Public comment is top issue at selectmen meeting
Allowing public comment during Board of Selectmen meetings was the topic most heavily addressed at Monday night’s meeting.
Other topics discussed at the meeting included a new COVID-19 testing site and the appointment of Brent Hayes to the Darien Police Commission.
During the 50-minute meeting, Darien First Selectman Jayme Stevenson and other board members agreed that public comment, as a standard practice, should be heard at meetings.
This topic related to the events of the June 22 Board of Selectmen meeting where not all public comment was read aloud, including comments submitted via email by former First Selectman Evonne Klein.
Since the June 22 meeting, a sentence had been added onto the agenda with regard to public comment, which says “E-mailed comments may be read aloud at the discretion of the Board of Selectmen.”
Further instructions on submitting comments to Board of Selectmen meetings can be found on the board’s meeting agenda, on the town website.
The discussion of public comment had been amended into the agenda at the July 7 meeting, at the suggestion of Selectman Christa McNamara.
Stevenson said having discussed this issue with town counsel, “for boards like ours, public comment is not the same as a public hearing. There’s no right for public comment in a public meeting. It is up to the discretion of the board and the chairman, specifically.”
However, she said it’s been a long-standing practice that this Board of Selectmen has allowed for public comment and “I strongly recommend that we continue doing so.”
Due to the effects of COVID-19, protocols for submitting public comment have fluctuated over the past several months.
Currently, residents who wish to make a public comment can come in, dial in or submit written testimony.
The selectmen spoke about acknowledging letter writers by name and address, but said they don’t favor having comments read aloud by someone else. This is due to inflection in the language and emphasizing or not emphasizing certain words.
All written comments submitted to the board are accessible to the public and can be found in the minutes of the meeting for which they were submitted. The minutes are published on the town website.
During public comment at the end of Monday’s meeting, Klein, speaking remotely, said she wants to encourage the members of the board “to allow for and identify a clear process by which citizens can provide public comment.”
Additionally, she said the correct information for public comment “at this point in time is not easy to find.”
“Of late, we have seen that when residents speak up, they have been met in a variety of arenas with personal attacks, charges of conspiracy or belittling,” Klein said.
Klein continued: “I urge the Board of Selectmen to be a model of better behavior to create a process that welcomes voices of Darien citizens, and values engagement, especially in this time of uncertainty.”
The only other public comment the board received was a letter from resident Rob Richards, which will be added into the meeting minutes.
Relocation of COVID-19 testing site
The board unanimously approved of the relocation of the COVID-19 testing site in the rear of the Leroy West parking lot, until such time as the parking lot is needed to accommodate commuters.
The site will be open on Friday, July 10.
All the surrounding neighbors to the new location have been notified.
The testing site had previously been located at Darien High School.
Stevenson said the testing tent is as far away as possible from the adjacent homes on Old Stone Road.
“As soon as people to go back into work and start commuting, then we would have to make a different decision” in regard to a testing site location, she said.
Appointment of Brent Hayes to the Police Commission
The board unanimously approved the appointment of Brent Hayes, a former RTM Finance & Budget Committee member, to the Police Commission.
Hayes’ term will end June 30, 2022. He replaces former police commissioner Thomas Joyce.
Hayes’ appointment is subject to a positive background check, which is a fairly new practice by the board.
Ox Ridge Elementary School
On June 23, the Planning & Zoning Commission approved the towns’ application for the new Ox Ridge Elementary School.
“We are pretty much through with almost all of the regulatory approvals we need, with the exception of OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] from the state concerning the traffic intersection of Mansfield and Ox Ridge Driveway,” Selectman Kip Koons said.
Koons provided an approximate timeline of completion dates:
Design development phase — completed.
Drawing phase, currently in construction. Bidding will probably go out late August or early September.
Construction of the new academic wing — November through January 2022. During this period, the existing school will remain totally intact.
February break — Students will move over to the academic wing. The existing building will be demolished.
Completion of work — 2023.
The current cost estimate is $63.9 million. The project is $900,000 over budget. The amount spent to date is $1,482,000.
School district reopenings
On June 29, the State Department of Education released its “Adapt, Advance, Achieve: Connecticut’s Plan to Learn and Grow Together,” which is a road map for school district reopenings in the fall, according to Stevenson.
“Districts are tasked with drafting their own local plans with some common elements, and those plans will be submitted to the State Department of Education for approval by the end of the July,” Stevenson said.
“It’s anticipated that the Connecticut legislature will be called into special session this month to address police accountability and absentee ballot legislation,” Stevenson said. “There’s also a proposal for legislation to change zoning regulations, which may also be pushed through this special session.”
Department of Housing
The approved 2020-21 capital budget supports the state-mandated affordable housing plan that’s due by mid-2022, according to Stevenson.
The Department of Housing has hired an organization called RPA as the consultant to determine the plan content requirements. RPA guidance is due by November.
“The Planning & Zoning Commission will likely hire a consultant to assist with the drafting of our local affordable housing plan,” she said. “The process should take approximately 10 months and will be completed well in advance of the mandated deadline.”
The Board of Selectmen received several emails over the weekend about crowded beaches this holiday weekend.
The Park and Recreation Commission sets park and beach policy, so residents should reach out to them with questions. All emails received by the Board of Selectmen have been forwarded to the commission and the department head.
Aquarion has communicated that its reservoir system has hit the first drought trigger and will likely hit the second drought trigger this week.
They’re asking for a voluntary 20 percent reduction in consumption. Aquarion is out enforcing the twice per week irrigation mandate.
Customers must apply for new waivers for new plantings or for large lawns. More information can be found on the water company’s website at Aquarionwater.com.
Highland Farms, Monuments & Ceremonies
The parking areas and walking path have been completed at Highland Farms. The space is not yet open to the public.
“Letters have been mailed to abutting neighbors on when they can meet with our consultant for input on our landscaping plan,” Stevenson said. “Once the plan is complete, we’ll price it out and seek funding approval.”
The Monuments & Ceremonies Commission is looking for new members.
The governor has postponed Phase Three reopening, and no new reopening date has been set. Private gatherings have been capped at 25 people inside and 100 people outside.
Bars remain closed, indoor dining will remain at 50 percent capacity, and gyms and entertainment venues will remain limited to 25 percent capacity.
To date, in Darien, there has been 16 hospitalizations, 5 deaths and 10 cases from assisted living facilities. The highest cases are in the 50-59 age category, with 55 cases, Stevenson said.
The next Board of Selectmen meeting is a joint department heads meeting on July 21 at 8:30 a.m. in the Town Hall auditorium. It will be in person and have shifts.