Two Town Council candidates were advised to use more discretion in their private conversations, after an investigation into their conduct by the Town Council was dismissed without finding.
Al Sypek and Edward “Ted” Combes, also members of the Planning Board, were asked to appear before the Council in this past Monday night’s meeting after an anonymous source accused them of misconduct. The Council held an inquiry according to Section 3.14 of the Charter. While the Council eventually found the charges without finding, they also issued a stern warning to both members, and candidates, to be more careful in their speech.
Combes and Sypek were accompanied by Patrick Arnold, an attorney engaged by Combes.
Town Manager Kevin Smith called for an emergency Town Council meeting via conference call late Thursday afternoon, and four of the Councilors participated in the meeting. Joe Green recused himself because he was running for office in the March 21 election.
In the phone conference Farrell said that allegations had been brought concerning two members of the Planning Board, Edward “Ted” Combes and Al Sypek, regarding compromise in a vote in the March 8 Planning Board meeting.
In the meeting, the board was asked to give conditional approval to the building of 288 workforce apartments at the junction of Stonehenge and Hardy roads. After extensive public input on the project, the board voted 4-2 not to allow construction. Combes voted against the project and Sypek voted for it in the first vote and against it in a subsequent vote, breaking a tie.
In a phone interview Thursday, Combes said he had no idea where the charges were coming from. In a phone call Friday, Sypek also expressed bafflement and wondered why he had to first hear about the allegations on WMUR Television.
Both men are running for the two open seats on the Town Council.
In a phone interview Friday, town attorney Michael Ramsdell reiterated that nothing had been set in stone. “The Town Council statement and vote was pretty clear,” he said. “There has been an allegation of misconduct. The allegation involves one or both of the Planning Board members, and the meeting is to gather information for a possible inquiry.”
Ramsdell declined to give further information before the meeting.
Looking for the truth
Council Chair John Farrell opened the investigation after Councilor Joe Green, who is running for reelection, recused himself. Farrell said he wanted to state publicly, for the third time, that the Council stood in opposition to the development and remained in opposition. He said he wanted to state for the second time that the Council met with the developers, First Londonderry LLC, and offered them $1 million for the property, an offer that was refused. He said the Council has no authority over the Planning Board in this matter, and, “We can only offer our point of view.”
“We were greatly disheartened by these allegations,” Farrell said. “It is an unfortunate set of circumstances and timing.” But according to both the Town Charter and state law, the Council had to address the matter, he added. “We don’t have the choice of doing nothing.”
Farrell turned the inquiry over to his vice-chair, Tom Freda. In his last public act as a Councilor, Freda, who is not running for reelection, asked Sypek, “Did you talk to Art Rugg, the chairman of the Planning Board?”
Sypek said he had telephoned Rugg, who is recovering from a heart attack. “I wanted to explain my change of vote,” Sypek said.
He also said he told Rugg about a conversation he and Combes had, in the presence of other people, in the parking lot after the meeting. Community member Tiffany Richardson had presented a petition with 625 signatures against the development, and Sypek said, “Ted made the offhand comment, ‘I’ll probably get another 600 votes now. And you’ll get 600 votes for changing your vote.'” It was an offhand remark, Sypek maintained, and “Nobody told me to vote any particular way for any particular reason.”
He maintained, “I phoned Art to explain why I changed my vote.”
A Tied Vote
Sypek explained, “We had a tie vote. Once the application is complete, there’s a 65-day window. The board had to make a decision. We were 3 to 3, and John Farrell suggested a revote.”
“We needed to have a vote of record,” Sypek said, adding, “I wanted Art to know that.”
“Do you recall your comments?” Freda asked.
Sypek said his original reasoning was, “I took an oath. The developer met all the requirements. I had to vote yes.”
Freda asked Sypek if he was aware that a tie vote effectively ends the discussion, and Sypek said, “Nobody told me anything like that.”
Freda also asked if Sypek was influenced by an audience member yelling, “Shame!” and Sypek said that it did not influence his second vote.
“I did not take that into consideration,” Sypek said. “I did not make this decision on emotion.”
