Zoning chairman says conflict claim nothing more than smear campaign

The Planning & Zoning Commission’s decision to approve changes to its regulations to accommodate a possible senior housing proposal may not be the last word on the matter as town officials believe opponents of the project are gearing up for a legal challenge.

Former First Selectman Timothy Herbst, who represents a group of three condominium owners who live across the street from the former UnitedHealth building at 48 Monroe Turnpike, said he had “a big problem” with the commission’s 4-1 decision Jan. 2 that cleared the way for mixed senior housing at the site. The development, which has not been formally proposed, is expected to include about 150 age-restricted apartments, plus assisted living and memory care units.

“My clients have due process rights,” Herbst said the day after the P&Z rendered its decision. “There are serious procedural defects that have been caused by town officials.”

Chief among the procedural flaws Herbst alleged is a claimed conflict of interest regarding Planning & Zoning Commission Chairman Fred Garrity, who was one of the four commissioners to vote in favor of the changes. The conflict claim first came to light at the end of an otherwise routine posting by First Selectman Vicki Tesoro on the town website Dec. 31.

“My office has recently received correspondence from the Chairman of the Trumbull Republican Town Committee (TRTC), regarding something they perceive to be a conflict of interest in connection with this application,” Tesoro wrote in the conclusion to an update on the 48 Monroe Turnpike application. “There is no merit to this claim. Nonetheless, I have referred this TRTC email to our Town Attorneys for review.”

Joseph Pifko, the RTC chairman, in a Dec. 28 email to Tesoro, had questioned whether an unnamed member of the Planning & Zoning Commission had a conflict of interest in the case.

“On multiple occasions I have been told that a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission who sat and heard the application for the zone change and text amendment for the property at 48 Monroe Turnpike, has either previously or currently been employed by or received compensation from your husband‘s company,” Pifko wrote. “Given your public support for the application...I believe it is imperative that if this is true, public disclosure should be made and the individual should recuse them self. This should happen before the January 2, 2019 vote on this application.

At the Jan. 2 P&Z meeting, Garrity publicly addressed Pifko’s email and identified himself as the commissioner in question. Garrity’s company, FTG Strategic Partners, specializes in labor and employee relations. In early 2017 Garrity said he had a casual conversation with Tom Tesoro, a vice president of human resources at Standard Motor Products Inc. about sexual harassment prevention training. Garrity later produced a training video for SMP. He said the work took about 20 days over the course of several months.

“This was not a secret,” he said. “I was quite proud of it. I posted about it on my Facebook and LinkedIn pages.”

When he became aware of Pifko’ questions, Garrity said he engaged attorney William Bloss of Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder for a legal opinion on whether the consulting work amounted to a conflict.

“The answer is clearly no,” Garrity said.

The P&Z is an elected body in Trumbull which operates independently of the first selectman, Garrity said.

“The first selectman, much less her husband, has no role in this,” he said. “There is no conflict real or possible. None at all.”

Following his statement Garrity, a Democrat, asked the other commissioners, Democrats Tony D’Aquila and Dan Helfrich, and Republicans Anthony Chory and Larry LaConte, if they had any questions or comments. When they had none, the commission moved on with its agenda. For his part, Pifko commented that, "I appreciate the clarification of what appeared to be a possible ethics conflict."

On Thursday morning, the day after the commission approved the regulatory changes, Garrity expressed his belief that Pifko’s email was part of a smear campaign.

“Sadly, it was clearly, 100% political,” he said. “To have the new chairman of the party lobbing an unfounded, baseless, and completely inaccurate accusation is nothing but political.”

Garrity also noted that Pifko’s email, and a series of anonymous mailers and phone calls opposing the development and urging residents to call Tesoro’s office to voice their opposition, came at about the same time Herbst got involved in the process. Herbst is a member of the RTC , as is his father, Michael Herbst, who is listed as the party’s vice chairman.

“The former first selectman speaks against this senior housing development and then all of a sudden there are political attacks and unfounded ethics accusations by the RTC chairman trying to muddy the waters? That’s a pretty big coincidence,” he said.

Herbst, who has denied being behind the mailers, said he first became aware of Pifko’s email when he received a copy of it. Herbst was one of three attorneys to be cc’d on the email. The other two are Joel Green, representing another group opposing the development, and John Knuff, who represents the 48 Monroe Tpke. group.

“During the public hearing, I asked a general question if any member of the commission had a real or perceived conflict, that that disclosure be made on the record,” he said. “So nobody said anything, and thereafter I didn’t think anything of it.”

Pifko’s email, which was sent and replied to after the public portion of the hearing closed, is an important part of the administrative record, Herbst said.

“I was bothered by the fact that Attorney Green and I did not have a chance to explore the potential conflict,” he said. “These questions might have led us to a different conclusion and required us to ask for a recusal.”

Garrity said Herbst’s claims do not constitute a conflict of interest on any level.

“To claim a conflict because Vicki is the first selectman, and I did some work for the company that her husband works at is so far reaching, it doesn’t even come close,” he said.