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Town Council's Denial of an Inland Wetlands Appointment Stirs Heated Debate

Democrats claim their appointments face greater scrutiny, a charge Republicans strongly deny.

A Town Council deadlock leading to a denial of a Democratic party nominee for the Inland Wetlands Commission Monday night, ended with shouting by one Democratic official and angry denials of playing politics from First Selectman Steve Vavrek and Republican Town Committee Chairman Jeffrey Guttman.

Domenic J. Paniccia of Easton Road, a Democrat who has more than 40 years experience in construction, has served on the Long Island Sound Advisory Commission. He was vetted by town Democrats to finish a vacancy created by Michael Sohon, whose term ends on Feb. 24,2015.

In a letter to the Town Council asking that Paniccia's appointment be put on Monday night's agenda, First Selectman Steve Vavrek, a Republican, wrote that Paniccia "has a special interest in the protection of inland-wetlands and water courses from undesirable and unregulated usage, wildlife habitat protection, and balancing the need for economic growth while at the same time protecting Monroe's environment."

It was concern over Paniccia's experience in construction that was cited by those in opposition of his appointment. Lois Spence, who serves as secretary on the Inland Wetlands Commission, was among them.

When the Town Council asked if anyone wanted to speak in opposition of the appointment, Spence said, "I don't know Mr. Paniccia at all, but I Googled him." She said her search showed that he was a real estate developer.

"There's a difference in ideology," Spence said. "A developer, by definition, develops. Where an Inland Wetlands member sees a vernal pool, a developer sees a shopping mall. There is a conflict of interest here."

Spence contended that most applications are brought by a developer, which she said could lead to frequent recusals from hearings by Paniccia, who may know them in some way — leaving the commission short-handed. She also expressed concern that having a developer on the commission could lead to lawsuits being filed by people looking for any excuse to sue when a decision does not go their way.

Sue Koneff, co-chair of the Democratic Town Committee's Vacancy Committee, told the council that Paniccia is "semi-retired" and spends about 90 percent of his time helping people with autism.

She also maintained that Paniccia had met with the first selectman and assured him he would recuse himself if anything could be seen as a conflict of interest.

Koneff claimed that there are members of the Inland Wetlands Commission, who have violations on their own properties. And DTC Chairwoman Patricia Ulatowski called for a town inspection of property owned by all commission members — including both Democrats and Republicans.

Koneff charged that Democratic party appointments receive far more scrutiny than Republican ones. She said her party thoroughly vets its candidates and is being constantly second guessed.

Moments later, Vavrek angrily denied that opposition to Paniccia was political. "I am sick and tired of the politics in this town," he said. "To say that political rhetoric is B.S. This is what the town is sick of."

"The man has a lot of talents," Vavrek said of Paniccia, adding Paniccia convinced him that he would recuse himself from any hearings with perceived conflicts. "The man is a gentleman. I believe him."

Vavrek said it was up to the members of the Town Council to vote on whether or not approve Paniccia's appointment. To those who believed any opponents were politically motivated, Vavrek said, "Shame on you people. Shame on you."

'I'm not a developer'

The most heated arguments on the floor of the Town Council were over whether or not Paniccia is a real estate developer at all.

"Mr. Paniccia is not a real estate developer," Ulatowski said. "Even though Ms. Spence Googled him, you could Google me and find I am still Town Clerk of Stratford."

Ulatowski has not been Stratford's Town Clerk for several years.

Paniccia attended the meeting and asked to be able to speak before the Town Council decided upon the appointment.

"I don't know where they're labeling me a developer," he said. "Mr. Vavrek was satisfied that I'm not a developer and now he's saying I'm a developer."

Vavrek waved a sheet listing Paniccia's campaign contributions. "You had campaign contributions that said you're a developer three times," Vavrek said. "That's what you put down."

After the meeting, the first selectman said he had never been satisfied that Paniccia was not a developer.

When Paniccia spoke, he said when he went to school he was a student, that he had been a teacher at one time, as well as a soldier in the Army — but added that does not mean he is any of those things now.

Paniccia said he has a commitment to clean water and protecting plants and wildlife. He added that his experience in construction makes him knowledgeable in how to contain runoff from streets, preventing it from flowing into wetlands.

Town Council Takes Action

Town Councilwoman Dee Dee Martin, a Democrat, said, "Mr. Paniccia's credentials speak for themselves. He has special interests in wildlife and protection of the environment. I wholeheartedly support this nomination."

