Norwalk ‘witch hunt’ fails; Sumpter reappointed to Zoning Commission

Awkward moment:
Councilman David McCarthy (R-District E), left, and Zoning Commissioner Nate Sumpter have a brief conversation Tuesday in City Hall after Sumpter’s reappointment was confirmed over McCarthy’s objection. Sumpter had come up to be sworn in by City Clerk Donna King; McCarthy then offered his hand.

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.

Santo called Nancy On Norwalk in April to say that Mushak had been issued a cease and desist order due to a zoning violation. It turned out to be a flower pot that had been moved.

“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.”


32 responses to “Norwalk ‘witch hunt’ fails; Sumpter reappointed to Zoning Commission”

  1. Norewalk Lifer

    Researching a potential candidate for a public position is one thing, character assassination based on innuendo, or declarations that have no foundation in fact, is sub standard.

    Seems if we were to gage the ability or competency of those on the common council, we’d use this type of behavior to determine whether or not they should serve.

    Clearly, if someone is willing to take a pre-conviction about another’s character without any research, or fact, then that persons should not serve on a board that is responsible for major decisions for all of us here in Norwalk.

    And I speak of Mr. Santos and Mr. McCarthy

    Norwalk Lifer

  2. Don’t Mrssrs. McCarthy and Santos realize that their partisan flower pot and furniture ‘ethics violations’ accusations make them look ridiculous…even to folks in their own party? Their energies need to be better spent on the larger P&Z issues that plague Norwalk, rather than this sort of nonsense.’ The Common Council vote of 13-1 suggests that nobody paid attention and all it does it make their actions look petty and small.

  3. Norewalk Lifer

    @Lisa Thomson, when a person “thinks small” they “act small”

    Norwalk Lifer

  4. YankeeC

    How long has Joe Santo been on the Zoning Commission? Maybe its time for a change?

  5. EveT

    Thanks to Nancy on Norwalk, we know the names of the people who attempted to paint Nate Sumpter as “unethical” and the substance of what they said, as well as the facts underlying this bogus charge.

  6. Mike Mushak

    Congratulations to Mr. Sumpter. Norwalk is better off with him on the ZC. He offers a much needed perspective representing the heavily minority and lower income community of South Norwalk (where I live), a perspective that I sadly believe had much to do with Zoning Chair Joe Santo and Councilman Dave McCarthy’s sad and legally suspect accusations to impugn Mr Sumpter’s character.
    Less than ethical behavior? That is laughable coming from McCarthy, who broke precedent and common sense and ethical standards when he was on the Zoning Commission. I refer to a letter of endorsement he wanted the entire ZC to sign while he was still serving on the ZC and running for the Common Council. He pushed the letter in front of me and told me everyone else had signed it and I should do the same, in a public meeting. I didn’t sign it as I was appalled I was even asked, as a member of another party but also as a sitting commissioner appointed by a bi- partisan vote on the Common Council. Nate Sumpter didn’t sign it either, a fact McCarthy likely helped inspire his shocking public partisan-inspired attack against Nate’s character last night.
    Another Zoning Commissioner at the time of the endorsement letter request was Emily Wilson, who is now Co-Chair and running for State Rep in the 142 ( Cafero’s seat), and who was also McCarthy’s campaign manager. The fact that they were asking a sitting land use board (with applicants from many political stripes) to endorse a candidate from one party never even struck them as highly inappropriate and even unethical. Before that, no bi-partisan appointed commission in Norwalk had ever been asked to endorse a political candidate (or since then) for obvious reasons that were not obvious at all to McCarthy or Wilson. It was an astounding move, and shocking in its naïveté and arrogance.
    Less than ethical, indeed.

