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Citizens outraged by 'abuse of power'


WINSTED — An abrupt decision by the Republican-led Board of Selectmen to oust the chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission has outraged Democrats and left many in the community feeling blindsided and angered at what they see as an abuse of power.

At the end of an executive session Monday night, Mayor Kenneth Fracasso made a motion under new business to remove George Closson from the chairman’s seat on the Planning and Zoning Commission, for what Fracasso called "gross negligence on the part of boards and commissions" involved with the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD).

Republicans soon found out through discussions with the town’s labor attorney that they hadn’t followed proper procedure, so they scheduled a special meeting for Thursday, April 24 (after this paper went to press), with Closson’s position on the agenda. The board is required to give notice to Closson that they want to remove him and allow him a chance to respond. In the meantime, the board has the power to suspend him from his position.

Meanwhile, a Planning and Zoning Commission vote regarding a controversial land-use application may happen as early as Monday, April 28.

"It’s been rumored since the election that the Republicans were looking for a reason to take George out," Democratic Selectman Candy Perez said in an interview Tuesday. "I think they are looking for a reason to take anyone out who appears to them to be against the project. It’s not just about Closson. It’s about the entire tenor of this particular majority."

Closson, a Republican, has been singled out by developers of the proposed Aurora properties on the ridge between Route 800 and Highland Lake as an obstacle to getting their project approved. Republican selectmen, who have been financially supported by the Aurora developers, are openly in favor of the project.

In a statement released Wednesday, Democratic Town Committee Chairman Steven Sedlack said the party would hold a press conference Thursday night to discuss what he called the Republicans’ abuses of power, including the ousting of former Town Manager Owen Quinn without justification; attempting to oust Town Attorney Kevin Nelligan, also without explanation; and participating in discussions and votes regarding the Aurora deal when Republican selectmen have worked and lobbied on behalf of the developers, and stand to see a financial gain from approval of the projects.

Community Lawyer Charlene LaVoie said the decision to remove Closson was "the worst precedent that could be set" in Winsted and that she is helping circulate a citizens’ petition requesting that the Board of Selectmen change its decision. "[T]here is no basis in law or fact to remove this chairman," the petition states. "Furthermore, such action by the Board of Selectmen will have a chilling effect on citizens who may consider volunteering for town commissions."

Fracasso noted in his statement about Closson Monday night that the Republican selectmen want to see movement on development projects.

"As businessmen, we see a very disturbing pattern of ignoring critical issues," he said. "A plan to correct these has fallen on the current board as no action has been taken in the last four years."

Perez countered that Republican Michael Hamm was vice chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission until 2005 and that Closson has inherited problems concerning the POCD. She also said Republicans blindsided Closson and Democratic members of the board with their decision Monday night.

"If they’re such big, brave businessmen, why didn’t they put it on the agenda on Friday?" Perez said. "Why didn’t they let George come to defend himself? Why did all these big, brave businessmen do it in the manner they did? Mr. Fracasso read a whole prepared statement. When you add something to the agenda it should be something that’s just come up. But for something this major, they had it planned, and it should have been on the agenda."

At the very least, Perez said, the move by the Republicans was morally and ethically wrong. She said there is documentation that work has been done on the POCD and that Closson should have been given an opportunity to respond to Fracasso’s statement.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Closson said he could not comment on the board’s decision because he had not yet received an official letter calling for him to step down. Fracasso said Monday night that a letter to Closson would go out the next day informing him of the decision.

"The deception that was involved in this should have every single person outraged," Perez said. "The Republicans got their checks from the developer during the election season and now the developer is cashing them in."

Perez said she hopes Closson will demand a public hearing regarding the matter.

"I hope he has an open hearing and I would hope the decent people in the community would come out and support him, not just because he’s George, but because the government shouldn’t act like this," she said.

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