NORWALK, Conn. – A charge of “less than ethical behavior” on the part of a Norwalk zoning commissioner was answered with a charge of a “witch hunt” Tuesday, as conflicts on the Norwalk Zoning Commission made their way to the Norwalk Common Council chambers.
Council members eventually voted 13 to 1 to affirm Mayor Harry Rilling’s reappointment of Zoning Commissioner Nate Sumpter, a Democrat who frequently pushes developers to meet their affordable housing requirements. Councilman David McCarthy (R-District E) was the lone dissenter, and the person behind the ethics-related innuendo. Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) came to Sumpter’s defense and later said he was very unhappy with Zoning Commission Chairman Joe Santo for what he said were groundless charges in an attempt to keep Sumpter from being reappointed.
McCarthy’s first comments on the topic were circumspect. Sumpter is a good guy, he said. But because the relationship is valuable he felt he needed to comment, he said.
McCarthy referred to serving with Sumpter on the Zoning Commission before he was elected to the Common Council in 2011. “Unfortunately there has been enough, or sufficient, comments, actions and votes that I don’t feel are going in keeping with the standards of the Zoning Commission that are going to prevent me from supporting him at this time,” McCarthy said.
But, after Councilwoman Phaedrel “Faye” Bowman (D-District B) quickly lauded Sumpter, Councilman David Watts (D-District A) said something that McCarthy could not resist.
Watts, with whom McCarthy has bad blood, said that no one should “cherry pick” individual votes as their reason for not supporting a nomination. “Let’s just move forward and hope that as a city we should respect everyone’s opinion,” Watts said. “I think that Mr. Sumpter will continue to fight for what he believes in and do it the right way. He’s an honorable man and outside of anything unethical we should just move his name forward. I don’t think he has done anything unethical. I think that he is a true public servant and we should just move on and reconfirm him.”
“I regret this now,” McCarthy said. “I unfortunately tried to be brief and non-confrontational, but unfortunately I have to reply to what Mr. Watts said.”
McCarthy said he agreed with Sumpter on numerous things, including putting affordable housing into Ironworks SoNo.
“It’s not any individual vote, what I am talking about is very specific,” McCarthy said. “During my time on the Zoning Commission unfortunately there were some comments made that I have subsequently researched personally I have not pushed anyone personally, have not gone out and tried to push anyone to vote with me but that have been, in my mind, over the ethical line, and it’s not that I am speaking ill of the man, but it’s behavior that shouldn’t have happened, that would have been, uh, of a – well, let’s leave it at that, if we can leave it at that.”
Kimmel unleashed his anger.
“I received a phone call trashing Mr. Sumpter’s character from an appointed official in this city, and when I questioned and looked into it, the person who trashed Mr. Sumpter’s character really didn’t know what he was talking about,” Kimmel said. “There was no foundation, no basis for anything that was said.”
Kimmel said that he often asks questions on the council floor, simply from curiosity.
“Often I found myself being concerned about affordable housing issues, about minority housing issues, even though it had no impact on my vote,” Kimmel said. “So if a zoning commissioner occasionally asks a developer, in a friendly, constructive way, about a policy or something that may relate to a minority hiring program or something like that, it’s nowhere near unethical, from what I have been told by experts and highly respected people.”
Further: “I am concerned about a style of politics that is best described as witch hunting, which has happened on several occasions in the last months in this city. I hope the folks responsible for it cease to do it and it never happens again. It certainly doesn’t bring us together as a community,” Kimmel said.
Watts came back at McCarthy. Such comments should not be made in public, in a meeting that is being filmed for broadcast on television, Watts said.
“If you have the smoking documents, if you have some proof, you should have shared that with your caucus and they should have shared it with our caucus,” Watts said. “But absent of that, you do not come out into an open council and accuse someone or even suggest that someone is being unethical, because that’s wrong.”
Council President Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) delivered McCarthy a rebuke. The council’s process for confirming mayoral appointments is not pristine, and people have their own reasons for how they vote, he said. The more important the board or commission is, the more contentious it is likely to be, he said.
“We are all entitled to an opinion,” Hempstead said. “… On the other hand, if there are things that anyone is concerned about there is a process in place within our ordinances of what we are supposed to do in those cases. It is meant to be in a session that allows anonymity in the beginning and some things to be proved.”
Hempstead said he didn’t always agree with Sumpter’s votes but that Sumpter represents a point of view that is needed on the Zoning Commission.
McCarthy had no further comment. Kimmel did.
After the meeting, Kimmel said it was Santo who called him at 8 a.m. “three or four weeks ago” to urge that Sumpter not be reappointed.
“I take great exception to the nature of the call,” Kimmel said. “I believe he was unfairly maligning Mr. Sumpter. When I asked Mr. Santo questions about specifics he had none to give me. I subsequently found out that Mr. Santo had his facts wrong. That Mr. Sumpter did in fact have permits, that there were no zoning violations, that he had just got his permits through the building department and everything was OK. Apparently Mr. Santo didn’t know that.”
Kimmel had looked angry from the beginning of the meeting until the time Sumpter’s appointment was voted on. He confirmed that he was angry, and said the call angered him because it was the same thing that had happened to then-Zoning Commissioner Mike Mushak.
“Here we are, the same thing over,” Kimmel said.
Sumpter’s alleged zoning violation was furniture in the driveway while construction was going on, Kimmel said.
“That was it,” Kimmel said. “I was supposed to not vote for Mr. Sumpter, according to Mr. Santo, due to a zoning violation, which was in fact not a zoning violation.”