    I was embarrassed for our city last night. Joe Santo has caused much partisan trouble and division on the Zoning Commission, including stalking Democrat commissioners homes and businesses including my own, instead of actually doing his job fixing our obsolete and dysfunctional zoning code which is an ongoing joke among professional planners around the state.
    Just as an example, our ridiculous code has 13 conflicting zones in South Norwalk within a few square blocks, resulting from decades of patchwork “fixes” resulting from the fact get we have no certified planners in our P and Z Department (according to the APA). The TOD Zoning Overlay recommended in a professional study in 2011 is being held up by Santo and staff, who seem to not want to work that hard to fix this serious problem that is holding up infill development in under used and blighted sites in SoNo, which would bring more businesses, jobs and housing to add to our tax base and help Norwalk grow, while protecting the existing community. Smart planning in Norwalk? Why would we want that?
    Who is going to step in here and start fixing our code and our dysfunctional planning process? Based on the track record of current Chair Joe Santo and former Chair (and now Co-chair) Emily Wilson, we will have no progress on this front until they are replaced. How ironic Ms. Wilson is running for the 142 District seat on a platform of helping small business, but she cannot point to a single vote on Zoning where she actually has done that.
    Ms Wilson recently killed the professionally recommended zone change for Main Ave (recommended in our Master Plan) to limit retail size to protect hundreds of mostly locally-owned existing small businesses in that corridor, as well as protect the nearby neighborhoods of Silvermine and Cranbury from excessive traffic seeking shortcuts to a potential new big box corridor that she supported with her vote.
    Now Ms Wilson appears to be fighting simple parking reductions in Rowayton that the community wants to help fill vacant storefronts, because our current standards from the 1970’s are based on suburban strip mall standards and not small walkable communities like Rowayton.
    I mean, even a simple change like this is being fought by folks who have no idea what they are doing, except that saying no because your political opponents want something is just so much fun! But I digress.
    The truth is we need smart thinking folks like Nate Sumpter on our Zoning Commission, not folks who basically play partisan games and say no to everything smart or progressive because they have no ideas of their own to fix Norwalk or it’s broken zoning code.

    Until we get a full turnover in the ZC leadership, it seems Norwalk will be stuck in the dysfunctional planning rut we have been in for decades, with a staff and commission leadership who fight smart changes or fixing the broken code at every opportunity. Just look at our obsolete parking requirements ( the last of any city in CT to be reduced) and millions of dollars in unimplemented studies and plans gathering dust in the shelves of our P and Z Department.
    Developers and investors have been waiting for smart changes for years, and despite the few new Redevelipment projects, we still have rows of empty storefronts, blighted buildings, empty lots , and lack of businesses and jobs to help stabilize our tax base along Wall St and around SoNo (some areas of Norwalk shockingly still look like the South Bronx in the 70’s, or third world countries) are physical proof we have a failed planning process and code.
    Good luck Nate, and keep this do-nothing crowd on their toes!

  7. Srb

    Santo should go

  8. peter parker

    McCarthy should go! I think the article speaks for the why.

  9. Bobble-Hempstead

    A council person is entitled to vote nay for any reason under the sun. A council person is also entitled to vote yes and rubber stamp whatever the mayor decides to throw at them. They’ll have to go back to their constituents next fall and explain why they didn’t oppose the mayor on one single thing in public.
    A healthy government has dissent just once in awhile.

  10. Dave McCarthy

    I comment to say that the “flower pot” baloney is just that, and it had no part in my comments.

    I simply said that Mr. Sumpter’s actions on the Zoning Commission in pressing for information from applicants related to jobs and how people might get those jobs, which all who have observed him agree happens routinely, cross my line of ethics and I could not support him. I feel it gives an applicant a very good point to appeal a decision.

    Why Mr. Watts feels that I cannot have an opinion puzzles me.

  11. piethein

    Dave, YOU are sorely devoid of ethics.

  12. Anna Duleep, City Sheriff

    I believe when this photo was taken I heard Commissioner Sumpter tell Councilman McCarthy, “I respect your opinion.” What a class act! This is but a small example of the courtesy, respect for differing opinions, and *calm* temperament that exemplifies Mr. Sumpter. Congratulations to him! I hope he keeps asking thoughtful, productive questions; I much prefer an inquisitive mind to a rubber-stamper on our land use boards. Thank you, Councilman Kimmel, for your passionate, informative dismantling of this attempted “witch hunt.”