Council member Tom Dolan asked, “Is the Planning Board not awre that when a vote is tied, the matter is not passed?”
“I was not aware of that,” Sypek said. “All I heard was ‘revote.'”
Dolan explained, “A tie vote means the matter failed. And one of the issues at hand is, in our ethics ordinance, a board member is required to recuse themselves if they can’t make the vote without conflict.”
The implication, Dolan said, is that “there may have been votes made that were not based on the facts of the case, but on getting votes.”
“I don’t think you meant anything by it,” Farrell said, adding, “But you put us in a bad position.”
Taking One for the Team
Freda also queried Sypek on his campaign video with Londonderry Cable Access, where the Council candidate answered questions about the pending development. “You said you had to vote yes, they dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s, and you had to follow the law,” Freda told Sypek, adding, “But you still changed your vote.”
“I took the best shot at what I thought was right,” Sypek responded. “It was so the board would have a legal vote. I took one for the team.”
Freda asked Combes about his campaign video, in which he also discussed the project. “Did you acknowledge that it met all the criteria for approval?” Freda asked.
“I don’t recall,” Combes said.
“Do you want to see the video?” Freda asked, to which Combes said, “I’ll take your word for it.”
Freda quizzed Sypek about a conversation with Ramsdell, and Sypek said he didn’t recall telling Ramsdell about the parking lot conversation. Combes said in his conversation with Ramsdell he also didn’t recall, “until he refreshed my memory.”
“My comment was that it was an offhand comment,” Combes maintained.
Combes also pointed out that board members Ann Chiampa and Jim Butler also voted against the development, and nobody was calling their integrity into question.
“I voted ‘no’ due to the traffic concerns,” Combes said.
“Even though town staff approved the project?” Freda queried.
“That was not the feelilng of the board,” Combes said.
In the public comment portion of the meeting, resident Tim Siekmann expressed concern at the timing of the inquiry. “It was described as an emergency meeting, and people heard the word ‘misconduct,'” he told the board. The issue was all over social media, Siekmann said, and he wondered if this would hurt the men’s chances at the polls.
“They were slandered for five days,” he said. “Now it’s 12 hours before the election. How will you get that undone?”
Farrell responded that the announcement of the emergency meeting went out to the same list that all Council meeting announcements go to, including newspapers and WMUR television.
“We didn’t ask for this to come before us,” he said. Referring to last week’s postponed election, he said, “I didn’t make it snow.”
“But they could lose the election just because somebody thinks they heard something,” Siekmann responded. “How do you ‘unslander’ someone?”
“We will follow a process and be as fair as possible,” Farrell said.
“The question could be asked in a different way,” Freda pointed out. “What if the town didn’t do anything? We don’t operate in a vacuum. It has to be in pubilic.”
“If nothing is found wrong, and these guys still wipe out in the election, who is held responsible?” Siekmann pressed.
Farrell said, “We didn’t put anything on Facebook, and none of us were interviewed by WMUR or the newspapers.”
Who Knew What,
When and Why
Both Combes and Sypek reiterated that they learned about the investigation through the media. “On Friday morning I went out for a cup of coffee and I opened my laptop,” Sypek said. “My face was staring up at me. Why didn’t anyone call me? That was a hell of a way for me to find out.”
Combes said he had people calling him and asking, “What is going on?”
Town Manager Kevin Smith said that the original statement went out through the standard notification process. He had 30 minutes to notify the public, he said, adding, “That’s the reason no one was specifically contacted. It was an emergency meeting to authorize the investigation.”
In hindsight, Smith said, the responsibility was on him and he would have notified the two men sooner.
Watching Their Words
Dolan at first advised that Ramsdell review the investigation with the Planning Board and decide what if any further action the Planning Board should take. “It is their decision, not ours,” he told the Council.
But Farrell said, “I would like to give them a decision tonight.” The Council voted to go into executive session at 8 p.m., and to return at 8:15 with a decision.
“We are going to terminate the investigation for lack of finding,” Freda said.
Farrell wished the candidates luck in the election the following day, adding, “ON a board, we have responsibiltiies. Your words have consequences.”