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Sunday, September 15 News

Finance board questions BOE’s use of law firm

WESTPORT — The Board of Education’s relationship with law firm Shipman & Goodwin was again called into question during a Board of Finance meeting Wednesday night.

The firm represents the BOE, but has also represented developers with 8-30g applications in Westport. In July, one Representative Town Meeting member abstained from voting to approve a $32 million Coleytown renovation to send a message to the school board of the alleged conflict of interest between the firm and town.

During a presentation by Westport Public Schools’ chief financial officer Elio Longo, BOF member Lee Caney asked for an update on the situation.

“People have been very upset about using Shipman,” Caney said. “The fact that they’ve sued our town...I think the Board of (Education) should seriously take up this issue because it does not sit well with people in our town.”

He added the firm should make a commitment to not bring any actions against the town or the BOE should look for other legal counsel.

In attendance for the meeting included BOE Chair Mark Mathias and interim superintendent David Abbey. According to Mathias there has been several productive conversations with the law firm since the issue first arose.

“We have actually been working on that with the Board of Selectmen’s office and Dr. Abbey,” Mathias said, adding he hoped to provide further guidance in the coming weeks.

Tim Hollister, an attorney for Shipman & Goodwin, currently represents the developer of a contested 8-30 application in town. The Hiawatha Lane development filed by Summit Saugatuck LLC was previously denied by the Planning and Zoning Commission, but per state statutes has been resubmitted.

The application will again be heard at the Planning and Zoning Commission’s meeting on Sept. 12.

BOF member James Westphal said while the town has been getting pushback it doesn’t mean it’s legitimate. He added state laws allow the board to keep the firm even if others disagree.

“I appreciate the positions people have, but I think the Board of (Education) should use the counsel they think is appropriate,” Westphal said, adding it wasn’t a concern of his.

BOF Chair Brian Stern said as elected officials it was important they address pushback from the community.

“That’s all we’re doing. No one here is concluding,” Stern said of the topic, adding it could be addressed in executive session.

However, BOF Vice-Chair Michael Rea said future discussions of the topic should be public.

“I think this is very much a public format and a public issue,” Rea said. “It’s not like we’re dealing with a specific lawsuit. I think it should be public.”

dj.simmons@hearstmediact.com

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