During the 2013 Branford election, candidate Jamie Cosgrove talked openly about the need for change. He gave specifics: ending the long stream of lawsuits, ending the townwide debate of the Tabor site and its usage, moving major projects forward and using economic development forward, starting with Costco.to fund those needed projects.
When we add that together, the change we needed, the change he was advocating, was simple: a change in culture.
The culture of how projects would be handled needed to change (and thus a new building committee structure). We needed to change the culture of how legal issues were handled (and thus a new town attorney structure). And we needed to change the culture of our building and developments process.
That last one has been far more difficult, for a simple reason: while a first selectman can make immediate changes to a town attorney or can quickly create a new building commission, residents serving on town boards are appointed, and most for designated periods of time. It could not happen overnight, but over the course of years, over the course of countless interviews, and a painstaking process.
Cosgrove, once elected, made a major revision that would greatly impact the needed culture change: he minimized the political party system in the appointment process. This meant that while, traditionally, appoints to town boards came from the political parties, this would no longer be the case. Those political parties were still welcome to make nomination, but now everyone, even those who wanted no desire to go through the party process, could put their name forward to the first selectman to be considered.
It was a major change, and was publicly presented by Cosgrove repeatedly. The results that many residents, both registered Republican and Democrats but also unaffiliated voters, came forward and have been placed on town boards and commissions.
In time, this can help changes the culture of town boards. But we have seen first hand this week how the length of terms of commission members can drastically slow that progress.
Earle last week, BranfordSeven.com produced a detailed report on corruption in the Inland Wetlands process in hearing the Costco application. The report, which included multiple source documents and time stamped emails, shows a patterns of collusion and lies by a town employee and the chairman of the Inland Wetlands Commission. No one has questioned the evidence, and an astute reader can simply print out the provided documents for comparisons themselves.
The report prompted a statement from Cosgrove that the town would be opening an investigation into the actions of those in the article. Costco itself made a statement on matter.
The press, for the most part, posted the responses from the Town and Costco and linked to the BranfordSeven.com report. That was all except the Sound.
The Sound went to attorney Keith Ainsworth, who is leading the charge against the project as the hired counsel for the BCRD, the Penny Bellamy led opposition group. Ainsworth essentially pulled a fast one on their writer, and without the author, Pam Johnson, asking any followup question or doing any fact-checking, Ainsworth was allowed to essentially provide a press release of misleading information.
And just because the Sound couldn’t fact check his statements doesn’t mean we won’t.
The Straw Man Argument
To be clear, this isn’t a knock on Johnson or the Sound. The weekly paper is more known for “Person of the Week” or high school sports news, and no one would mistake what they do for hard news. The issues here are complicated, and a press release from the town and/or Costco are not enough to fully understand them, ask follow-up questions or fact-check a skilled attorney.
But what Ainsworth did was a series of tricks often used in political debates, responding to one question or allegation with an entirely different allegation, often an obviously insane one, to make the initial argument or allegation look insane.
This is called the Straw Man Fallacy or Argument. It stealthily replaces the initial argument with something obvious, hoping the listener mistakenly attaches the obvious answer to the initial allegation. The new item must at least sound similar to the initial argument, thus being a “straw man.”
Person 1: Do you think it was appropriate for the financial planner to move money in that account without permission?
Person 2: Of course, financial planners move money all the time.
The answer is an obvious statement, but it is not a response to the question asked. The same words are used; at quick glance it sounds the same. But its actually not close.
So lets look at what Ainsworth actually said. In doing so, what we will find is something interesting: Ainsworth actually detailing what should have happened. What you need to know is this: he is replying on the validity of the initial BranfordSeven report.
Ainsworth: "When the town doesn't have an engineer sufficiently up to speed on (application details) such as storm water drainage; they hire an independent engineer; that's in the regulations. They effectively have the role of staff," said Ainsworth. "The town uses their staff to review and analyze the applications as its own team. And it is perfectly appropriate, legal and routine for the commission to say (to the hired engineer), '...we have concerns; we'd like to see what you think; might there be alternatives to this?' or whether they're supportable. Then the independent engineer gives responses to that, whether, '...yes, no or we can clarify.' They can react in any number of ways."
We can start this by saying the obvious: we completely agree. What Ainsworth describes here would be appropriate behavior. And nothing here is actually what the BranfordSeven report stated.
Without realizing it, Ainsworth actually shows why the reports findings that an employee and one commissioner acting as they did was inappropriate. Notice this line: “And it is perfectly appropriate, legal and routine for the commission to say (to the hired engineer), '...
Ainsworth uses the word “Commission.” And he’s right. The Commission can ask for the peer reviewer to look into alternatives and options.
And had that actually happened, there would have never been a Branfordsven report last week. Why?
Because a Commission is guided by laws and regulations. The town charter, state law, and the Freedom of Information Act are just a few examples.
In order for the Commission to act, the law states there must be a quorum, or majority of members present. The meeting must be properly noticed publicly, and there must be meeting minutes taken.
The actions shown in the source documents and email show that the exact opposite of what Ainsworth is saying is acceptable actually took place: with no quorum, no legal Commission meeting, no proper notice, and no meeting minutes, one Commissioner and one town employee, acting without the knowledge of others, worked with the peer reviewer to drastically alter the peer review document.
