Though the meeting voted 43-7 to hear the joint statement from Democratic BOF members later in the meeting, Sheri Gordon posted it in sections in the online “chat” section while Chair Ellen Lautenberg was talking.

By Jarret Liotta

WESTPORT — What many assumed would be a foregone conclusion Wednesday night — the Democratic Town Committee’s virtually unanimous recommendation of Candice Savin for the third Board of Selectmen seat — proved to be anything but.

On the heels of concerns expressed by a small group of DTC members about the endorsement process — including a joint statement from the four sitting Democratic Board of Finance members expressing disappointment — a lengthy and at times hostile online meeting drew the recommendation vote out for more than two-and-a-half hours.

“A Unique Situation”

“This is quite a unique situation,” Chair Ellen Lautenberg said in an oddly prophetic comment at the beginning of the meeting, though she was referencing Democratic candidate Jonathan Steinberg’s decline of the third selectperson seat following his loss to First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker and her running mate Andrea Moore, who were sworn into office Monday night.

Democratic Board of Finance Chair Brian Stern

Traditionally the majority party on the BOS appoints whichever candidate has been endorsed by the DTC, though technically Tooker and Moore have it in their power to pick any registered Democrat in town that they want when they first meet officially on Nov. 24.

While most DTC members were strongly of the mind that Savin’s campaign efforts as Steinberg’s running mate, coupled with her having already been vetted by the DTC’s nominating committee months ago, entitled her to the recommendation, a select few lambasted both Lautenberg and the nominating committee for what they said was a very undemocratic process.

“My concerns are not with Candice as a candidate,” said Kristin Hamlin, who amidst tense exchanges with member Wendy Batteau, argued that there were “critical violations of bylaws and traditions and patterns of practice.”

“Process Matters”

“Process matters … It’s the other party that engages in this kind of conduct,” she said. “It’s beneath us.”

Hamlin, who in the summer brought — and then later dropped — lawsuits against State Rep. Steinberg (D-136) and DTC Secretary Lisa Newman relating to the original nominating process, various claims and defamatory remarks allegedly made behind closed doors about her, said inadequate notice of this meeting had discouraged more candidates from putting their names in for consideration.

Kristin Hamlin

She also said Lautenberg issued a “very inappropriate” press release indirectly implying that Savin was going to be the DTC’s choice, noting other candidates were not interviewed for the spot, including BOF Chair Brian Stern, who she said expressed interest.

“We really should have an adjournment until we follow the actual traditions (and) democratic principles,” Hamlin said.

“Fairness in our party has been a problem with this leadership,” she said, saying Lautenberg “put her finger on the scale” of the nomination.

“There are no requirements that we interview in our by-laws … and we gave proper notice in advance of the meeting,” Lautenberg said.

“And we allowed people to make nominations from the floor, so nobody’s being excluded,” she said.

BOF Joint Statement

Some Board of Finance members — in particular Lee Caney and Sheri Gordon — were in disagreement, pushing to have a joint BOF statement criticizing the process read before candidates were allowed to be nominated.

After several chaotic and emotional exchanges, a vote to change the order of the meeting’s agenda was defeated 43-7.

Democratic Board of Finance member Sheri Gordon

While Lautenberg said there would be time for the statement to be heard later in the meeting, Gordon then began posting the statement in pieces onscreen in the virtual Zoom meeting’s “chat” section for all to see.

Gordon and Hamlin were the only two members of the DTC opposed to Steinberg’s nomination back in July.

Two other candidates were nominated for the third selectperson seat — Joe Strickland, who was not in attendance but nominated by Jennifer Johnson, and Johnson herself, who was nominated by Sal Liccione.

Johnson withdrew her name from consideration at the last minute right before the final vote, which was 49-0 in favor of Savin, with one abstention by Gordon.

“The Importance of Process”

“Based on correspondence, we believe the DTC was not interested in considering candidates,” Caney read in the BOF statement later in the meeting, which requested the committee suspend the appointment process in order to allow more time for the vetting of candidates.

Democratic Board of Finance member Lee Caney

“Our board emphasizes the importance of process in all our deliberations,” he said, strongly emphasizing that this was no reflection on any potential nominee.

Caney read that when there have been Democratic openings on boards or commissions, there were advertisements made for candidates and the nominating committee spends more time reviewing candidates.

“We’re at a loss as to why this process is not being followed,” he said.

Rebecca Martin, who nominated Savin, pointed out that the nominating committee has traditionally always gotten resumes from a lot more people interested in being appointed to an existing Democratic seat that was being vacated, as opposed to those willing to run to win the seat.

“Candy stuck her neck out … to give up her other position and to run for this,” she said, referencing Savin’s former role as Board of Education chair.

“I want to honor the commitment that we made to her,” Martin said.

“Mind-Boggling” Meeting

Several DTC members expressed incredulity and contempt with how this evening’s process had turned out.

“It’s just mind-boggling to me,” said Neil Phillips, who served on the nominating committee and defended the work.

Neil Phillips

“Something just doesn’t seem right about this discussion that we’re having tonight, because we have fully vetted the candidates before us,” he said, suggesting there may be “some other underlying agenda that I’m not seeing here.”

Likewise, he defended Lautenberg, whom he said “had to fend off attacks against her judgment, decision-making, leadership, amidst dealing with the fallout of a lawsuit she had to cleanup in the midst of a campaign.”

“There’s no reason to create this chaos,” Lee Goldstein, a Board of Education member, said of Wednesday night’s meeting. “It’s embarrassing and it makes the town Democrats look foolish.”

“What we need is a process to keep disruptors from allowing this sort of delay,” said an emotional Rob Simmelkjaer, who ran for the BOS four years ago.

“An Outrage”

He called Wednesday night’s meeting “an outrage,” and said there needed to be a process to “remove a certain person on this call, in this meeting, who disrupted … actually filed a lawsuit (and) made outrageous claims,” which he said caused tremendous harm.

Rob Simmelkjaer

He said running for the BOS was “an intense experience and Candy did that and did a fantastic job.”

“She was already nominated for the Board of Selectmen … She has earned it,” Simmelkjaer said. “She has put in the work. She deserves this opportunity.”

“We should be supporting her, period,” he said.

Don O’Day said that while the concerns people expressed were “legitimate,” it was not particularly beneficial to express them at this time, as it was already apparent Savin was getting the endorsement.

“If I were Candy I’d probably be pretty pissed off right now,” he said.

Savin herself took no part in the discussion, but around 10:30 p.m. asked if a vote could be taken as many other participants probably had better things to do.

“I feel badly,” she said. “We’ve been here two-and-a-half hours.”

Candice Savin