By MADELINE HUGHES
An ethics complaint filed against Shelburne’s Development Review Board chair brought more than a dozen people to the Shelburne Town Offices for a public hearing last week.
The complaint by Dean Pierce against chair Jeff Pauza was filed in mid-December, days before a Development Review Board meeting where the board was set to hear about a development application from Shelburne Green, LLC. Pierce said he filed the complaint as a private resident, although he is the director of planning and zoning for the town.
Currently, Shelburne Green has a development application being reviewed by the Development Review Board. Pauza recused himself at the December meeting when that application was discussed. The development application is also at the center of the potential ethics violation and is facing legal challenges in Vermont Environmental Court.
Pierce alleges in his complaint that a comment made by Pauza at a 2016 review board meeting represents “an unambiguous pre-judgment of the merits and constitute a conflict of interest” for an application by the developers of Shelburne Green.
The Ethics Committee’s Jan. 9 public hearing opened just after 7 p.m. with about 15 people in the audience. Ethics Committee members detailed how the meeting and the hearing would proceed.
When asked to comment on whether he allegedly violated the ethics ordinance, Pauza replied, “I don’t know.”
At the December meeting, Pauza had recused himself from Shelburne Green Development Review Board hearings. However, Pierce also asked that the Ethics Committee find Pauza in violation of the Ethics Ordinance.
Before opening the hearing, Pauza explained that he did not know if he was in violation of the ordinance, and that members of his board often share opinions on various subjects. He gave the example of roads. Some members encourage wide roads that can easily accommodate emergency vehicles like fire trucks, while others on the board encourage slower traffic, he said.
He pointed out that his 2016 comments were backed up with reasoning as to why the Shelburne Green application met the criteria being discussed.
Ethics Committee member Bill Deming expressed hesitation to open a formal hearing on an ethics violation because of Pauza’s statement.
“I think you got a point, you can’t kill the DRB,” Deming said, regarding the need for discussion during meetings.
Ethics Committee member Michael Ashooh agreed with Deming, asking if the board should use its educational role in advising town volunteers, such as Development Review Board members, in what constitutes a conflict of interest.
The committee asked Pierce if he would like a full hearing. He said “Yes,” adding, “This is a question of prejudgment.”
Pierce submitted additional materials to the committee that he said showed Pauza demonstrated prejudgment from other meetings about various DRB cases.
Committee members asked questions regarding the case. They sought to understand how the Development Review Board hears testimony in making decisions, and what the board’s role in the community is.
Pauza said that if he had known the statement he made in 2016 would carry such weight, he would not have said it.
After taking testimony, the committee said the hearing was concluded. Audience members attempted to speak at that point, but committee rules did not allow that. The committee decided to reopen the hearing after Pauza said it had not been made clear to him that he could call witnesses.
Six members of the public commented on Pauza’s behalf, including two current Development Review Board members – David Hillman and Mark Sammut, former board Chair and current Selectboard member Mary Kehoe, Shelburne resident Bill Posey, Town Manager Lee Krohn and Norman Stanislas, the property manager at Shelburne Green.
Hillman, Sammut and Kehoe each agreed with Pauza, saying he would not have intentionally violated the ordinance based on the behavior he has shown to fellow DRB members during his tenure on the board. They also questioned why the ethics violation was warranted, pointing out other methods of addressing potential concerns.
Posey added to their argument that board members should have some way to discuss applications in public session.
“Otherwise, why bother with a committee, and let Dean (Pierce) make all the decisions,” Posey said.
Stanislas added he had no personal relationship with Pauza.
“The extent of this comment I have no idea who it has harmed,” Stanislas said. “And as I have said, I have no personal relationship with Mr. Pauza, nor do I know him aside from being a board member.”
Krohn and Kehoe also suggested to the Ethics Committee possible ulterior motives of filing the complaint.
Krohn stepped in and addressed the committee: “There’s a lot more behind this than meets the eye,” he said. “The complainant (Pierce) has had an extreme disfavor toward this project, this landowner, this case. And it happens that there are some current cases that now we’ve handily taken one member out of that equation who can’t hear those cases.”
Kehoe recalled the “aggressive examining” of Shelburne Green’s representatives from the meetings it had with the board while she served.
Krohn said he also weighed in because he thought the Ethics Committee’s potential decision could have an effect on town volunteers. Currently there are more than 20 boards, commissions and committees listed on the town’s website.
“If we end up muzzling board members by telling them they are not allowed to issue opinions in the matters before them,” Krohn said, “Are we telling our board members… to sit mute during a hearing? And then the applicant has no idea what’s going on. So, this is a much larger issue in how our boards can function, and how our board members can function.”
The committee went into deliberative session for about 40 minutes after the hearing closed, then emerged to say that they had not reached a decision in the matter. The Ethics Committee would not comment on when or where its deliberations would continue. When reached on Monday, committee Chair Lee Suskin said that was still the case.
“The committee is still deliberating,” he responded.