After a cri de coeur against what she described as a “false narrative” spread on social media, Rebecca Mucchetti fended off a challenge led by newly-elected Democrats and retained the chairmanship of the Planning and Zoning Commission.

“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,” said Mucchetti, who has chaired the commission for 15 years. “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.”

The commission’s election of officers Tuesday night, Nov. 26, proceeded in polite tones and a collegial atmosphere.

Two slates were placed in nomination.

Commissioner John Katz nominated a slate of Mucchetti, a Republican, for another year as chairman and Charles Robbins, a Democrat, to serve as vice chairman.

“I’ve been around here a long time, and have been through a lot of chairpersons,” said Katz, a Republican who has served on the commission some 40 years and was re-elected in November.

“This commission should be very pleased and proud to have had the leadership it has had,” said Katz. “This commission has been led with excellence for 15 years by Becky Mucchetti.”

The nomination was seconded by Commissioner Joe Fossi, a Democrat.

Commissioner Robert Hendrick, one of three new Democrats elected to the commission in November, nominated a slate with Robbins for chairman, and Joe Dowdell to serve as vice chairman.

“Nobody eagerly seeks the nomination for chair,” Hendrick said. “It’s a huge weight and responsibility, requiring considerable time and energy on a volunteer basis ...

“It’s a tough job, largely thankless, and often blame-filled. Even someone who does a very good job most of the time will inevitably come under fire.

“Over the past several years, this chair and long-term members of this commission have been subject to an increasing amount of scrutiny and criticism — some of it certainly unfair,” Hendrick said. “But at this point there is a widespread lack of trust and confidence in the commission, and in particular the chair. This is not a partisan matter — nor should it be. And it’s not exclusive to a few people on social media.”

Hendrick reviewed some recent decisions by voters that he said reflected dissatisfaction with the commission — a charter question in 2018 when 75% of participating voters favored separation of the Inland Wetlands Board from the Planning and Zoning Commission and aa August 2019 town meeting where 69% of those voting supported moving aquifer protection responsibilities from the P&Z to the new independent wetlands board. And, he cited the recent election that had seen three new Democrats — himself, Susan Consentino and Ben Nneji — outpoll three Republicans, including longtime incumbent Katz, who took the fourth open seat.

“This group of newbies spent a lot of time as a team, meeting Ridgefield voters — both Democrats and Republicans — who voiced a desire for change in leadership at P&Z. They want more proactive planning; more communication; more engagement; more accessibility; and more humility from their P&Z Commission,” Hendrick said on behalf of himself and two other new members.

“The current chair has proven her dedication, knowledge and skill, resilience, and efficiency,” he said. “…But there are still voices from many directions who have told us they are counting on us to push for fresh leadership that will communicate better and build trust.”

A mandate?

Fossi, who had seconded Mucchetti’s nomination, challenged Hendrick’s portrayal of a change in the chairmanship as somehow mandated by voters — though it may have been sought by the citizens group, Ridgefield Voters United, which has been critical of the commission’s actions.

“I don’t think you have a mandate. The three new Democrats were elected in an absolute blue wave in Ridgefield,” Fossi said. “The three candidates who were most closely aligned themselves with Ridgefield Voters United — Mr. Moccia, Mr. Savino and Mr. McNicholas — were soundly beaten.”

Consentino, one of the new Democrats, reiterated that the desire for change did not reflect a disrespect for Mucchetti or the job she had long done chairing the commission.

“I can see the amount of work and organization and time,” she said. “It’s not a personal affront. It’s not antipathy against you.”

She reiterated Hendrick’s point that as candidates knocking on voters doors, they heard dissatisfaction.

“They give us feedback on the board,” Consentino said. “That’s where the call for change is coming from.”

Five to four

The vote was close.

The Mucchetti-Robbins slate nominated by Katz got five votes: Katz, Fossi, Mucchetti, Robbins and George Hanlon.

The Robbins-Dowdell slate nominated by Hendrick got four votes: Hendrick, his fellow new members Nneji and Consentino, and Dowdell.

Robbins, who appeared on both slates, voted for the one in which he was vice chairman under Mucchetti’s leadership, rather than the one in which he was nominated for chairman with Dowdell as vice chairman. Had he voted the other way, it would have flipped the 5-to-4 decision.

“Thank you, everyone, for a very interesting discussion,” Mucchetti said after the vote. “I think it was good for the commission, good for the public, and good for things in general to talk about things in the open.”