Walsh quits as selectman over public-vs.-prviate conflict

James Walsh abruptly resigned from the Board of Selectmen, effective immediately Thursday, after questions were raised about the conflicts of interest posed by his representation of private clients before the town's land-use boards.

In a statement issued in response to questions from the Fairfield Citizen, Walsh said, "Since it appears that my role as a selectman was now interfering with a client's matter, I've concluded that I must resign immediately from my voluntary role as a selectman, though reluctantly, for the sake of my family, my clients and my livelihood."

Walsh, a Republican, was appointed to the Board of Selectmen following the death of Ralph Bowley in May 2010 and was elected in his own right in November. Prior to that, he was a member of the Representative Town Meeting.

"During that time, I have demanded integrity of all in town government, including myself," Walsh said. "I hope and trust that the citizens of Fairfield will see my actions today are nothing less than a continuation of that purpose."

The ethical question arose earlier this week as the Town Plan and Zoning Commission considered an application for a Post Road building where a restaurant is being proposed. Walsh is the lawyer for the building's owner, John Karageorge, who has yet to win approval for plans after months of hearings for the site where Las Vetas Lounge once operated.

Former Town Attorney Richard Saxl said he warned Walsh "on multiple occasions that he could not appear before the town's land use commissions on behalf of private clients," adding he also showed him published opinions relating to professional conduct rules supporting that position.

TPZ Commissioner Rich Jacobs raised the issue of a possible conflict at the hearing on Karageorge's application, where permission is sought to add a second story at 1400-1462 Post Road. Karageorge wants to open a restaurant on his property at the corner of Post Road and Sanford Street.

Under state statute 8-11, as an ex officio member of both the TPZ and ZBA, the only time it is permissible for Walsh to appear before those boards is if he represents the town. The TPZ tabled a vote on the Karageorge application following an hourlong discussion behind closed doors Tuesday, but debated whether it should vote on the application on its merits and institute a future policy, or if the chairman should rule the Karageorge application out of order.

"I've been coming to these boards well before I was on the Board of Selectmen," Walsh said earlier this week. "I feel these boards have always treated me the same as any other applicant. I don't see any difference whatsoever."

But Thursday afternoon, he indicated he felt compelled to choose his private legal profession over his part-time elected post in the face of mounting questions about the ethics of his predicament.

"While representing a client as an attorney at a Town Plan and Zoning Commission hearing on Tuesday evening," he wrote in his resignation letter, "several commissioners raised the question of whether I could represent clients before them while at the same time being a member of the Board of Selectmen.

"Previously, I had asked the opinion of numerous other attorneys in both parties to review the legalities of such representations and it was determined that my representation was permissible. Though there is nothing whatsoever improper in so representing my clients, nevertheless, since one of the concentrations of my law practice is land use, I must take note when several TPZ commissioners are uncomfortable with this issue, even if I respectfully disagree with them," he wrote.

"It is my ethical obligation as an attorney is to represent my clients to the best of my ability," indicating that makes him feel that he must choose his law practice over service as a selectman.

"While I am grateful to have served in this part-time capacity, supporting my family, helping my clients and developing my law practice must be my main focus at this time in my life," he wrote.

First Selectman Michael Tetreau, who first served with Walsh on the RTM, said Thursday the respect he had for Walsh while on the legislative body had grown as they served on the Board of Selectmen.

"I think Jim made a very valuable contribution to the town during his time on the Board of Selectmen," Tetreau said, adding that Walsh did his homework and was prepared to ask questions. "I think the town was better for his input."

Like others in local political circles, Tetreau said he was taken by surprise by Walsh's sudden resignation.

Republican Town Committee Chairman James Millington also said Walsh's decision came as a surprise, but added that he understands why Walsh needed to make a decision on the issue quickly.

"You need to put family first," Millington said, and the growing questions threatened to have an impact on Walsh's livelihood.

"He made the right decision for him," Millington said. He added that Walsh "handled himself professionally and aboveboard."

Millington said he has worked with Walsh in local politics, both on the RTM and the RTC, for a long time.

"I have a great deal of respect for him, and his decision," he said.

Selectman Cristin McCarthy Vahey said that while she was aware that conflict-of-interest issues were raised at earlier zoning hearings and again Tuesday, "nonetheless I was surprised by the news. I'm still taking that in."

She said she will miss working with Walsh, who while passionate about the town, was someone willing to have a civil discussion even if he disagreed with you.

"That's something I really respect and appreciate," Vahey said. "I'm sure that Jim is going to remain involved in making Fairfield a wonderful place to live and work, just not as a selectman."

Millington said the RTC will make a recommendation for Walsh's replacement to the two Democrats on the Board of Selectmen. While the vote is ultimately up to Tetreau and Vahey, the town charter dictates that the replacement must be a Republican.

"Traditionally, there's an unwritten agreement between the parties that they will honor the recommendation," Millington said, though that process was not a smooth one following First Selectman Kenneth Flatto's resignation from the post last year. At the time, Walsh had opposed Tetreau's appointment as interim first selectman, saying that job should be taken by someone who did not intend to run for the office in November.

When making a recommendation for the open seat, Millington said, "Obviously, we have to keep in mind that we want to make sure that the Board of Selectmen is not a divisive board and that we put someone in there to be a working member of the board and not someone just campaigning."

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