Now let’s look at the questions Ainsworth states are normal, and what changes actually took place:
Ainsworth: “'...we have concerns; we'd like to see what you think; might there be alternatives to this?' or whether they're supportable. Then the independent engineer gives responses to that, whether, '...yes, no or we can clarify.' They can react in any number of ways."
Again, no argument, but this was not the finding of the report. Had the questions been on additional options and asked publicly, it would be known in advance by all parties legally. But Shapiro and Ross did not limit their “changes” to what Ainsworth mentioned.
As the source document show, entire portions were deleted from the original report, and replaced word for word with notes made and sent in by Ross and Shapiro. The report went, in many areas, from saying the issues were “appropriately addressed” to saying that more study was needed.
Again, had the actions been limited to what Ainsworth is saying was appropriate, we would agree, and the report would never have been written or be newsworthy.
Here’s another Ainsworth statement:
"It's absolutely ridiculous. What this (blog report) has found out, which anyone who works in land use knows, is, 'Good God, the town works with engineers.' And that's not a scandal," said Ainsworth, adding of Mazzacane's report, "He said, 'corruption, collusion, and lies.' He has labeled it that, but pointed to no objective guidelines."
No Keith, “Good God, the town works with engineers,' is not what the report found out. No one ever questioned that the town works with engineers. The “blog report” actually found out that there was collusion, lies and corruption. And that’s based on source documents.
If Ainsworth needs the dictionary definition of those terms, he can do so, but he will find out that, yes, Ross lied to the other parties in the case about receiving the peer review, that yes, collusion occurred when Milone and McBroom asked for Ross input and she responded with major alterations including legal advice on how to make sure the report stood up in court when the application was denied, and that yes, town officials acting in such a manner is corruption.
Considering Ainsworth’s actions throughout this Costco application, none of his trickery is surprising. We need to realize that Ainsworth is the hired gun brought in to fight projects like this. If his desire was to better the project, he could have, at any time, accepted Costco’s invitation to sit down and be heard, like the Land Trust did. Ainsworth, and Bellamy repeatedly refused to do so.
To fight projects like this, Ainsworth is working to “muddy the waters.” If you have ever seen an attorney try to create reasonable doubt in a criminal case, then you have seen this. Raise as many questions as possible, no matter how irrelevant or ridiculous, to give a sense that the applicant hasn’t answered everything, or worse, is hiding something.
So what now?
First, the Commission must vote by May. In a perfect world, if Shapiro had any ounce of integrity left, he would recuse himself or even resign.
Costco has a strong case. They have been open and have responded to every question presented. After meeting with the Land Trust and incorporating some requested changes, the Land Trust removed its opposition. And even the doctored Milone and McBroom reports states that the issues have been resolved that they initially presented.
What happens to Diana Ross? Many have called for her firing, and there may be grounds to do so.
But taxpayers pay a lot into the development of town employees through salary and training. Letting an employee go should not be taken lightly. Additionally, union rules must be followed.
For Cosgrove, it needs to come down to the culture. As disturbing as these actions are, it needs to be an opportunity to change the culture of the Commission and department. In May, 4 members terms expire, and Cosgrove will need to consider each carefully.
If members are replaced on the Commission, does that suffice to change the culture with Ross in place? Are Ross’ actions a result of years of habit, part of the culture of past administrations? Or was this an act putting her personal beliefs, or of those influencing her, into action? Was this specific to Costco? Who influenced her? Ross’ honesty and openness should play a key role in Cosgrove’s ultimate decision.
Ross and the Commissioners would be wise not to fall for the blatantly false logic of Ainsworth, the belief that this is all normal. Remember, the changes favor Ainsworth goal of killing the project, if the report had been altered in favor of Costco, Ainsworth would be throwing a massive hissy fit right now and be telling a drastically different story.
What Shapiro and Ross did was hand an appeal to Costco on a silver platter. The actions of Milone and McBroom likely opened themselves up to a lawsuit. In fact, check out the ethics code for any trade association of scientists who perform peer reviews, and it’s clear how blatantly wrong their actions were.
Hopefully, the proposal passes and many of these issues disappear. Interestingly, Johnson, in her article, stated that I, Steve Mazzacane, am a Costco supporter. I can tell you I have no Costco membership and have never been in one. I’m single, and have no real need for 40 boxes of tissues or a 6 month supply of Honey Bunches of Oats. Yes, I am intrigued by the $1.50 hot dogs, but that’s not enough to garner my support, and I have signed up to drop a few pounds on Weight Watchers, so not sure where those hot dogs fit in now anyway.
What I support, Ms. Johnson, is open and honest government. I support those who are honest, play by the rules, and are transparent. There is no hidden agenda with Costco; they want to build a Costco. They properly applied for a zone creation and legally obtained one. They applied for further approvals, have been willing to meet with anyone for or against, and have been transparent. They have made changes, often at great expense, to appease those with concerns. As an onlooker, those efforts mean a lot to me.
And that’s what this site will convey to readers. What actually takes place, not some straw man story that drastically changes the context but sounds just enough like actual events to fool readers. We will do the research, and we will be prepared to fact check and ask follow up questions when we choose to cover a story.
We realize not everyone feels that same. But maybe it’s time for a culture change.