With frankness and candor unusual in public discourse, Planning and Zoning Commission Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti has responded to a litany of criticisms aimed at the commission — and herself as its most public face — over the last few years, mostly on social media.

Seeming to unburdened herself, Mucchetti read a long statement into the record at the Nov. 26 meeting, shortly before she was re-elected on a close 5-to-4 vote to what will be her 16th year as commission chair.

“The Planning Zoning Commission has always prided itself on being apolitical, and a commission where members can engage in debate, disagree without rancor, and make decisions that are rooted in regulations and fact, rather than influence from special interest agendas,” Mucchetti said. “I am concerned that political influence is trying to take a seat at the table, and believe that this is the first time where members are being threatened with political consequence if they do not vote the way that others are demanding. It’s not good for the commission, the members, or the town.”

This was an apparent reference to pressure she felt had been put on newly elected members of commission to push for a change leadership — they did, with Robert Hendrick nominating Charles Robbins for chairman.

While acknowledging Mucchetti had been “subject to an increasing amount of scrutiny and criticism — some of it certainly unfair,” Hendrick nonetheless lobbied for change.

“...There is a widespread lack of trust and confidence in the commission, and in particular the chair,” he said. “This is not a partisan matter — nor should it be. And it’s not exclusive to a few people on social media.”

‘False narrative’

In her statement — read before Hendrick spoke — Mucchetti rebutted what she described as a “false narrative” spread on social media.

Mucchetti said she was portrayed — wrongly, she argued — as closely controlling the commission and running meetings in a manner discouraging to neighbors and other people coming out to oppose applications up for review.

Mucchetti’s statement addressed five separate issues, some going back a few years.

First was an assertion that she’d been pushing a hotel plan, then that she has sought to “control department staff,” another that commissioners recently “went out to celebrate passing an 8-30g application,” also that she’d made “special offers” to get commissioners to follow her wishes, and finally she reviewed and contested charges that had previously been put before the town ethics board, protesting the way she’d conducted hearings and meetings.

Ethics rulings

The ethics complaints — and ethics board rulings that Mucchetti said vindicate her — go back a couple of years.

“Ethics,” Mucchetti said. “This claim of hostility and disrespectful treatment of the public began to emerge in 2017 during the PH (public hearing) for the B&B (bed and breakfast) on Circle Drive, when a neighbor claimed that she had been the first to sign up to speak and that the PZC (Planning and Zoning Commission), or staff, had altered the sign-up sheet to her disadvantage.

“The neighbors filed an ethics complaint against the PZC, alleging that the PZC showed ‘clear favoritism’ toward the applicant, and were ‘discourteous, derisive and hostile’ to the neighbors and their attorney.”

The audio tape of the meeting was reviewed by the Board of Ethics chair and the complainant, and the ethics board “dismissed the complaint in its entirety,” Mucchetti said.

“Subsequently, it was discovered that the sign-up sheet had indeed been falsified by the neighbors and their attorney,” Mucchetti said. “The original was removed and the replacement submitted. The original was never recovered.

“Upon being questioned by commission counsel, the neighbors’ attorney acknowledged that the sign-up sheet had been ‘rewritten’ by his clients and other neighbors so that the attorney could speak first.”

After this, Mucchetti said, “the complaining neighbor acknowledged that she had indeed agreed to revise the sign-up sheet...”

A second ethics complaint was filed against Mucchetti herself — not the commission as a whole — in April 2019.

“The complaint alleged that I had made ‘materially false and misleading statements’ during a March 12 hearing and that I ‘misrepresented certain correspondence’ submitted during the public hearing regarding accessory structures,” she said.

The complaint had been submitted with a letter from the chair of the Ridgefield Action Coalition on the Environment (RACE), and an email from Lori Mazzola of Circle Drive, Mucchetti said.

“After reviewing the hearing tape and all the supporting documents submitted, Ethics stated in their report that I did not misrepresent the letter stating RACE’s position of supporting renewable energy, and that not only did I not mischaracterize Ms. Mazzola’s letter, but I ‘made every effort to confirm a correct understanding of her views, including hearing from Ms. Mazzola herself,’” Mucchetti said.

“The board stated that ‘if the inclusion of this letter was intended to somehow bolster an ethics complaint against Ms. Mucchetti, as suggested in Ms. Mazzola’s email, it clearly misfired in that regard.’ ”

Second complaint

Mucchetti continued, “The second ethics complaint was filed by a public official who is also a lawyer. He inquired about the status of his complaint multiple times and was told that ‘the board’s review of any such matters is confidential, unless otherwise requested by the respondents; the resolution of any such complaint is also confidential unless there is a probable cause finding. There is no separate right or requirement for complainants to be notified of the board’s confidential proceedings or resolution.’

“The complainant subsequently posted the complaint on social media, even after being told, in writing by the Ethics chair, that the complaint, its proceeding and the resolution were confidential unless made public by the respondents,” Mucchetti said.

“According to counsel and the BoE (Board of Ethics) chair, the only recourse for violating the confidentiality of the ethics review process is to file an ethics complaint against the public official who made the complaint public,” Muchetti said. “We chose not to do so.”

Hotel

There were four other issues Mucchetti responded to.

First was an assertion that Mucchetti “has decided we need a hotel in the center of town and has set wheels in motion to see if it can become a reality,” she said.

“This has been asserted numerous times and is not true. The idea of a hotel downtown was brought to the PZC several years ago by the ECDC (Economic and Community Development Commission), not by me,” Mucchetti said.

“ECDC asked the PZC to consider it and we have placed it on the agenda several times to discuss, but no action has been taken, and no ‘wheels have been set in motion.’

“I don’t have an opinion on whether or not the town ‘needs’ a hotel,” she added. “It’s up to the nine members of the commission to decide to amend the regulations to allow hotels in the CBD, not the chair.”

Staff, celebration

Another assertion Mucchetti responded to was that “I control department staff by having them report to me, which is implied to be somehow nefarious and a power grab.”

She said that the town charter, commission bylaws, and the town’s human resources policy all established that the planning and zoning director — currently Richard Baldelli — heads the department and “will report to the PZC through the chair” while other staff members report to the him as director.

“I have nothing to do with the line of reporting,” Mucchetti said.

She also said, “A social media post asserted that after the Nov. 12 meeting, the PZC went out to celebrate passing an 8-30g application at 5 North Salem Road.”

They did go out, she said, but not for the reason asserted,.

“Not true. Commissioners took the three retiring members out for a farewell drink and 5 North Salem Road never came up,” she said.

Mucchetti defended herself against one more charge that she said had circulated.

“The most recent is that I ‘apparently corralled other commissioners to go along with (me) by providing them with special offers.’ ”

She added, “I don’t even know what that means - ‘special offers,’ but bribery and/or extortion (if that is what is being implied) is a serious charge,” she said, “and if anyone has any proof that I, or any commissioner, has been engaged in such activity, they should immediately submit such proof to the police department for investigation.”