Tag Archives: Valerie Seiling Jacobs

“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.

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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.

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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.

Valerie Seiling Jacobs On Senior Housing: Say “No” To Text Amendment

Valerie Seiling Jacobs read Bart Shuldman’s letter advocating a “yes” vote on the Baron’s South senior housing text amendment. She takes the opposite view:

In 2011, after careful deliberation, P&Z adopted regulations to allow the construction of senior housing on Baron’s South and twelve other town-owned sites so long as 60% of the units meet the state test for “affordable.” Now, P&Z is being pressured to loosen those regulations, including reducing the required percentage of affordable units from 60% to 20%. Indeed, some people are claiming that without these changes, Westport will never get senior housing.

This is simply not true and P&Z should not give in to this pressure. First, these regulations pertain only to town property. Developers will still be free to construct senior housing on privately owned property.

Second, reducing that percentage runs afoul of the very rationale that P&Z originally used to justify the use of town-owned land for this purpose. As P&Z previously recognized, if the Town is going to donate an asset for this purpose—as opposed to putting the asset to its highest and best use, which P&Z recognized was NOT senior housing—then the town still needed to receive something valuable in return.

Under the existing regulations, that value consists of: (1) senior housing for a tenant population that is predominantly needy and which might not otherwise have housing options; and (2) credits toward a moratorium against some of the more onerous provisions of §8-30g, a state statute that applies to towns (like Westport) that fail to meet a threshold level of affordable housing.

The proponents of this amendment have tried to justify this switch from 60% to 20% on the ground that an additional 20% of the units will be restricted to “moderate-income” tenants.

But that argument is misleading. If adopted, this Amendment will likely result in a tenant population that is overwhelmingly well-to-do.

Part of the Baron's South land.

Part of the Baron’s South land.

The income test for those so-called “moderate” units is so high (just under $113,000 for a one-bedroom) that wealthy people will still qualify. A person could have $4.5 million in the bank and be collecting maximum Social Security and still meet the income test. Why should the town donate a valuable asset for the benefit of people with those kinds of means—folks who can afford to live anywhere? It’s one thing for Westport to subsidize a project for the genuinely needy, but a whole other thing to subsidize this population.

Moreover, these so-called moderate-income units will not satisfy the requirements of §8-30g, which means that they won’t gain the town any points when it comes to the moratorium. Basically, the town is getting very little in return for giving up a valuable asset (not to mention open space).

To make matters worse, this amendment proposes to exclude all of the units, including the market-rate units, from the existing town-wide cap on multi-family units. (Currently, no more than 10% of Town’s housing units can be part of multi-family projects.)

But there is no principled reason to allow that kind of increased density. With thirteen potential sites in play, we could easily find our fire, police, ambulance, and other town services seriously overtaxed.

This proposed amendment is being driven solely by a developer’s financial demands—and those demands cannot be reconciled with the core rationale of P&Z’s previous decision, nor can they be reconciled with our existing zoning regulations or the Town Plan of Conservation and Development, which place a premium on open space.

I recognize that P&Z is in a difficult spot. Some seniors are truly desperate for this kind of housing. And I understand that some people are saying that the 60% requirement is not workable.

They may be right—but the answer is not to roll over and settle for nothing more than what is already required. Developers are already required to dedicate 20% of any multi-family project to affordable housing (or to make a payment in lieu).

And, by the way, the promise that we will reap the benefit of property taxes is also only what taxpayers are already due. Of course these developers should pay real estate taxes—after all, they are not paying rent.

The answer is to go back to the drawing board to see what other types of concessions the town can negotiate in exchange for providing this kind of subsidy.

Let’s hope that P&Z has the courage to stand up for all of Westport and to do what is right for everyone. Settling for 20% is simply not good enough.