Samanta Roy group, Wescott officials share a decade of strained relations

The Shawano Leader/October 14, 2004
By Tim Ryan

The relationship between town officials and Dr. R.C. Samanta Roy's group in Wescott has been strained for at least a decade, ever since the reconstruction of Highway H cut across Samanta Roy's property.

"That's when the problems started," said Town Chairman Mike Schuler. "We got off on the wrong foot with them."

Schuler's first contact with the group was over the Highway H reconstruction, when the town let Samanta Roy know that the property was "red-lined" for the highway.

He said the straight-line path that cut across the Samanta Roy property was the safest, easiest and most obvious choice for the new Highway H. It was after that, according to Schuler, that Samanta Roy began talking for the first time about building an international boarding school on the property.

"Later, when the road was there, they came in with some hand drawings," said Schuler.

Sketches showing a rough layout of the school were presented to the Wescott Zoning and Planning Committee at a Sept. 8, 1998 meeting - one of three held that fall to consider a zone change for the property that would allow the school to be built.

But town officials said the drawings were inadequate. They wanted to see a more professionally drawn layout.

"We said, 'go back to the drawing board and come back and give us some facts,'" Schuler said.

The rezoning was tabled twice before it was recommended to be denied.

Schuler said SIST has never been back to the Wescott Planning and Zoning Committee with any further plans for the school since the rezoning was denied at a Nov. 3, 1998 meeting. However, the group continues to accuse the town of blocking the school.

In one of the written responses to questions from the Shawano Common Council in April of last year, SIST maintained that the Town of Wescott was blocking the project. The questions were submitted to Samanta Roy seeking answers about commercial properties in the city. SIST representatives have said the businesses are intended to support the building and operation of the international boarding school.

Asked where the school would be and when it would be built, the written response from the group stated: "We have been ready to build the school for years. The Town of Wescott has prevented us from doing so."

Tension increased when Samanta Roy requested a variance to build additional stories onto the house at his Frailing Road property. The town recommended the county deny the request. The additional stories would have increased the height of the structure to between 55 and 84 feet. The maximum height limit for the residential zoning on Samanta Roy's property is 35 feet.

When the Shawano County Board of Adjustments inspected the property to make its decision on the variance, the group refused to let Schuler or a Shawano Leader reporter step onto the property. Sheriff's deputies were called to the scene to keep them out.

The board followed the town's recommendation and denied the variance.

Then an article started showing up in mailboxes. Though unsigned, the writer identifies herself as Darlene Sense, one of the group's members. Sense is well known to officials in the Town of Wescott and in the city and county of Shawano as a representative of Samanta Roy's.

Sense regularly attends Wescott board meetings, as well as meetings of the Shawano Common Council, frequently with a notepad and tape recorder. The article states that she does this "as a private citizen interested in politics."

The article accused town officials of prejudice and discrimination against Samanta Roy, and compared members of the Town of Wescott Zoning Committee to Hitler and Saddam Hussein. It compared the genocide of World War II and the atrocities commited by rebel soldiers in Sierra Leone with the zoning committee's rejection of the group's variance.

"What makes me shudder is that in our own state, our own country, our own city, our own town, our own backyard, we have people whose actions are tantamount to the ax wielding African rebel," the article stated.

The article, which included a doctored photo of Zoning Committee Chairman Bruno March chopping the hands off of a young girl, accused the committee of conspiring to block Samanta Roy's plans for an international boarding school.

"It was mailed to all the residents in Shawano County as far as I know," Schuler said.

There have not been any subsequent mailings like the one ostensibly written by Sense, or another that appeared at about the same time and included attacks against Schuler, which was unsigned but attributed to group member Kal Gronvall.

One town official was accused of discrimination more recently.

In July, Sense filed a formal request with the Shawano County Planning and Zoning Department directed at Phil Zuhse - a town supervisor and county Board of Adjustment member.

Sense asked that Zuhse not be allowed to take part in the Board of Adjustment's consideration of a variance request being considered for another property owned by Samanta Roy.

"Mr. Zuhse has continuously shown his racial and religious prejudice and discrimination at the town level at every opportunity," Sense wrote.

Despite the request, Zuhse took part in the board's consideration of the variance. However, he abstained from voting. The board approved the variance, against the recommendations of the Wescott Zoning Committee.

Zuhse said he has no clue why the group, or at least Sense, seems to feel he has discriminated against them. He said that was the first time the charge had been leveled at him.

