Groton Town Council considers removing veteran member of Zoning Commission

Groton — An eight-year veteran of the Groton Zoning Commission could be removed from her post next week, depending on what the Town Council decides.

Democrat Mariellen French wants to keep the volunteer position, but the council's personnel committee was split this week over whether to reappoint her. The four-member committee voted 2-2 on whether to reappoint French and 2-2 on whether to instead appoint Jane Dauphinais, nominated by the Republican Town Committee.

Councilors Rich Moravsik and Joe de la Cruz, both Democrats, voted for French. Councilors Bruce Flax and Deborah Peruzzotti, both Republicans, voted for Dauphinais.

But Flax said the issue isn't politics. Rather, he said councilors have received complaints about some commission members being disrespectful to staff. He also said the council wants a more even approach when considering the interests of economic development and environmental concerns.

"The citizens want balance there," he said. The council could vote on the appointment as early as Tuesday.

There's been a renewed focus on boosting economic development in Groton, and some councilors are looking more closely at their land-use commissions with this interest in mind.

Denying reappointment to a volunteer board is unusual in Groton, but it has been done. In February 2012, the council's personnel committee voted not to reappoint Nancy Mitchell to the Historic District Commission, on which she had served 15 years.

In that instance, the commission was accused of making excessive and expensive demands on homeowners, and acting as if the historic area were a museum.

Councilor Genevieve Cerf, who doesn't serve on the personnel committee but spoke in favor of French, said the "big picture" is what's important when considering someone's service.

"To not reappoint somebody has hardly ever been done in this town," she said. "And it's very insulting."

French said she believes she's being targeted because she fought for years to incorporate protection of Long Island Sound into the town's zoning regulations. The state's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection commended the town for the decision in a May 2013 letter.

"In my personal life, I am very concerned with the environment," she said in an interview before the committee meeting. "I recycle. I compost. I drive a Prius. I have solar panels on my roof. But I don't feel it's my place to force my beliefs on anybody else."

The Zoning Commission makes decisions on how land is used or developed. Peruzzotti said it's important to know whether prospective members of the Zoning Commission have ties to the land-preservation group Groton Open Space Association. She said they should disclose their membership, but whenever she asks whether there is an affiliation, she gets berated, she said.

French said she is not a member of GOSA and never has been, but admires its work. She said she has donated money to help buy land for open space.

Her term expired in December 2013, but she's not alone. Fifteen people with expired terms remain on boards and commissions, according to the town website.

Flax said the difference in this case is someone has shown interest in the spot and offers a fresh perspective. The Democratic Town Committee didn't file paperwork seeking French's reappointment until hours before Dauphinais was interviewed, he said. The council's personnel committee interviewed both candidates on April 15.

Jim Furlong, who edited GOSA's website for 10 years but is no longer a member, said he has watched French for years on the Zoning Commission and has found her an outspoken and respectful member.

"One bureaucratic error should not be seized upon by opponents to remove her from the commission she has served so well," he said.

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