BREAKING NEWS: South Bethany councilman resigns over neutrality questions

Division in South Bethany over the issue of a proposed town park reached a peak of drama this week, when Councilman Robert Youngs abruptly resigned from the council during a break in the council’s Oct. 28 workshop, after having unsuccessfully urged fellow Councilman John Fields to resign from his position as chairman of the town’s Richard Hall Memorial Park Committee. The committee presented a survey packet on the park issue to the council Thursday night.

During a citizens’ comment period at the start of the workshop, property owner Jennifer Rigioni spoke to her concerns about how the council is dealing with the park proposal.

“I would ask everyone to open up their minds,” Rigioni told the council Oct. 28. “But a conversation I had with a council member has made me question democracy in this town.”

Rigioni related – verbally and in writing – a detailed account of a conversation she said she had had with Fields on Oct. 18, after having been told Mayor Jay Headman was on vacation.

According to Rigioni, “He proceeded to tell me that the previous mayor did a good job at keeping this park issue under wraps, but these ‘tenacious park people’ will not let it go. They have gotten themselves into the council to force the issue. As a result, the mayor and council have been forced to address the park. Hopefully, with the survey it can be put to rest again, until this tenacious group gets themselves elected into the mayor position,” she recalled him saying.

Rigioni said she had asked Fields what his personal position was on the park and, she said, he told her that he felt sorry for those that live across the street from the park because they were promised the land would never be built on; but, he told her, since he didn’t live there, it doesn’t affect him directly.

Concerns about Fields’ neutrality on the issue of the park have been raised before. During a prior council meeting, resident Ed Nazarian had questioned Fields’ neutrality as chairman of the town’s Richard Hall Memorial Park Committee. The complaint was heard, but the council took no action.

As chairman of the five-member committee, Fields has been a swing vote in deciding what forms of survey, survey questions and other information the committee would recommend the council use to garner public opinion on the issue.

A pro-park councilperson (Sue Callaway) and opponents’ representative councilperson (Tim Saxton), together with two citizens representing the pro-park group and opposition to the park (Pat VanCleave and Andy Ross, respectively), made up the balance of the committee.

Fields, as chairman, was also responsible for mediating discussion between the two sides and, at times, dictated where he said concessions should be made.

“Is the council’s intent to have an unbiased survey, or to sway the survey?” Rigioni asked on Thursday. “At the end of the day, we need a democratic process.”

VanCleave chimed in with her own concerns about Fields’ neutrality.

“Now I see why I left every one of the park committee meetings so frustrated. I believed he would be impartial,” she said of Fields. “I’m sure that it was in your heart to do that, John, but that isn't what happened; the democratic process did not work.”

With those concerns having been voiced, Youngs asked to be heard Thursday night, prior to the council moving on with Fields’ presentation of the survey packet the committee had voted 3-2 (with Fields as the swing vote) to recommend to the council.

“Based on what I have heard at this meeting, I would suggest John recuse himself from this committee and that everything that’s been brought forward today be thrown out,” Youngs said.

“When the referendum was squashed,” he added, referring to the scheduled and then canceled May referendum on the park issue, “I said I thought [then-Mayor Gary Jayne] was stonewalling. … It appears I didn't cast the net wide enough and that [other council members are] also stonewalling. I believe this committee is tainted with that.

“There is only one way forward,” Youngs said, suggesting the council let the town’s planning commission create its own survey on the subject.

“I’m not going to recuse myself,” Fields replied. “We have spent five months developing this document. I’m going to present this document on behalf of the committee, and the council as a group can vote on the document.”

Fields then reiterated a warning from the Oct. 14 Richard Hall Memorial Park Committee meeting: “If the council votes this down, nothing happens. The park stays the same.”

Youngs objected further to that notion.

“You have presented a binary survey with a bias toward the no, with a phone conversation stating that's the result that you want. You said if we vote this down, that's the end of it and the answer is no – which is the result you said you want,” Young said, again asking Fields to recuse himself.

“Is that a motion?” inquired Mayor Jay Headman of Youngs.

“I would prefer to settle this amicably,” Youngs replied.

“I’m not going to recuse myself,” Fields said again. “I’ve listened to [Youngs] until he was done, and I’m ready to present the packet.”

Council considers possible bias of survey

After Fields’ presentation of the survey form itself, council members did hear from Callaway on Thursday about an alternative survey she had written out of her concerns that the yes-or-no survey question Fields, Saxton and Ross favored would not garner the degree of input the town might want. Callaway’s survey broke down support of the park into a series of options that would have let citizens say they wanted some or all of the proposed features, or to say they wanted the park kept as it is.

The committee had split 3-2 on Oct. 14 on which of the two surveys to recommend to the council, with Fields as the deciding vote in favor of the simpler yes-or-no question format. Fields had argued that the more extensive options of the pro-park survey selection would bias respondents toward voting in favor of the park project.

Saxton, for his part, said he felt the committee had done its job.

“This was a Democratic process. There was a vote, and the vote was taken,” he said of the 3-2 split in the committee.

Council members also split on the issue on Thursday, voting 4-3 in favor of the yes-or-no survey, with Headman, Fields, Saxton and Councilman Bob Cestone in favor, and Callaway, Youngs and Councilman George Junkin favoring the alternative.

