In heated meeting, Republicans on board refuse to change stance
Updated 5:03 pm, Thursday, February 2, 2017
FAIRFIELD — Republicans on the Board of Selectmen Wednesday refused to reconsider the action taken last week and set a date for a special election, ignoring the town attorney’s opinion they were overstepping their authority.
Republican Laurie McArdle resigned in December from the board, one year into a four-year term. First Selectman Mike Tetreau, a Democrat, and Republican Selectman Chris Tymniak appointed Ed Bateson to the vacancy on Dec. 7. However, Democrats spearheaded a petition drive and collected 3,200 signatures to force a special election.
Last week, Bateson and Tymniak amended the resolution setting the date for that election, declaring there was no need for such an election because the vacancy had been filled within 30 days, as per the charter.
Before the discussion began, supporters of the special election held a rally on the Town Hall green, later bringing their signs inside, and Tymniak and Bateson wanted to hear the report on the election issue from Town Attorney Stanton Lesser in executive session. Lesser and Tetreau said there was no reason, under the Freedom of Information Act, that would allow such a closed-door session.
“First of all, do you believe in the town charter?” Tymniak asked Lesser.
“This isn’t a cross-examination, I’m not here to argue with you,” Lesser said. “I’m your attorney, I’m here to give you an opinion. I believe my opinion is bolstered by the secretary of the state. You have my opinion, if you don’t have this election, you’re not following the law.”
Lesser requested an opinion from Secretary of the State Denise Merrill and received a letter from Merrill and staff attorney Theodore Bromley that said if valid petitions were received a special election must be held. It did not address the town charter.
“It’s my opinion this entire argument has been framed ignoring what the charter says,” Tymniak said. “We voted on Dec. 7, fulfilling the charter and, in my opinion, we don’t need to move on this.”
“We have received some advice that is absolutely contradictory to what you’re saying. We didn’t go off half-cocked on this. I disagree on the points of law, and primary is the town charter. You haven’t addressed that anywhere. The precedent of the word “if’ is in there.”
He and Tymniak continued to maintain that since the vacancy was filled within days a special election is not necessary. They also contend that the charter is not superseded by state statute because the charter language concerning how vacancies are filled on the Board of Selectmen has been unchanged since 1951.
Lesser said that section had indeed been changed several times since then. He also said that the charter deals simply with the method of filling the vacancy, it doesn’t deal with what happens after that vacancy is filled. “What I’m talking about is not the procedure, but what the term [of office] is,” Lesser said.
Bateson said he does not believe they are obligated to follow the opinion from Merrill’s office and said Bromley changed his position “even though he refused to amend his letter.”
“If he changed his position, why did he refuse to amend his letter?” Tetreau said and asked if there was any documentation that Bromley had, indeed, changed his position. Bateson wanted to have James Baldwin, attorney for the Republican Town Committee who had a phone conversation with Bromley, provide that information.
Tetreau said that was out of order. “There’s an answer in the room,” Tymniak said. “No, there’s not,” Tetreau said
Patrick Gallahue, communications director for Merrill’s office, said they did speak with Baldwin on Tuesday. “But the office did not agree to amend the opinion letter,” Gallahue said. “However, we did state that our office does not have the authority to interpret a town charter. The opinion provided was based on Title 9 and the general statutes as they relate to the issue of a special election for selectman in Fairfield.”
Gallahue said if the town charter conflicts with state statutes, that would be an issue for the town attorney to address.
“As I’m looking at this, and as I review the report, we followed the town charter to fill the vacancy,” Tetreau said. “The town charter does not state the term, as it does so for every other board. The state statute states until the next general election or until a special election called for by petition.”
Tetreau said the signatures have been certified. “This demonstrates the voters of our town desire a special election. The town clerk called for a special election and recommended a date. The Board of Selectmen is responsible for confirming that date.”
He said the board last week went “far beyond its authority in deciding a special election wasn’t needed.”
The first selectman said he believes by refusing to set an election date the board is violating the town charter and their oath of office.
Lesser said that regardless of whether Tymniak and Bateson wanted to follow his opinion, they have an order from Merrill’s office. “You have an order, whether you like it or not,” Lesser said. “You can’t just ignore it.”
“We haven’t ignored it,” Tymniak said. “We made adjustments to the resolution.” He again pressed the argument that Merrill’s office hasn’t addressed the question of the town charter.
“The Secretary of the State doesn’t interpret our charter,” Tetreau said. That, he said, is the town attorney’s job according to the charter.
Tetreau also asked where in the charter it says that the selectmen determine if there is a special election. “What was in front of you was to confirm the date, not to decide whether or not it would happen.”
“Sometimes we have an opinion, it’s advice,” Tymniak said. “Clearly, this is advice I disagree with.” He said he hadn’t looked at the charter for language giving the selectmen the authority to decide whether to hold a special election, but said it wouldn’t be in front of the board if their approval wasn’t needed.