Town Council Vice Chairman Tony Unger, a Republican, asked if there was anything other than Paniccia's having served on the Long Island Sound Advisory Commission that the council could consider, which shows a commitment to the environment, or if any of Paniccia's degrees had anything to do with the subject.

Chris Catropa, a fellow Republican on the council, expressed support for Paniccia's appointment.

"I don't see why anyone should be excluded from serving in town government because of their occupation," Catropa said. "I have no problem with this appointment whatsoever."

Town Council Chairwoman Enid Lipeles, a Republican, said she did not want an Inland Wetlands Commission member's being a developer to be used as a reason for people to sue the town.

JP Sredzinski, another Republican on the council, said, "I take no joy in denying anyone from serving the town. I have supported nominations for Republicans and Democrats. If this was for the Economic Development Commission, I would be for it. But I'm concerned that he is a developer."

Martin wondered if there was similar scrutiny on other commissions, such as over a Realtor serving on Planning & Zoning. "Where do you stop that?" she asked. "Do you not put a lawyer on something or other? I can't believe we're having this discussion over someone who wants to serve."

Deborah Heim, a Republican; Catropa, Martin and David Halliwell, a Democrat, voted in favor of Paniccia's appointment. Lipeles, Sredzinski, Unger and Town Councilman Jeffrey Guttman voted against it. The 4-4 tie meant that the vote failed.

Having nine Town Council members prevents a deadlock, but Michele Mount, a Democrat, did not attend Monday night's meeting.

After Paniccia's appointment was denied, Koneff could be heard in back of the Council Chambers shouting, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely." Then she and Ulatowski stormed out of the meeting.

In the hallway, she said Republicans control everything in Monroe, adding that in over 70 years Democrats have only had a majority on the Town Council for two years when President Nixon was impeached.

After the meeting, the first selectman told reporters he was unhappy with allegations that opposition to Paniccia's appointment was political. He noted how he had moved the appointment forward and said he defended Paniccia.

When a newspaper reporter told Vavrek it did not look like he was advocating hard for Paniccia's appointment, the first selectman said he respects the Town Council's role in discussing and voting on apppointments.

Guttman said, "Mr. Vavrek told us that he interviewed Mr. Paniccia and he was impressed with his qualifications and his word that he would recuse himself if anything came up that was a conflict. This was not a political vote. Two Republicans voted for him."

Guttman also criticized Koneff and Ulatowski for "not showing respect" for the Town Council dais after the vote, despite being public officials themselves.

He said, "They should be ashamed of themselves for the way they acted."

