Ben Zehnder is mad at me. He’s well known as the go-to lawyer around here if you need a variance, or if you have gotten into a fight with a town board — especially over land use, zoning, or, perhaps, cutting down a small forest and moving tons of dirt around without a permit and then getting slapped with a cease-and-desist order.
That’s what happened in South Wellfleet three months ago, and what got me in trouble with Counselor Zehnder. We reported last week that, at a zoning board of appeals hearing on March 25, after neighborhood residents complained about the clear-cutting and earth-moving, “Zehnder remarked that he had not had to deal with such ‘hysteria’ since his first marriage. ‘I used to tell my wife,’ he said to the virtual crowd on Zoom, ‘just because you’re mad doesn’t mean I did something wrong.’ ”
Ben called me to complain that he had been misquoted. Not about what he used to tell his wife — that was true. And not about the neighbors’ “hysteria” — that was true, too, he confirmed.
“You wrote that I called my wife ‘hysterical’ and that’s not what I said,” the lawyer argued. “She’s a nice lady. I never referred to my wife as ‘hysterical.’ ”
Briefly, I contemplated with queasy admiration Ben’s clever deflection of his clients’ blatantly illegal desecration of the land into a question of whether he had insulted his ex-wife. It seemed to us that he had, in fact, insulted a good-sized crowd. And maybe himself, too. But the temptation to go to the videotape to adjudicate this defamation charge was too strong to resist.
Here’s what Ben actually said at the March 25 hearing, on tape: “This hysteria reminds me of one of the reasons why I was divorced the first time. I used to tell my wife: just because you’re mad doesn’t mean I did something wrong.”
After that hearing, the Independent’s reporter, Josephine de La Bruyère, called Zehnder to make sure he had meant what he said. Here’s what he told her, also on tape, after repeating his “just because you’re mad” punchline: “I used the word ‘hysterical.’ Everybody has a different definition of what hysterical is. There was one woman — I thought she was going to go through the roof.”
I have to admit that I let Ben get my goat. I got upset when he questioned my integrity and ridiculed me as a “typical washashore.” After we hung up, I resolved to channel the late great Wellfleet ZBA team of Roger Putnam and Bruce Drucker, who invariably found ways to set him straight with grace.
No, Ben, we didn’t misquote you. Just because you’re mad doesn’t mean we did something wrong.