Judge Kenneth Povadator will now decide, after a hearing at the Connecticut Superior Court Monday, July 20, in Stamford, whether or not Sensible Wilton has the standing necessary to bring a lawsuit against the Board of Selectmen.
Sensible Wilton filed the suit June 1, seeking a writ of temporary mandamus, to compel the selectmen to call a special town meeting to vote on whether to repeal the $50-million bonding authorization. A writ of mandamus is a means by which the court may direct someone to act in a way in which they are legally obligated.
The bond authorization was narrowly approved by voters at a special town meeting and adjourned voted in September 2014. Sensible Wilton claims voters did not have complete information on the project and that town officials violated election laws leading up to the vote.
Testimony prompted by the town’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit — on the grounds that Sensible Wilton is a referendum committee that should have been terminated 90 days after the September vote — had the plaintiff and defendant arguing over what, exactly, Sensible Wilton is.
The town, represented by Monte Frank of Cohen and Wolf, P.C., attempted to prove Sensible Wilton has been a referendum committee from the outset by exhibiting its Form 3 SEEC filing and attempted to disprove its continuing agenda by showing it to be a memberless organization. (Sensible Wilton filed a grievance with the State Elections Enforcement Commission that the town acted improperly in the leadup to the vote. Those allegations were dismissed by the SEEC.)
Frank also sought to prove Sensible Wilton to be a political committee, saying that even if it was an ongoing political committee and not a durational referendum committee, it would still be confined by the law to direct its funds solely to the influence of elections or referenda and would thus not be allowed to pursue litigation.
Sensible Wilton, represented by Simon Reiff of Harwood Reiff LLC., held that it does, indeed, have members — two to be exact: President Alex Ruskewich and Treasurer Curtis Noel, who were present as witnesses — and that it therefore has associational standing because of the fact that Ruskewich and Noel sued in their individual capacities on behalf of their “loose association,” as Noel put it, of constituents.
Futhermore, it was asserted that, if associational standing was not enough, third party standing could be claimed due to the fact their constituents are hesitant to step forward for fear of discrimination from the public and retaliation from the Board of Selectmen.
The cross-examination of Ruskewich revealed there was mention in his May 28 verified complaint of Sensible Wilton as a political committee focused on opposing the Miller Driscoll School renovation project.
“In the first sentence you state that plaintiff Sensible Wilton is a duly formed political committee under the laws of the State of Connecticut,” said Frank. “Is that correct?”
“That’s correct,” replied Ruskewich.
“The next sentence says, ‘Its stated purpose is to oppose a proposed renovation of the Miller-Driscoll School and the town of Wilton...’ Is that correct?” asked Frank.
“That’s correct,” said Ruskewich.
“That is the stated purpose as you have alleged in the verified complaint; isn’t that correct?”
“That’s correct, but it didn’t include ‘this is among other things,’” replied Ruskewich.
“Where, in your verified complaint,” asked Frank, “does it state any of those ‘other things’ that you are complaining about now in order to try to defeat standing?”
“Not specifically stated...,” said Ruskewich.
“Sensible Wilton is a political committee,” said Ruskewich under oath in response to questioning from Frank.
“Even if it is an ongoing political committee,” Frank said in his closing remarks, still holding that Sensible Wilton was a durational referendum committee, “it still would not have the authority to bring this litigation.
“Political committees are not authorized, under statute, to sue for mandamus to force the Board of Selectean to consider a petition to enact an ordinance,” Frank said.
“The lawful purpose of political committees,” concluded Frank, “is to promote the political party, including and limited to success or defeat of candidates and success or defeat of referendum questions.”
He added that, “the town charter does not allow political committees to circulate or sign petitions.”
In Reiff’s closing remarks he attempted to demonstrate that Sensible Wilton is an ongoing political committee and that, contrary to Frank’s argument, it can engage in non-political activities.
“There are two types of political committees that can be established under the campaign finance laws” said Reiff. “One: You can have a single-referendum-question committee, a committee that is formed for the sole purpose of supporting or opposing a referendum question.
“You can also have, however,” he continued, “an ongoing political committee, and that is a committee that exists in part to support or oppose a referendum question. It can also, for example, support or oppose a party or a candidate, and it can also engage in non-political activities. It is a political group or political club, to use the SEEC’s guide and their language.”
“So when you look to the SEEC form ... you have a choice to check a box. You can check the ongoing box or you can check the durational box, and my clients chose to check the box for an ongoing political committee,” Reiff said.
“In this area, in this regulated area where statute has dictated how this entity is formed, the form matters, and my clients filled it out and selected ongoing political committee,” he said.
“Moreover,” he added, “the testimony establishes unequivocally ... that Sensible Wilton has done things involving other, non-referendum activities, such as, among other things, getting out the vote for the annual town meeting, proposing or deliberating about possible candidates for the municipal elections; it has had other concerns and grievances that have been investigated and discussed. It has had other purposes, and has as its mission ... a broader charter of pursuing fiscal responsibility and government transparency.”
“The contention,” Reiff concluded, “that this committee should have somehow dissolved after 90 days, which is an exception that, indisputably only applies to referendum committees and not to ongoing political committees: That argument falls.”
Judge Povodator will have 120 days to make a decision on the motion to dismiss.