QWERTY September 27, 2011 at 04:17 PM
She's been MIA for a while...
Barry September 27, 2011 at 04:56 PM
Oh gee, hypocritical faux outrage from the Democrats in this town. How novel. But yeah, incendiary emotional diatribes on patch.com are definitely the stamp of someone looking for a solution versus trying to score political points to the detriment of the rest of us.
Sheila D September 27, 2011 at 05:03 PM
@ Michael, so true. That's like saying P&Z members have a conflict if they own property in town (which some do), or that BoE members have a conflict if they have children in the schools (which some do), or that BoF members have a conflict if they can balance their own checking account (I really hope they all can), or that EDC members have a conflict if they have a business in town (which at least one does). If Board/Commission members feel they have a conflict, then they recuse themselves. If they don't recuse themselves and it is discovered they should have, then off to the Ethics Committee or have the person step down. Every elected/appointed official has some stake in the game because every one of them is a resident of Monroe. Their agenda should always be about doing what is right for their community, and not what is right for themselves. Not trying to be political here, but why don't we ever see stories of Republican nominations being turned down? I would like to think that both parties go to great lengths to find qualified individuals before bringing them to nomination. Ms. Koneff/Ms. Ulatowski heartily defended their candidate and found him to be very qualified. If a nominated individual has a proven record of wrong intentions, or improper reason for getting involved, that's one thing, but don't let quality individuals with experience that would benefit a Board/Commission, and our town, slip through the cracks...that's just infuriating.
Joey September 27, 2011 at 05:23 PM
@Shelia - I agree. The problem with the ethics committee is that its been stacked with very partisan players. There is no doubt that a democrat would never get a fair shake in front of those players. It is very troubling how Vavrek appointed a wealthy campaign contributor and the former chair of the republican town committee to run this. Can you even imagine writing a large check to someone and then get appointed to a committee? Corruption of power and poor leadership are ruining our town.
Patrick O'Hara September 27, 2011 at 06:19 PM
Sue- I mean Joey- ethics stacked with partisan players like DTC Members White and Tomchick plus your candidate Carlton who works with White in the Bridgeport City Hall? Got a mirror handy DTC vacancy chair lady? No doubt that any Republican in front of ethics would not get a fair shake from your appointments either honey!
Joey September 27, 2011 at 06:31 PM
@Ohara - the question is why did someone get appointed to ethics after writing a big check for Vavrek's re-election campaign? If a democrat did that you would have your cronies on the Town Counsel make a stink. What is your issue with Bridgeport? Is that some kind of code word you use for your like minded supporters? Interesting choice of words - says a lot about you Patrick.
jim laguardia September 27, 2011 at 06:50 PM
Ladys... Ladys, you are both pretty now please stop with the name calling
DawnV September 27, 2011 at 09:07 PM
Frequently developers have more knowledge and respect for the environment than some others simply because of their experience. Paniccia seems to be quite qualified and just because someone 'googled' him is a ridiculous reason and makes no sense to deny his appointment no matter with what party he's affiliated. And shame on those who don't even bother to show up and vote on the appointments.
Rt25 September 27, 2011 at 10:42 PM
Oh dear, heard from a contact at town Hall, this is not over. The Democrats are preparing for part 2, and it is not going to be nice. This is what happens when two sides of differing opinions cannot talk to each other. I just wish someone would take up the issue of the town hall hours.
michael massao September 27, 2011 at 10:49 PM
Joey- that picture of you- is it....why, yes it is! Eraserhead! Wow, David Lynch 1977, I remember seeing that in college. I wonder if you can find that on Netflix...
Patrick Carleton September 28, 2011 at 01:45 AM
It seems as if Mr. O'Hara believes I am a partisan player with other Democratic members of the Board of Ethics such as Pat Tomchick and Phil White. I'd like to take this time to clarify who I am and why I believe this statement is completely false and misleading. I have been as active as possible in local government for a long time now and I have a passion for it. I am not a "partisan player" as Mr. O'Hara puts it. I have family and friends who are Republicans, I don't judge them for that, and they don't judge me for my outlook and views on issues that impact this Town. My objective is to work together and find common ground to better the Town and the residents who live and work here. If elected, I will do just that. Mr. O'Hara I have never personally addressed you or called you out about your involvement in the Town of Monroe. I have respect for all people who volunteer their time to serve the residents of Monroe, and that respect is for all people regardless of political affiliation. I have served with Republicans on the Board of Ethics who I consider good people and who have the Town's best interest at heart when they are faced with making challenging decisions, and the same can be said for the Democrats on that Board as well.
Patrick Carleton September 28, 2011 at 01:45 AM
I take pride in the fact that I was raised (in both Bridgeport and Monroe) with good values and morals. I didn’t become a member of the Board of Ethics to take sides. I did it to serve the Town of Monroe at the time when no other residents would stand up and take on that challenge. I have taken numerous ethics courses and found it to be a topic that was interesting to me and believed I could offer some logical insight into the issues all while it would be a learning experience for me. Like I said I wanted to address this misconception raised from Mr. O’Hara that I am some “partisan” player. I’m glad you wanted to call me out, it’s flattering, but next time try to understand where I am coming from before you make a falsified statement. As I said before, I don’t post on Patch for the obvious reasons. I will be campaigning and door knocking around town and hopefully I will get a chance to meet with as many of you as possible to answer the questions you may have. I wish all candidates the best of luck and I hope that I will have everyone’s support on November 8th. Also, I’m sorry for grammatical or spelling errors, I have had a long day with work and class. Thank you, Patrick Carleton
