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Middletown's Post-Election Planning and Zoning Meeting Erupts in Chaos

Former commissioner and newly installed Common Councilman Carl Chisem's refusal to vacate his seat abruptly halted Wednesday's session.

Planning and Zoning Commissioner Stephen Devoto speaks at a meeting earlier this year in Middletown.
Planning and Zoning Commissioner Stephen Devoto speaks at a meeting earlier this year in Middletown.

Editor's Note: City Attorney Brigham Smith tells Middletown Patch that Planning and Zoning Commissioner Carl Chisem has resigned from the board. "In the research that I had done so far into the issue," Smith said, "I did not encounter an outright prohibition on serving in both capacities."

In an email to Middletown Patch, Chisem wrote, "Last night I was fulfilling my obligations to the public by sitting on the commission since I hadn't yet resigned. I have since resigned as of Nov. 14, 2013, so that I can fulfill my duties as common councilman."

Original story:

In a bizarre turn of events, a former planning and zoning commissioner refused to give up his seat Wednesday despite being elected to common council.

To the surprise of other commissioners, Democrat Carl R. Chisem, who was sworn in as a member of Middletown's common council Tuesday, also claimed his seat on planning and zoning. Chisem, 51, told those gathered that his term on the zoning board runs until 2015. 

His maneuver prevented the planning board meeting from taking place, including the election of Democrat Stephen Devoto as chair. During the election, Republican Commissioner Molly Salafia said, candidates had discussed who might be installed as officers, including herself as vice chair. 

"It was just chaos," Salafia said of Wednesday's events.

Within 20 minutes, the meeting was adjourned for lack of quorum after the three Republicans, including newly elected commissioners Jeremy Clark and Robert Simpson, left council chambers.

Chisem hadn't returned emails and calls by press time.

Town Clerk Linda Bettencourt said when she learned of the evening's proceedings, she immediately informed the city attorney's office. "It's an issue Brig will have to handle whether it pertains to the charter or state statute. Brig is aware of it and he will be handling it."

Chisem replaced zoning commissioner Michael Johnson in May after he stepped down after moving to West Hartford.

He has served on the Middletown zoning board of appeals, Harbor Park agency, citizens advisory committee, planning and zoning commission, the mayor's task force on efficiency in government and the Veterans Memorial Park Renovation committee.

Salafia said members felt that since common councilors receive a monetary stipend for their service and a number of issues and duties of both commissions overlap that any decisions made that evening could be contested.

"For the public's best interest, if anything had been approved or disapproved, it could jeopardize an application," she said.

Also on the night's agenda were two lot re-subdivisions on Crystal Lake Road and Country Club and Massa Tom roads.

"I apologized profusely to the applicant," Salafia said. "I feel really badly that we had to push the meeting back."

Devoto agreed. "There was tremendous concern that any vote we took with him as a seated commissioner would be subject to a lawsuit."

Devoto won the Sept. 10 Democratic primary after he failed to garner enough votes to earn his party's support. His victory bumped longtime commissioner and former chair Dan Russo and candidate Robert Simpson from the ballot.

"I support Stephen for chair and the other two Republicans do, too," Salafia said, adding she thinks alternate, Democrat Beth Emery, should be sworn in as a full member of the commission. 

Devoto agreed that he considers Emery is next in rotation for a seat on the planning board.

"I think she's a great person, she's very knowledgeable, and has filled in tremendously in the past," Salafia said. 

Meanwhile, commissioners await the city attorney's decision on the matter.

What do you think of these events? Tell us in the comments below.

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William Wilson November 14, 2013 at 10:50 PM
This was to stop commissioner Devoto from being elected chair and nothing else. The democrats in power don't want that power taken away by an "outsider" even if he is in their own party.
Ian Battles November 14, 2013 at 11:03 PM
Such professional behavior from our newly elected officials. C'mon guys, can't you wait two weeks before causing a scene?
Stephen H. Devoto November 14, 2013 at 11:22 PM
There is no sugarcoating what happened, and the headlines tell the truth: "Erupts in Chaos", "Double Duty Debacle" and "Same Old P&Z." I am part of a Planning and Zoning Commission that was utterly dysfunctional for its first meeting, we could do nothing more than take the roll call. I am ashamed. What makes it frustrating is that I had individual discussions with 6 of the people who should have been seated that night, and all of them agreed they would vote for a bipartisan slate of officers (Devoto, Salafia, and Rossitter). 3 Democrats and 3 Republicans agreed to vote for a slate of 2 Democrats and 1 Republican. When Chisem insisted on being seated, we all crashed. I have confidence that we will come out of the wreckage. Mayor Drew captured the spirit of good government in his inaugural address (was it only 2 days ago?). He called for bipartisan cooperation in the interests of Middletown. From The Press: “We live in a period in our history that is probably the most polarized that any of us have ever seen,” said Drew. “In Middletown I think we’ve done better than that. We’ve done better certainly than they’ve done in Washington by recognizing that our oneness is more powerful than anything that might divide us. “Our charge as a community, really, is to cast aside that superficiality, because we all want the same things,” said Drew. “We all want excellent schools for our children, we all want a robust and thriving economy, we all want clean air and clean water.”
Ed McKeon November 15, 2013 at 06:32 AM
It was a cleverly played move to block Devoto's bid for chairmanship. A move with loads of plausible deniability. If the Council appoints the deserving Emery to the seat, then we can chalk it up to Chisem's "misunderstanding" of his role. If someone else is appointed, say Russo, or anyone who would vote against Devoto as chair (and a bipartisan leadership), then it will be clear that Devoto's chairmanship was indeed blocked, and intentionally so.
Brian Kaskel November 15, 2013 at 10:46 AM
The Mayor has a chance to put his money where is mouth is. If anyone besides Emery is put in the seat, and if there is anything other than the Bi-Partisan slate of officers that was agreed to by those who are ready and willing to serve. Then the Mayor will need to be the first to respond publicly about how Middletown is NO different than any other dysfunctional political arena anywhere else in this country. Step up Mr. Mayor (and Common Council by association) do the right thing!

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