Thursday, April 3, 2008

Selling Out For Free

originally published in the Hartford Advocate June 7, 2007

Selling Out For Free

Canton’s first selectman does unpaid promotional work for developers

By Jennifer Abel

Everyone agrees it’s unethical for an elected official to profit from her position by doing public-relations work for a private company. But is it still a problem if she does this work for free? That’s the conundrum puzzling Canton now.

Here’s the story: four years ago the W/S Development – S.R. Weiner company proposed paving over a golf course in Canton to build a big shopping mall ("lifestyle center") called The Shoppes at Farmington Valley.

A residents’ group called CARE (Canton Advocates for Responsible Expansion), led by president Tom Sevigny, opposed the project. Other town residents, including First Selectman Mary Tomolonius, spoke in favor of it. And CARE ultimately lost — the Shoppes opened in 2004.

Now W/S Development hopes to build similar complexes in other towns, while Tomolonius urges said towns to let the developers in. Furthermore, she’s not speaking as a private citizen, but as the first selectman of Canton.

"W/S Development was really terrific to work with. … W/S Development has been a fantastic neighbor to Canton. … Overall, I can say this has just been a great project for Canton. We’re thrilled with the Shoppes here in Canton."

That’s from a letter she wrote (on official town stationery) in January 2006 to the Board of Selectmen in Reading, Massachusetts. It’s posted on the promotional Web site for Park Square, another lifestyle center W/S hoped to build in Reading. Tomolonius repeated her "great project/we’re thrilled" lines in a video on another W/S Web site, this one hoping to convince Canton’s neighbor Cheshire to welcome a Shoppes of their own.

Tom Sevigny wants to know: who’s this "we" Tomolonius calls thrilled? There are plenty of Cantonites unhappy about the Shoppes, especially since they morphed into something quite different from what the developers first proposed.

"It was originally going to be a ‘Main Street’ with little shops, maybe some office and residential space," Sevigny said. After beginning the project, the scope changed. "Then they said they needed big-box stores like Kohl’s and Shaw’s [because] the market wouldn’t support the little shops." Furthermore, they also "threatened to pull stakes and leave if they didn’t get their changes approved."

Being left with a half-finished project would have been an expensive white elephant for the town. Sevigny views this as a form of bait-and-switch with overtones of blackmail. But Tomolonius pooh-poohed any such suggestion when the Advocate dropped by her office to ask.

Yes, plans changed but "Obviously, when doing something of that scale, like a house, … you make a plan, then make changes as you go along." Little local stores, major national chains — minor changes, really, says Tomolonius. Also, folks at W/S Development "consider [the Shoppes] a lifestyle center, a new type of development, quote unquote, they have the little stores on one side and the big box on the other."

Well, maybe that explains why Tomolonius pushed for the Shoppes in Canton. But what made her decide to promote the company to other towns?

"They had asked me to do something," Tomolonius replied in a matter-of-fact tone. Is she getting paid?

"No!" she answered incredulously.

Even without payment, does she think maybe it might be a little inappropriate for an elected official to promote a private company?

Tomolonius blinked and answered in the same friendly-yet-perplexed tone. "They had asked if I’d do it." And she doesn’t understand why anybody in Canton thinks this is an issue at all — she’s just giving her impressions of the company, and isn’t even being paid.

"Whether she’s being paid or not paid isn’t really the issue," says Sevigny. "The problem is … it was a controversial project." Yet none of the controversy is mentioned in Tomolonius’ official endorsements.

Camille Anthony, a selectman for the town of Reading, Massachusetts, served as board chairman when W/S proposed building a lifestyle center called Park Square there. So when Tomolonius wrote her endorsement letter, she addressed it to Anthony.

Did Reading’s board of selectmen solicit opinions from towns where Weiner had built other properties? "No," she said firmly. "[The letter] was sent unsolicited to the selectmen … we did not appreciate the company having other selectmen" try to persuade them.

The tactic didn’t work. Though the promotional Web site’s still up, the town rejected Park Square. "It was a four to one vote, turned down," Anthony said. "It was an inappropriate development for the site."

So Reading muddles on without Park Square tax dollars. "The number one benefit of the Shoppes … is the commercial revenue that we’re now seeing," Tomolonius’ letter says in part. "As every taxpayer in the town knows; (sic) most of our taxes were dependent on residential taxes. Now … we are seeing a significant shift form (sic) the residential burden to the commercial and that’s a real positive for our town."

Well, lower taxes for homeowners certainly sound good. How much did Sevigny’s tax bill go down once the Shoppes opened for business?

He laughed. "They haven’t. Taxes still go up every year … the first year we had a rush of money from the Shoppes, but even then they cut the education budget."

Tomolonius says taxes would have gone up even more without the Shoppes.

Tomolonius didn’t go out of her way to inform Canton of her promotional work. Sevigny only learned of it after a friend in Cheshire called him to ask, "Did you know your first selectman’s in the [promotional] video?"

Why, no, he didn’t. But he easily found the video on the home page of the Shoppes at Cheshire promotional site.

Based on the video, visitors to W/S Development properties should wear lots of sunblock, since the sun is always shining and there’s no shade in the common areas. (The main difference between a shopping mall and a lifestyle center is apparently this: malls are smaller, indoors and climate-controlled.)

The video’s narrator made the same point as Tomolonius about tax burdens shifting from residents to businesses, and also said things like "The high-quality architectural vernacular creates the look and feel of a New England village center," (while the camera zoomed in on this ornamental yellow tower thing that looks somewhat like a boxy church steeple).

Canton doesn’t have a town board of ethics, so the Advocate called other town ethics commissions and, without mentioning any names, asked how they’d rule if their first selectmen did such volunteer work.

"I personally would consider it inappropriate," says Gilbert Lowell, who sat on the Ethics Commission for East Windsor. "He’s an elected official, he’s supposed to be working for the town … whether he’s getting paid or not isn’t the point."

Adam Sharaf of Simsbury was more nuanced. "There are people who believe it is not necessarily ethical for a sitting selectman to come out publicly for or against a current land-use application … I’m not saying one way or the other."

But this land-use application isn’t in the selectman’s own town. And remember, this hypothetical selectman isn’t getting paid.

"The old Simsbury code required some remuneration to the official [for a violation to occur]," said Sharaf. "But we changed that. The new code is much broader … if it has an appearance of impropriety … it clearly raises a specter."