However, he said, when he first became a town supervisor a few years ago, the group demanded he be taken off the Board of Review in considering a tax assessment appeal.

"I was taken off the Board of Review, and that was my first encounter with those people," Zuhse said.

Property owners have the right to request that one member excuse him or herself from the Board of Review, Zuhse explained, and are not required to provide a reason.

Not all differences between the group and the town have been as contentious. Occasionally the skirmishes have been trivial.

Town Assessor Paul Hahn said that in 2001 he wanted to inspect the unfinished upper portion of the house on the Samanta Roy property. Because the second floor was unfinished there were no stairs leading up to it, Hahn said.

According to Hahn, he was told by representatives of the group he would have to bring his own ladder to get up to the second floor, and that he would have to sign a waiver stating that the group was not responsible for any accident or injury.

The town refused to go by those rules and the second floor was assessed as being finished. However, an independent appraisal the next year listed it as unfinished and the extra assessment was taken off the tax bill.

In 2002, the group wanted to take additional measures at town meetings, according to Schuler.

"They wanted to bring in cameras, and they wanted to videotape us, and we said no," Schuler said.

Recalling the article ostensibly written by Sense a few years earlier, the town then passed an ordinance prohibiting the taking of pictures of public officials while acting in their official capacity. The ordinance, which makes exceptions for the media and in other limited cases, states that it was "designed to limit the intimidation of public officials."

Even though the ordinance addresses the taking of pictures, Schuler said the intent was to keep pictures from being used in an offensive manner.

"The only reason is to keep pictures from being taken and used the wrong way," said Schuler.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, called the ordinance "mind-boggling." He said that while the ordinance might not be in violation of state statutes, it seems like bad public policy.

According to Chapter 19.90 of state statutes, "Whenever a governmental body holds a meeting in open session, the body shall make a reasonable effort to accommodate any person desiring to record, film or photograph the meeting. This section does not permit recording, filming or photographing such a meeting in a manner that interferes with the conduct of the meeting or the rights of the participants."

He said the town should have limited its response to the material allegedly put out by Sense.

"If members of the public are using photos in a defamatory way, the Town of Wescott should deal with those situations as they occur," he said.

Schuler said there is little town officials could have done to deal specifically with the Sense and Gronvall articles that were circulated.

"We can't sue because we're elected officials," Schuler said. "It can't be taken up in court of law."

Schuler also conceded that - in spite of the ordinance - the town probably could not legally stop anyone from taking pictures.

"In my opinion, it would definitely not hold up," Schuler said of the ordinance. But the town was looking for something to use as a tool to keep defamatory material from being circulated. "We're all elected officials. We don't need BS like that."

Schuler said the group's presence at meetings is intimidating. However, he said, it isn't much different than the presence of a newspaper reporter, which can tend to make officials more conscious about what they say. The difference, he noted, is that officials know why the newspaper is there. They don't know why the group is taking notes and recording meetings.

Schuler said he couldn't say that the group was intending to intimidate the board but he believes that has been the effect.

Town officials have even grown suspicious of what might be considered merely goodwill gestures from the group, such as the chocolates that Sense brings around at Christmas time.

"I won't accept it," Schuler said. "None of the elected officials have accepted anything that I know of."

Schuler questions whether there is a motive behind it.

"What's the reason behind it that they want to be nice to us?" he asked.

Marlene Brown, a town supervisor for four years, said she had previous contact with Sense when Brown managed Bouwer Printing in Shawano.

"She would come in then, before I was on the board, and she couldn't be more pleasant," Brown said. "She was so pleasant and so nice. She was selling Tupperware at that time. In fact, I have the most wonderful soup thing that I bought from her."

But the demeanor changed when Sense attended board meetings, Brown said. Sense was less friendly and often flippant when asked any questions regarding Samanta Roy.

At one meeting last winter, Brown asked Sense about piles of dirt seen on land adjacent to Samanta Roy's property and wondered what the dirt was for. She said Sense answered that it was to keep the snowmobilers out.

Brown recalled that Town Treasurer Elaine Montour was part of that conversation and then asked Sense where the dirt was coming from.

"From the sky," Sense responded, according to Brown.

The Leader in September sent several letters to Samanta Roy and members of and other leaders of the group requesting information and an interview. There was no response. Calls to Sense's home last week were not returned.

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