Young said he also had further objections to the content of the survey package, including the inclusion of a financial statement offering estimated costs of the features of a proposed park plan and other elements that may be involved, such as maintenance costs.

“As soon as that financial statement is included with the survey, it becomes, ‘Do you want to spend this money?’ We look foolish to ask if they want to spend an amount of money that would require a special election,” Youngs said, arguing that voters would remember the prior special election the town held on spending on the new town hall and would realize they would end up voting on any major expense, such as the park project. Therefore, he implied, they wouldn’t find truly useful the rough estimates of the costs of the project, which the pro-park group had argued were too high according to their own research.

Fields said he felt that if Youngs was the only council member with remaining objections, the council could just move on to discussing the elements of the financial statement, but Junkin said he would like to hear Youngs’ other concerns.

However, Youngs appeared to have resigned himself to a 4-3 vote against his point of view.

“There’s four here I couldn't convince if I had a battleaxe and I was swinging at them,” he said. “Four-three is the vote. Let's move on.”

Division on what qualifies as fact

During discussion of the two sides’ position papers, some present at the Oct. 28 workshop took issue with Fields over the question of whether the parcel in question is, in fact, a wetland of some sort.

Ross and Saxton had stated in their position paper opposing further development of the wooded parcel that it was a freshwater seasonal wetland, and therefore particularly environmentally sensitive. VanCleave and Callaway, however, had a statement from an engineer that certified that the park property is uplands – failing to show any indication of any of the three criteria required to be considered wetlands, Callaway said.

Having been asked by Headman and Fields to make sure that any statement in their pro-park position paper were documented and verified by sources, Callaway and VanCleave took issue with Ross’ unsubstantiated assertion of the parkland being wetlands. Fields had said on Oct. 14 that his purpose in asking for documentation was only to make sure that those whom Callaway and VanCleave had cited as sources were willing to be on the record.

But Headman confirmed on Oct. 28 that he had intended all statements of fact to be backed up by some sort of documentation.

Ross explained that the area of the park was shown in a Center for the Inland Bays brochure as being in an area of freshwater seasonal wetlands, but he admitted that the map didn’t identify the specific parcel that is the park. He argued, too, that the opinion supplied by the pro-park group hadn’t really been objective, or was, perhaps, that of an engineer who wasn’t aware of contemporary municipal policies in dealing with sensitive wetlands.

Headman objected to that.

“One of the things that we tried to do is say if there was documentation of a statement and it was verified, then that statement could stay in the document,” he said. “I didn't see that with the other paper. I do believe we have verification of a document that says this is an upland and, to me, that's a fact. Money was spent for that, and I know … they would do what they need to do; and if it was a wetlands, they would have said it was a wetlands.”

Rigioni had said Fields had acknowledged in her conversation with him that the parcel was uplands. But Fields said on Thursday that he felt the verdict was still out.

“There's no validity to either statement,” he said. “I’m not willing to take one out without taking the other out.”

However, the council consensus fell against Fields on the issue, and the anti-park group’s statement that the parkland is a wetlands was to be removed.

Could cost estimates sway respondents?

Callaway also said she objected to how Saxton had reworded a reference she had requested to the park project not proceeding without grants, outside funding and/or services-in-kind when he noted that the town couldn’t guarantee it would receive such funds.

Fields acknowledged that the committee had agreed to put in Callaway’s statement but Saxton said he’d felt the statement needed the caveat, though Callaway said she felt it undermined the position of the pro-park group and, she asserted, most or all of the council – that no park will be developed in absence of grant funding.

Fields said he himself had reconsidered the issue after agreeing to the addition and had decided that Callaway’s statement, as written, would bias the survey package in favor of the pro-park side.

“I realized that to put this statement would put tremendous bias on the financial statement,” he said. “It says none of this would go forward unless there are grant monies. And that takes all the sting out of these costs. … That adds a bias. That biases the whole thing,” he added.

Again disagreeing with Fields, the council found consensus in simply saying that the current council would not proceed to develop a park in the absence of grants and/or outside funding.

With those amendments agreed to, the council took a brief break from their workshop to allow those wishing to leave after discussion of the park survey to do so. During the break, Youngs packed up his belongings. He then walked out of town hall, having provided a written statement to the Coastal Point reading as follows:

“I hereby submit my resignation from this council effective immediately. I cannot serve on a council whose members are so blatant in their attempts to mislead the public for purposes of their own in a matter of such consequence as the park issue.

“I have no problem serving with those who disagree with me. I do have a problem with those who are dishonest, who say one thing to your face and another behind your back, who publicly profess to represent the people of South Bethany and then proceed by actions to deceive those very same people.

“It is of no consequence whether you favor or disapprove of a park, but to plead neutrality and to then attempt every possible method to derail, sidetrack or sabotage the issue is beyond what I can accept.

“I have no desire to serve with those who would knowingly subjugate the will of the people for the sake of their own agenda.

“Integrity has a place in small-town politics. What happened?”

Youngs made no verbal announcement of his resignation. And, indeed, council members appeared perplexed when they realized he had left the meeting.

“When you're not happy with the party, you go home,” Fields observed.

The rest of the meeting continued with the council apparently unaware of Youngs’ resignation. Asked to comment on the statement Youngs had provided to the Coastal Point prior to leaving town hall, which was then provided to him, Headman said he had no comment at that time.

Pick up the Nov. 5 issue of the Coastal Point for more on this story.