Last night’s P&Z meeting opened with what commissioner Salafia called “political maneuvering,” but call it what you will, it ultimately led to a unanimous vote on a bi-partisan slate of officers including the Phoenix-like rebirth of Dan Russo as Chair, Molly Salafia as Vice Chair and Joyce Rossiter as Secretary.
The item in question was an email forwarded from Bill Warner containing a Formal Opinion by General Counsel Brig Smith stating that “the planning and Zoning Commission is required by Charter and its own Bylaws to elect a Chair, Vice Chair and Secretary as its first item of business, and that it cannot conduct any other business until that duty is fulfilled (emphasis added).” This may very well qualify as maneuvering not only because it is contrary to past practice (P&Z has on more than one occasion gone months without electing a Chair), but also because commissioners received the email just three hours before the meeting.
To further complicate the matter, Bill Warner informed the commission at the start of the meeting that according to the bylaws, the commission has 65 days from the first hearing of a proposal to rule on it. In the absence of a ruling, a proposal receives automatic approval. According to Warner, that time period would lapse before the next scheduled meeting for two items on the agenda and the lawyers would most likely file for automatic approval. Several rounds of voting ensued.
Russo nominates a bipartisan slate of Pelletier, Salafia, Rossiter (Chair, Vice Chair, Secretary) citing Salafia’s standing as senior Republican and valuable architectural background and defending Pelletier’s “informal” meeting style as a means of making the meeting less intimidating to the public. Pelletier accepts the nomination, Salafia’s comes out swinging emphatically rejecting the nomination, questioning the last minute political maneuvering, objecting to the numerous calls she received from Pelletier to solicit her support, and criticizing Pelletier for “getting us sued twice because he can’t run a meeting.”
Devoto nominates a slate of Devoto, Salafia, Rossiter. Pelletier nominates a slate of Russo, Pelletier, Rossiter. Staff notes that Rossiter can’t be on two slates. Rossiter declines Devoto’s slate. Pelletier’s slate is defeated 3-4, with the three Democratic nominees in favor and Devoto, Emery, Salafia and Clark opposed. These voting lines remained throughout all but the last unanimous vote.
Round Three, Four, Five, Six
With no more slate nominations, the commission attempts to elect individuals. Pelletier for Chair, defeated 3-4. Devoto for Chair, defeated 4-3, Salafia for Vice Chair, defeated 4-3. Pelletier for Vice Chair, defeated 3-4. And finally, Rossiter for Secretary, after an opinion from staff that, in the absence of a Chair and Vice Chair, the secretary could run a meeting, the nomination (
defeated 3-4) passes unanimously 7-0.
At this point, alternate-turned-peer-mediator Pessina spoke up calling for a “recess to rethink” what was happening. He spoke generally of his disappointment and embarrassment over the commission’s inability to move forward and urged everyone to “disconnect” from their position in the hopes of moving forward. Repeating several times that it would only be for a year, Pessina directed his final appeal specifically to Devoto, asking him to consider that it is his first year on the commission and to consider a position as Vice Chair as "a year of learning."
Returning from recess, which included a closed (glass) door meeting in the foyer, Pelletier nominated Dan Russo for Chair and Molly Salafia for Vice Chair. With little discussion the nomination was approved unanimously.
While on its surface, a unanimous vote on a bipartisan slate of officers would seem to signal an end to the partisan bickering that has plagued P&Z, and despite having all the intrigue (but thankfully none of the sex) of Game of Thrones, what really occurred was a John Boehner-inspired game of chicken like the one that shut down the Federal government. Only in this case, the three Democrats (Russo, Pelletier, Rossiter) who voted for no bipartisan slates until the last in which two of them were nominated, won the game because they rightly assumed that the two Democrat two Republican coalition of Devoto, Emery, Salafia, and Clark, who voted for only bipartisan slates, would put the business of the city ahead of party politics.
Whether the ends justify the means remains to be seen, but the bottom line is that city business was conducted at the Planning and Zoning meeting last night. And in all fairness to the new commission, business was handled well. The commission voted to extend the meeting past eleven and heard all business items on the agenda (report to follow in a separate post). The meeting was run efficiently; all commissioners asked relevant questions, sought clarification on issues of public concern, voted when those questions were answered satisfactorily and tabled items when they were not.
While the motives and mysteries of the meeting my never be revealed, there is a chance, in this season of hope, that a functioning commission has emerged.