The City of Somerville said it has halted efforts at mediation between the Somerville Community Corporation and a resident group opposed to a development of affordable housing in Union Square.
The move comes after the resident group, Union Square Rising, said Monday night that it would not participate in the fledgling talks, citing what the group called a conflict of interest with the private company contracted to mediate.
The alleged conflict stems from the work history of David Fairman, managing director at the Consensus Building Institute. Somerville made plans to contract the Somerville-based firm to carry out the talks.
But Union Square Rising said after information surfaced that Fairman worked for the Somerville Community Corporation in 1989 as a mediator for landlord-tenant disputes, the resident group said it would not participate.
Fairman's stint at the SCC was first publicized in the Somerville Journal last week.
The city "will not be proceeding with mediation," said Thomas Champion, a city spokesman. "If Union Square Rising changes its mind, then we can restart the process."
Danny LeBlanc, executive Director of the Somerville Community Corporation, declined to comment on the situation, saying it was too early to tell how his organization would respond.
"We're waiting to see how the city wants to proceed with this," said LeBlanc, reached by phone.In a phone interview, Union Square Rising founder Zac Zasloff said his constituents are eager to go forward with a discussion, but would do so only with assistance from another mediation company.
The firm had prepared to start preliminary talks in the coming weeks to determine whether a fuller mediation process could help produce an accord between the groups.
Union Square Rising and the Somerville Community Corporation have been at loggerheads ever since the SCC proposed a $15 million, five-story building at 181 Washington St. to be composed of 40 units of affordable housing. Union Square Rising contends the building is too large, contains too many below market-rate units, and would change the character of the neighborhood.
In a phone interview with Champion Tuesday, the city spokesman rebuffed the claim of a conflict, citing the Consensus Building Institute's record and reputation of remaining impartial and nonpartisan. The private firm also has a history with the city, and had been contracted at least one time before to help solve a similar dispute involving residents and the SCC.
In the 20-plus years since he worked for for the Somerville development agency, Fairman, who did not return messages for comment Tuesday, has amassed impressive credentials in his field. In 2000, he earned a doctorate in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where is also a guest lecturer, and has worked around the world mediating and training leaders in negotiation and conflict resolution tactics.
But Zasloff said credentials are irrelevant if the appearance of a conflict exists.
"No one knows whether or not [Fairman] has a soft-spot for the SCC because they gave him his first job," Zasloff said.
Danny LeBlanc, executive director of the Somerville Community Corporation, meanwhile, said records of Fairman's employment could not be located, and that in all likelihood he worked there for only a short amount of time.
LeBlanc, who spoke about the alleged conflict before the city announced it would withdraw, said he didn't believe the connection between his organization and Fairman was serious enough to scuttle talks.
"My general sense is that if you want to find a conflict with anyone anywhere, you can find one if you look hard enough," he said.
Matt Byrne can be reached at email@example.com.