Donna Gail September 28, 2011 at 03:41 AM
Guttman says "this was not partisan. Two Republicans voted for (Paniccia)." Yes - Catropa, the young R who votes his own mind and has probably been reprimanded by his party for doing so and is not being allowed to run for Council again (that will teach YOU to vote with the D's, Chris), and Heim, who has always seemed more level-headed than most of the R's and probably wouldn't care if they threw her out. And then a Republican member of the Inland-Wetlands Commission conveniently gets up to speak against the appointment - with her well-researched conclusion that since Paniccia was once a developer, he can't possibly have any values or opinions that would be in line with hers. And apparently you need to think the same way as she does to be accepted into the IW fold. Volunteers with all sorts of backgrounds have been appointed to all the commissions in town for years, and now the council members are suddenly delving into the backgrounds of the Democratic nominees and asking things about their degrees? This is not business as usual. With the R's controlling all the boards and commissions AND holding the first selectman's office, they are just making up their own rules as they go, and they're laughing about it.
Sheila D September 28, 2011 at 11:52 AM
Really Mr. O'Hara? Phil White was a former Republican and an Independent, so what party line does he tow exactly? Patrick Carleton is what, 25 maybe? He's still trying to figure out what the party line is (or if there even is one), and Pat Tomchik?? Good lord, the woman is one of the most non-controversial officials out there. Your tone of attack is quite unacceptable on this public forum, especially for a business owner. It seems quite confrontational and offensive. If I was a Democrat, I don't think I'd be frequenting your establishment. If I was an Independent, I'd be a little wary about coming to your business out of fear of being asked my party, or having to hear about your one sided view of town politics. If I was a business owner, this would be no place in which I'd air my thoughts.
Rt25 September 28, 2011 at 12:36 PM
I'm beginning to think --- I don't know what to think anymore. But I have had the pleasure of chatting with Patrick Carleton and I find him quite pleasant and sincere. I know he wants to work hard for Monroe and do a good job for the community. So, there is my first choice for a councilman. I will be voting for Patrick. And, I did ask him about the town hall hours and was pleased with his response.
jim laguardia September 28, 2011 at 02:11 PM
To sheila's point if i were a "honey" i would never buy anything from you
Christine E. September 28, 2011 at 03:04 PM
Sheila, your point is exactly why I have always chosen to keep my last name Private. As a business owner (not in Monroe, though) I would never want someone to link my political views to the service I provide. They are unrelated.
jim laguardia September 28, 2011 at 03:32 PM
christine political views should be kept seperate but comments like calling a woman "honey" are not
Christine E. September 28, 2011 at 03:42 PM
Jim, Obviously calling a woman "honey" other than your own wife/girlfriend is offensive. I'm woman too, you know. However, Patrick's use of the word was not the purpose of my comment.
Joey September 28, 2011 at 04:42 PM
@O'Hara - would be curious to know why you make fun of people who work in Bridgeport or are from Bridgeport?? How do you know where all these people work?? Every time I go by town hall your truck is there. It appears you have A LOT of free time on your hands. Based on your condescending remarks It is an embarrassment to our town that you are a top adviser to Vavrek and an elected official.
QWERTY September 28, 2011 at 05:11 PM
A lot of criminals I read about who are arrested in Monroe are from Bridgeport. Just sayin...
Designated Hitter September 28, 2011 at 07:35 PM
Patrick Carleton - I appreciate, applaud and respect your post - you come across as sincere, honest, open minded, polite and having an interest in helping the town. That is truly refreshing. I only wish more of our elected officials did the same! Mr. O'Hara - as an elected official, what you post and your tone are completely unprofessional, inappropriate and quite embarrassing. You (and a few other elected officials) really should reconsider what or whether to post here.
dee dee martin September 29, 2011 at 04:18 PM
I "googled" my name and it came back as a singer and a Washington lawyer among other things, gotta love that "google" to be really informed.
Joey September 29, 2011 at 04:37 PM
Just another example of poor leadership and poor decision making by the people in power. People like Vavrek and O'Hara need to be voted out of office. It's not clear who they really represent.
Walt September 29, 2011 at 05:44 PM
I'm a lawyer, record setting hurdler and am doing 20 years in jail in new jersey
Christine E. September 29, 2011 at 06:02 PM
I'm both a soccer player and someone who stabbed her son. Yay for google!
Charlie Brown September 29, 2011 at 06:18 PM
@Christine--- based on the method used for backgrounds checks by TC and Vavrek, I am sorry to inform you that you will be voted down..However based on other appointments, you may have a chance if you write a $1,000 check to the re-elect Vavrek campaign!
Christine E. September 29, 2011 at 07:07 PM
Charlie Brown - oh, that's a shame. Good thing I've got soccer as my back up plan.
DawnV September 29, 2011 at 07:22 PM
WOW Like I said... what a way on which to base your decision for a commission appointment... just go with someone's comment "I googled him, and..... " Totally Ridiculous!
Rt25 September 30, 2011 at 11:37 AM
I think Dee Dee Martin would have had the votes if she was able to sing, but that Washington lawyer stuff, that's a disqualifier. Christine E. it would have been the soccer player that disqualified you, stabbing your son would not have even been discussed.

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