  13. Tim D

    Of all the people who should be sounding off on land use boards, Anna Duleep?

  14. Mike Mushak

    Mr. McCarthy, many of our large redevelopment projects receive public investment using our local, state and federal tax dollars. Policies for hiring local minority-owned companies have been in place for decades on publicly-financed projects, to encourage local jobs in often struggling communities which boosts the economy where those projects are happening. (Unemployment rates among minorities are often up to twice as high as overall rates for the general population).
    It is not a requirement to hire local minority-owned companies, , but “good faith efforts” need to be shown. Mr Sumpter asked pertinent questions about these policies because he was concerned about making sure local contractors were included in hiring decisions that would benefit the local community and Norwalk in general. He made no hint that this was about himself.
    Please stop trying to make this issue about Nate’s judgement. He has every right to make sure established hiring policies are followed. Nate’s line of questioning of applicants about policies of workforce housing and hiring local minority-owned businesses is just that, a line of questioning.
    Nate’s record and actions were clearly endorsed by most of the council despite your attempts to smear his character. Your handshake after he was sworn in was quite a show of insincerity. A public apology would have been more appropriate.

  15. Oyster

    Curious. Why would you think those questions are a basis for appeal?

  16. Dave McCarthy

    Jobs, hiring, and anything related to those issues are outside Zoning Regs. They may be valid questions for other boards, but they are not zoning issues. Anything that would give an applicant a reason to say that they were turned down because of other than zoning issues simply creates an easy appeal. There is a fine line that would best be avoided completely.

  17. Oyster

    Then why do developers get to tout the number of jobs a project will bring (and the associated payscales)? Doesn’t the number of jobs associated with a project factor into the traffic considerations?

  18. potaxpayer

    Dave mccarthy loves city carting. he never questions city carting ethics.

  19. Bobble-H(empst)ead

    So according to Mushak, it is ok for some to go outside the scope of Zoning when considering zoning issues, but not others (re: mosque). Sorry, not buying that.
    And Kudos to the councilman for taking a stand. Something the rest of the republicans seem to have forgotten how to do. Seems they only know how to take a stand against their own and only have the guts to do so when it is a great grandmother in their crosshairs. So far their record is one of 100% support for the Mayor and his policies. Whatever those policies are, who knows? But, they support them. Might as well have all Democrats sitting up there.

  20. oldtimer

    Why am I not surprised McCarthy and Santo are leading the charge against Mr Sumpter with ridiculous zoning violation charges. ? McCarthy, of course, is a fine example of ethical behavior at all times.

  21. Dave McCarthy

    A developer may certainly tout anything they want, but I would not expect a ZC to vote for an otherwise inappropriate development because it brings in jobs. That is actually the flip side of this discussion, and I had neglected to point it out.

  22. Chevy Vega

    I have to agree with David Watts statements. Why weren’t any ethical concerns about Mr. Sumpter discussed in caucus prior to a public, recorded council meeting?

