A $116,746 court battle: Fairfield’s special election case over, but the discussion lives on
FAIRFIELD — The June 6, 2017 Board of Selectmen special election costs total $116,746, with the bulk of the money — $75,060 — going to attorney James Baldwin.
But some Board of Finance members were more concerned with the $9,220 paid to Robert Morrin. Morrin, based in Berlin,was initially hired by First Selectman Mike Tetreau to represent the town and the Board of Selectmen in the court case that ensued when the GOP majority refused to set a date for a special election.
A group of Democrats circulated a petition for a special election after Republican Selectman Laurie McArdle resigned in December, 2016, one year into a four-year term. Following the charter, Republican Edward Bateson was appointed to the seat, the petitioners cited state statutes in their quest.
Ultimately, the state Supreme Court ruled last month that the special election was not allowed under the charter, and reinstated Bateson to the board. Bateson lost the special election to Democrat Kevin Kiley.
From the beginning Tetreau questioned Baldwin’s representation, claiming the charter gives the first selectman the sole authority to appoint town attorneys. Bateson and fellow Republican Selectman Chris Tymniak held a special meeting and hired Baldwin, the former chairman of the Republican Town Committee. Tetreau said the meeting was not legal but Baldwin said a majority of a board can call a special meeting, without the chairman’s approval.
Special election costs
Attorney Stanton Lesser $7,920
Attorney Robert Morrin $9,220
Coles Baldwin & Kaiser $75,060
Carmody Torrance Sandak Hennessey LLC (audit of Baldwin bill) $3,570
June 6, 2017 special election $20,975
Tetreau sent two letters to Baldwin instructing him to cease representing the town but now says the Bateson-Tymniak meeting had no impact and he appointed Baldwin to represent those two on the advice of Lesser. “Based on the advice from the town attorney, I appointed attorney Baldwin to represent Chris, Ed and the BOS,” Tetreau said. “This seemed simplest and allowed for Ed and Chris to have an attorney of their choosing.”
The matter was to be considered by the Appellate Court but that court never heard the case, instead forwarding it to the state Supreme Court.
Unlike Bateson and Tymniak, Tetreau believed the special election should be held, and Mirron ended providing him with representation. “Due to the differing positions and the BOS votes on the election issue, it seemed appropriate to have separate counsels to properly represent all parties,” Tetreau said.
“We have a dangerous precedent that has been set by this whole thing,” finance board member James Walsh said, during a recent review of the special election costs. The board was not being asked to approve any appropriations to cover the expenses. Walsh said Tetreau being represented by his own counsel could set a precedent whereby any member of a board or commission that votes in the minority can request and have the town pay for an attorney.
“I think we’re going to have to take that into account,” Walsh said, citing as a hypothetical a four to one vote by the Zoning Board of Appeals that becomes the subject of a court appeal. That lone member, he contended, could ask for the town to pay for an attorney.
Chairman Thomas Flynn wanted to know who approved the payment of Morin. Flynn said the “town turned around and hired their own lawyer to represent the majority, then we have this other lawyer in here that doesn’t represent the town but represents Tetreau but we paid for him, too ... I’m confused by it, it does set a strange precedent.”
Tetreau, however, said there was nothing unusual about the situation
“This is the typical procedure we follow,” he said. “In this case, the three selectmen were sued individually and each needed representation. There certainly isn’t anything dangerous about this approach.”
Tetreau said since the majority on the board chose not to follow Town Attorney Stanton Lesser’s advice, it was necessary to look for outside counsel. “I believe the fees my attorney charged with considerably less than Attorney Baldwin’s fees,” the first selectman said, noting the vast majority of Baldwin’s fees were generated during the appeal period.
“As a town, we do owe our town officials defense coverage when they are sued when performing their normal duties,” Tetreau said.