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."