SANDOWN – After a majority of the planning board declined to take issue with member Matt Brown’s sitting in on a hearing of an applicant with whom he had a financial relationship, the board showed their confidence in him by voting him secretary. A special meeting was called for Monday, May 13, as a result of arguments and decisions occurring at the board’s April 16 meeting, when members reviewed an application from developer Bob Villella. Acting chair Matt Russell said he was opposed to approving the plan because conditions were not met, but board members Brown and Ed Mencis pushed for a quick signature of the subdivision plans.
Chair Mark Traeger said that rarely had plans ever been signed on the night of a hearing, as they usually have outstanding conditions to be met, and the tenor of the discussion, for him, raised a red flag. He said all applicants should be treated the same, but in this case special exceptions were made. Later Traeger found out that in December 2012, Brown had purchased a parcel of land from Villella for $50,000 and the mortgage agreement was not held by a third party but by Villella.
As a result of that discovery, the May 13 meeting was called. The town’s attorney, Diane Gorrow, weighed in through a letter that indicates Brown’s financial relationship should have been disclosed. In part the letter reads, “Mr. Brown has a financial obligation to Mr. Villella. That obligation is a direct, personal or pecuniary interest which differs from the interest of other citizens. In addition, with that financial obligation, Matt Brown does not appear to have been indifferent in acting upon Mr. Villella’s plan. Therefore, Matt Brown should not have participated in deciding or acting upon Bob Villella’s subdivision plan.”
Traeger was accused of undertaking a witch hunt for bringing the information to light. “What possessed you (to go the Registry of Deeds)? I wouldn’t even have thought about something like that,” said Mencis. Mencis added he had no desire to discuss the potential conflict of interest and was personally slighted Traeger asked him if he had a relationship with Villella. After Traeger pointed out how Brown was at odds with the town’s ethics policy, selectman liaison Hans Nicolaisen said, “Could be. But whose ethics?”
Nicolaisen said ethics depends on whether anything wrong was done. He added that he had a big problem with the town ethics policy because a person could run afoul of it doing anything in a small town like Sandown.
“I’m here for all the right reasons. I know I am. Regardless of what anyone here thinks,” said Nico laisen in defense of his opinion. Russell said that at the heart of the matter was the fact that the planning board flouted local and state law to quickly approve Villella’s plans, for a developer who has repeatedly been in trouble with both the town and state. “We are all sworn to uphold the laws of the State of New Hampshire,” said Russell. “What this board did, well, what three members of this board did that night, was break the oath that we took, which was to uphold state law.”
Brown read a lengthy letter into the record, calling into question Traeger’s motives and the opinion of town counsel, and saying he would not recuse himself from matters with Villella unless what faces the board “benefits me or my spouse in a personal or financial manner.” Brown said he spoke with two different attorneys from the New Hampshire Local Government Center (LGC) and his own attorney and said all three saw no conflict of interest. He took issue with statutes Gorrow cited, stating they did not apply, and adding that the letter does not tell the whole story. He said Traeger should not have been the one relaying the information about what occurred to Gorrow.
At its heart Brown’s legal argument was that his financial obligation to Villella did not affect his decision making because that obligation was determined by the language of his mortgage ,”and cannot be altered or changed based on the outcome of a vote I make.” Brown said it is easy in a small town to create the appearance of a conflict of interest, even where none exists. He noted selectman liaison Hans Nicolaisen plows for the town, member Ernie Brown is a developer and Traeger owned property next to conservation land.
Brown went on the offensive and questioned whether Traeger’s efforts to conserve land were taken because of his adjacent property values. He was referencing the Minton Property, which abuts Traeger’s land. Traeger recused himself from conservation commission votes dealing with its purchase and ultimately that property was purchased by a three-fifths majority at Town Meeting.
Brown added that the process was not about his financial agreement with Villella, but because he disagreed with Traeger. Brown said he had no faith in Gorrow’s opinion, while Traeger said Brown had previously stated he had no faith in LGC opinions, which he was now using to defend himself. Russell noted that aside from the conflict of interest, laws were ignored when Villella’s subdivision was approved. “I heard that night members say that they didn’t care about the wetlands issue. It doesn’t make any difference whether you care about it or not. We are here to support and uphold the laws,” said Russell.
Nicolaisen ended discussion with a motion to move on to discuss the board’s bylaws. That motion was approved by Matt Brown, Nicolaisen, Mencis and Ernie Brown. It was opposed by Traeger, Russell and Steve Meisner. In that second discussion, Mencis nominated Brown to fill the newly created role of secretary. Prior to that vote, former planning board chair Donna Green pointed out from the audience that in some situations the secretary, as the third officer, could act as chair, and thus the conflict of interest discussion should be finalized.
Green’s suggestion was not taken up by the board, a majority of members stating that the matter had been laid to rest. All members present but Russell voted to elect Brown as secretary. Russell stated that he was uncomfortable being on a board that did not follow the laws, and instead relied on personal opinion. Russell began to ask each member in turn whether they would uphold the law by not approving subdivision plans with outstanding conditions. Before Mencis ended the discussion by saying that members were not on trial and the question was demeaning, Nicolaisen, Matt Brown and Ernie Brown said they would approve subdivision plans with outstanding conditions on a case by case basis.