Stonington conservation panel's vote draws criticism

Stonington — Two members of the Conservation Commission have voted to recommend that the town give $200,000 to the Stonington Land Trust to preserve 168 acres of the Davis Farm in Pawcatuck, even though both are members of the land trust's board of directors.

Stuart Cole and Ben Baldwin were among the six members of the commission who voted unanimously on April 28 to support using close to half of the town's $384,000 open space fund to help purchase the development rights to the Davis Farm land, which the trust calls "our most ambitious project to date."

Their decision to participate in the vote came after commission Chairman Stanton Simm, who is the land trust's executive director, recused himself from the vote and left the meeting table, according to commission minutes.

The actions of Cole and Baldwin are among the topics of a letter about the issue that Mystic resident Rick Newton has written to the Board of Selectmen. The letter has been placed in the correspondence section of the selectmen's May 28 meeting.

"This, in my view, constitutes a gross conflict of interest that the town Ethics Commission should investigate," wrote Newton about the vote.

The town never formed an ethics commission, though the town charter requires the town to have one.

When First Selectman Ed Haberek first ran for office in 2007, he said he would establish an ethics commission. During last year's campaign, he said one was not needed but could be formed if the need arises.

Cole said Thursday he did not see any conflict of interest in serving on the land trust board and then voting to recommend the town give $200,000 to the organization.

He said no board member would receive any personal financial benefit from the donation and said Simm's decision to recuse himself is different because he is the trust's paid director. He added that he sees the trust as an adjunct to the town, which does not have its own land trust, and that a $200,000 donation does not enhance the trust itself.

"There's lots of conflicts you can derive from all sorts of things in town if you want to look for them," Cole said, adding that votes that members of commissions take can sometimes indirectly enhance their businesses at some point.

Baldwin does not have a listed phone number and could not be reached for comment Thursday.

According to the meeting minutes, the land trust has raised $800,000 of the $2 million needed for the acquisition. The deadline to do so is November 2015. The trust is also seeking federal funding.

While Newton wrote that he considers the land trust's attempt to preserve the Davis land "a noble cause," he feels public monies should not be used because the land will not have unrestricted public access. He pointed out residents want more recreational opportunities in town, something that has been reflected in drafts of the updated Plan of Conservation and Development.

The expenditure would have to be approved by the Board of Selectmen, Board of Finance and eventually voters at a town meeting.

Discussion of the $200,000 recommendation was not listed on the agenda for the April 28 meeting but was added by the commission that night. While the action is legal, Newton wrote: "It seems that when a commission is voting to transfer over 50 percent of the town's land acquisition fund to another entity, the action item should have been posted to the pre-meeting agenda on the town website. This item was an add-on at the meeting. While legal, it does have the appearance of something shady."

Newton, who did not attend the meeting, states that meeting minutes do not show that anyone from the Stonington Land Trust apart from those on the commission made a presentation to the commission or requested the funding.

"It would seem that in order for the transaction to be totally transparent, the SLT should have been treated as any other organization," he wrote.

Newton added that state law allows a Conservation Commission to make recommendations on the expenditure of funds only when the municipality is going to purchase a property or easement.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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