  23. potaxpayer

    get rid of dave

  24. Mike Mushak

    Dave, you make an interesting point about what falls under zoning regs, in the context of what are appropriate questions to ask of applicants. I of course know you are wrong, as ANYTHING related to a project is fair game for questioning, including hiring practices, as well as impact on the environment, traffic, and neighborhoods, and of course financing, which has become the latest issue with Poko that zoning commissioners of both parties have been perusing carefully, and which I supported. How is a project’s financing a zoning issue you ask? Well, if the financing discussion relates to workforce housing, as it was at Ironworks, somehow Joe Santo was appalled by this. Yet, a few months later, the discussion on the ZC over Poko was all about their financing, and suddenly financial issues were the focus of questioning by the ZC members of both parties. Double standard perhaps? I guess if you are A member of Dave’s party and asking about financial issues which as far as I can see are NOT listed in the zoning regs, that is all above board, but if you are a black commissioner asking about minority hiring practices that are well established policies for any publicly financed project, well, that is just so unethical as it is not a zoning issue!
    I think everyone can see you are just digging yourself in deeper here as you justify your behavior last night.
    Look, we all make mistakes and say things we regret. I said something to a developer last year in misplaced frustration with our own staff, who had given the developer’s waterfront application a green light for the commission to approve while ignoring a strongly worded letter from a state official with legal jurisdiction ( that was buried in the packet which I happened to read carefully while doing my required homework) that said the project was unacceptable as presented, and the ZC should scrutinize it carefully and establish mitigations before approving it. Staff obviously decided following state law didn’t matter, and just ignored it completely as if there were no state regulations at all. I suggested favoritism towards the developer, which was unfair. I apologized publicly in a meeting and recused myself from the application, and healed any rift with the developer later who is an upstanding member of our community. We are getting along fine now. It didn’t change my concerns about state regs being totally ignored by staff on a waterfront project, a serious violation of trust and professional ethics, but I was clearly wrong to suggest in a fit of frustration that the developer had anything to do with it. So I apologized before a crowded room on the record, and we moved on, and I learned a lesson about just how corrupted our planning process was that important state regs could just be ignored with seeming impunity by our own staff who we pay to do their job and follow all the rules. The staff member never apologized to the commission for intentionally misleading them, by the way. That’s another issue for another day.
    Long story, but the point is we are all human and make mistakes and if we have to apologize and move on to heal rifts, for the betterment of the city, that’s what we should do. That’s what I am asking you to do. You are dead wrong about Nate’s ethics as the evidence presented suggests, for all to read right here on NON.
    Or, if you persist that Nate was wrong because hiring practices are not a zoning issue, then I want you to show equity here and declare your friends Emily Wilson and Joe Santo in violation of ethics (in your book) for asking questions about financing that are ALSO unrelated to zoning regs. Prove to everyone you don’t have a double standard, one for folks of your own party, and another one for a black commissioner who dared to ask developers about their minority hiring practices that are established procedures for many of the projects we see on the ZC. Your move. We’ll be waiting.

  25. Ethics-Schmethics

    @Dave McCarthy, coming from a sitting councilman who was caught red-handed stealing lawn signs from private property. You are the bellwether, sir.

  26. Norewalk Lifer

    Dear Mr. Mushak, thank you for the transparency, the one thing that is clear here is that there is no walking back the comments made last night, Mr. Sumpter showed extreme fellowship and maturity in shaking Mr. McCarthy’s hand, something he could learn from.

    You do not disparage based on some personal ethic coda; you are in a professional position, act like it, or move on.

    Norwalk Lifer

  27. The Family Guy

    I wish the commentators could be a lot less verbose.

  28. RU4REAL

    Why is it different for Mr. Sumpter Dave?

  29. Just saying

    Let us put the DIRT back in the pot and stop throwing it. You will end up with only messy hands and a dirty your reputation.

  30. Dave McCarthy

    I said there was a fine line, and that asking about jobs being brought in to Norwalk certainly is not in violation of anything, and is perhaps quite relevant, even if it isn’t a Zoning issue. Neither is asking about financing a violation of anything. Asking about how your friends might get jobs, for me, and perhaps for me alone, crosses a line.

    It doesn’t rise to the level that I would have filed an ethics complaint over it, but it did preclude me from supporting him. I said I was not seeking to convert anyone, I was merely unable to support him. If the vote were taken again today, I still wouldn’t.

    I shouldn’t, but I will respond to say that I have never taken any campaign signs off anyone’s lawn that didn’t ask me to do so.

  31. Sophie 21

    I wonder if that is where all the signs have been going from a property in east Norwalk. For some reason the more we replace them the more they are removed.

  32. potaxpayer

    now I see why dpw is all messed up with dave involved.

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