the next election, we’ve had enough of that in the past already.

  28. Elizabeth Thibault

    First, I’m going to confess to some fatigue over the Baron’s South drama. Nobody’s hands seem clean in the circus that’s developed around the space, whether we’re discussing issues of transparency or original intent. Perception is reality, we face this in our professional lives, so why would anyone think this is different outside of that world?

    All that aside, the discussion regarding the open space vs. municipal use needs to be addressed first, but there seems to be a blind desire to force the topic of senior housing just to say something is being done. Putting the cart before the horse has never resulted in anything good. The seniors of this town would NOT be well served by a boondoggle that was rammed through, just to give politicians and advocates a “win.”

    There is other land available in town, even large parcels (think the area over by Turkey Hill South and Clapboard Hill Rd,) that would accommodate the scope of the senior proposal as it currently stands. There’s not much of the way of trees, or any vegetation other than grass, to pose a problem there. The developer would have to acquire the land on the open market, but there seems to be plenty of vocal supporters, that crowd sourcing the funding via small donations should be a viable option.

    This strategy certainly would result in there being more senior housing in town in a much shorter timeline – this is the stated desire of the advocates, yes? This would also alleviate the risk of burden on the taxpayers of our town, since too much is unknown and cannot be guaranteed to us. It is a joke to say that the options right now would be considered affordable, even if it’s the 10%-20% claimed by the developer. Why are we pretending?

    Where there’s a will, there’s a way. It’s up to us all to be informed and open to all the options, not just the ones that have been so dogmatically pursued up to this point. Everyone needs to put on their big kid pants and start making realistic decisions and putting their efforts towards something that will be fair, practical, and allows us much more control over the land the town owns.

  29. Terry Brannigan Sr.

    From the begining, this has felt like a clandestine opertaion. I agree with Morley and others that a concious decision had to be made not to disclose the conflict of interest and if there is none, then why not simply surface the situation up front and let prevailing definitions determine if Mr Bernhard is or is not in conflict. The vocal readership seemed to initially respond to this as they did when Chabad began construction w/o the appropriate permits. (it may even top that story in the number of comments). The initial response to that 06880 scoop were a flod of comments regarding what great people they were and the past good they have done vs the facts that they deliberately scirted a requirement. I honestly believe they are very good people who under the guidence of counsel made the active decision not to follow the rules. I am just as certain that Mr. Bernhard has a history of devotion to specific issues on behalf of Westport… and he did not disclose his conflict.

    My 2 cents on the power of the P&Z is, we also have an electoral college, P&Z may be only a handful of people, but we elected them to represent us,

    BTW: I have a father who is closer to 90 than 80 and we are paying retail for his care. He has been paying westport taxes for 60+ years, it would be nice to know exactly what assurances he would be provided that his residency would recieve priority.

    This thing smelled from the begining.

    • Bart Shuldman

      Terry. If you are paying retail for your fathers care there is a very good chance, very good, you will NOT qualify for affordable housing. In addition, no matter what some have said, the town cannot guarantee any Westporter the affordable homes associated with CT affordable housing plan.

      While the issue at hand is open space, you have to understand there are significant rules that dictate who will get the affordable homes.

  30. Failure to disclose a financial connection is disgraceful. Attempting to deflect from the issue by suggesting that a local citizen’s participation in Save Westport Now is somehow a conflict of interest, when there is no financial gain, is downright embarrassing. Ken’s failure to be forthright is undeniable, his attempt to point fingers elsewhere is shameful.

    P&Z made the wise decision to preserve Baron’s South for future generations of Westporters.

    I hope that RTM won’t listen to those who represent special interests (and who have their own personal interest in the game) to reject a wise decision for the worst of all possible reasons.

  31. As Yogi opined and Ms. Pollack observed; it’s deja vu all over again. All would do well to review the information to which Ms. Pollack provided a link in her post.


    It is interesting and amusing to see the smoke screen erected by the “We Love Ken” crowd. It matters not what Ms. Hahuth’s or Ms. Belaga’s or anyone else’s feelings for Mr. Bernhard are. In this case it does not matter whether he is a nice guy or an admirable citizen or not. In fact, if we all agreed that Mr. Bernhard was a nice guy, the problems would not go away. So let’s agree, Mr. Bernhard is a nice guy who has done a lot for the town of Westport and has given selflessly of his time and insight. Thank you Mr. Bernhard.

    However, we are still left with a 500 pound gorilla in the room. Is Mr. Bernhard conflicted? Is there an appearance of a conflict? Has Mr. Bernhard denied he has a conflict? Has Mr. Bernhard denied there is an appearance of a conflict?

    Another member of Mr. Bernhard’s law firm, Eileen Flug, has recused herself from both voting on the matter of overturning the P&Z ruling and stepped down as RTM Moderator during the consideration of this issue because in part;
    “While Cohen and Wolf does not represent Jonathan Rose Companies, it has come to my attention that Cohen and Wolf represents the nonprofit Jewish Home for the Elderly of Fairfield County, Inc. on certain matters, …”

    Ms. Flug did the right thing. She is to be commended.

    Mr. Bernhard is a principal in Cohen and Wolf. How does he avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest? Mr. Bernhard has offered no explanation thus far.

    Has anyone taken the time to examine the evidence Ms. Jacobs uses to support her claim that Mr. Bernhard has serious conflicts of interest? Has Mr. Bernhard denied Ms. Jacobs assertion specifically in reference to Cohen and Wolf’s alleged connection to one of the firms seeking a lucrative assignment from the town of Westport? At the very least Mr. Bernhard should say it ain’t so.

    Should not Mr. Marpe, on whose committee Mr. Bernhard serves, seek advice to determine whether the conflicts Ms. Jacobs alleges are accurate? Are these alleged conflicts such that, if true, Mr. Bernhard would have violated the rules of ethics that govern his profession?

    With respect to the upcoming vote, Mr. Bernhard has maintained elsewhere there are a top ten reasons to overturn the P&Z ruling. I suggest, that it is difficult to read the top ten reasons and not conclude Mr. Bernhard feels a vote to overturn the P&Z is a vote for senior citizen housing on Baron’s South. Therefore, before the RTM votes, it should be made aware of whether or not one of the entities seeking to benefit from this senior citizen housing is a client of Cohen and Wolf, where Mr. Bernhard is a principal. If a Cohen and Wolf client does stand to benefit, then maybe Mr. Bernhard should follow in his tradition of being a good guy, and resign from the Baron’s South Committee.

  32. Thomas Doyle

    Oh what a tangled web. If looks like a duck quacks like a duck it probably is a duck. Just like if it looks like a conflict it probably is a conflict and all those with a conflict should recuse themselves. Keep the Barons South as open space.