Town planner files ethics complaint: Suggests bias by Development Review Board member

The Shelburne Ethics Committee announced Tuesday it will hold a hearing on a complaint from the town planner about the chair of the Development Review Board.

Early Tuesday morning, the Ethics Committee met in closed session to examine the complaint filed Dec. 11 by Dean Pierce, director of planning and zoning. The complaint was not made public until later Tuesday, when the committee announced that it will hold a formal hearing on the matter Jan. 9.

The complaint was shared with the Shelburne News along with the hearing announcement.

In his complaint, Pierce raised a concern that DRB Chair Jeff Pauza may have a conflict of interest that would require him to recuse himself from board review of applications by Fiddlehead Brewing in the Shelburne Green commercial development.

Pierce specifies a March 2, 2016, DRB meeting where Pauza participated as a member of the board prior to becoming chair. At the time, commercial park developer Shelburne Green was applying to extend Fiddlehead’s operating hours to 8 p.m. It also was looking to make changes to water infrastructure on the site. The developer ultimately withdrew the request.

Pierce points to Pauza commenting at that meeting that he supported the request. Shelburne Green returned to the DRB in September with a request to expand its operation and extend its business hours from 6 to 10 p.m. The DRB approved the request on Sept. 5 with four of the seven members voting in favor, including Pauza.

Pierce says the 2016 comments of support by Pauza represent “an unambiguous pre-judgment of the merits and constitute a conflict of interest” in the case.

“This behavior may call into question the legitimacy of all the board’s work on this proceeding,” Pierce wrote in his complaint.

Pauza was unaware of his 2016 comment when the Shelburne Green application returned to the Development Review Board this fall, he said when reached Wednesday morning.

Pauza, standing by his comment, which supported flexibility on business hours, is concerned with the precedent the complaint sets. He said conversation is appropriate in a public forum, otherwise board members would be confined to listening and ask more limited questions.

“I think the public is served by us being able to have some dialogue,” he said. “I want clarification on what that dialogue can be without being construed as bias.”

He added that he looks forward to working out the issue with the Ethics Committee.

The September approval moved the Fiddlehead project further through the local permitting process. The Fiddlehead application was scheduled to be back before the DRB on Wednesday night, after press time for the Shelburne News. Pauza said he would recuse himself from that hearing.

The complaint also notes that the DRB’s September decision has been appealed. The neighboring homeowners group, the Gables Area Association, has filed a challenge in state Environmental Court.

Pierce said his “discovery” of these issues was on Dec. 5, when he was reviewing his notes in the case as well as video from the 2016 meeting in question.

The Ethics Committee’s initial look at the complaint on Tuesday was to determine whether it merited full review. The committee said it unanimously decided to move ahead with a hearing Jan. 9 at 7 p.m. at the town offices.

The Ethics Committee reviews complaints about the conduct of public officials and municipal employees. When a complaint is made, the allegation remains confidential while the committee first looks at it. Should the committee determine a complaint deserves a hearing, it is made public — with names of both the person filing the complaint and the identity of the party in question. Should the Ethics Committee decide a complaint has no merit, the matter is closed and remains sealed without revealing those involved.

Tuesday’s meeting was scheduled last week after the committee received Pierce’s complaint. It convened at 7:30 a.m. with only a Shelburne News reporter in attendance from the public.

After the closed session, the committee made no announcement of any decision. The committee’s agenda said the committee would “announce any determinations during deliberative session” once the committee was back in public session.

Committee Chair Lee Suskin at the time told the Shelburne News a decision about the complaint would be made public in 24 hours.

The announcement came late in the day in an email from Town Clerk Diana Vachon. The complaint was made public at that time.

Pierce’s complaint was filed on Dec. 11. That same evening, the Selectboard voted at its regular meeting to adopt a new Conflict of Interest Ordinance for the town that governs the work of the Ethics Committee.

In public session Tuesday, after the Ethics Committee reviewed the complaint, members discussed the need to update some of their rules and procedures based on the recent revisions to the ordinance.

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