Sensible Wilton complaints dismissed (updated)
This is an updated version of a previously published article.
The State Elections Enforcement Commission has dismissed most of the complaints brought against the town by Sensible Wilton regarding the vote for the Miller-Driscoll renovation project. The vote on the $50-million project took place after a Special Town Meeting on Sept. 23, 2014 and the adjourned vote on Sept. 27, 2014. The margin of approval was a narrow 27 votes on a 17% turnout. The final tally was 979-952.
The commission presented its findings and conclusions at a meeting on Tuesday, June 16.
In three separate complaints, Alex Ruskewich, filing for Sensible Wilton, alleged:
- The town used public money to pay for electioneering in the form of a “Vote Yes” flyer that was widely distributed;
- The town used public money to hold information sessions about the project on “parent nights” at schools on Sept. 10 and 17, and used those sessions to advocate for a “yes” vote;
- The town placed a notice on the town-hosted PTA calendar reading “Vote for Miller-Driscoll Renovation!”
A separate complaint against Miller-Driscoll Principal Cheryl Jensen-Gerner resulted in a consent order agreement, which will not be made public until it is signed, although it reportedly does not involve a fine or other civil penalty. According to an SEEC spokesperson, a respondent has 10 days to sign the agreement.
Ruskewich was surprised and disappointed by the decision. “It boggles my mind,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon. “I’ve got a copy of their finding and it somehow has no relationship to reality.”
He added he will ask Sensible Wilton’s attorney to look at the decision and if possible, he will also request a copy of the state investigator’s report.
First Selectman Bill Brennan, also reached on Tuesday afternoon, said he was “very pleased with the decision.”
“There have been many unsubstantiated claims of election violations made,” he added, “and now the SEEC has put this issue to bed. The school renovation project for the benefit of the children of Wilton is on schedule.”
On the issue of the flyer, the commission found it was not paid for with taxpayer money, but with private money. Its report says Susan Price, co-president of the Miller-Driscoll PTA for 2014-15, stepped forward and informed town attorney Ken Bernhard she produced the flyer and had it printed at Paul’s Prosperous Printing, and produced a receipt. She did this, she said, in response to seeing “vote no” flyers on cars in the school parking lot. She said she distributed the flyers at soccer and football fields and Stop & Shop.
Since it found no evidence the town used municipal funds for the flyer, the commission dismissed this allegation regarding town officials, but continued its investigation naming Price as a respondent. This is because the flyers contained no attribution as required by law.
As it continued its investigation, the commission found that Price and Bruce Hampson, a member of the Miller-Driscoll Building Committee, exchanged emails and he was aware of the flyer, as were committee member Karen Birck and Miller-Driscoll Principal Cheryl Jensen-Gerner, who were copied on the emails.
But the commission’s findings said there was no evidence they were involved in the costs associated with the flyer or its distribution. Because she essentially worked alone, receiving help from others only in distributing the flyer, the commission said there ultimately was not a requirement for attribution on the flyer and so dismissed the count as to her.
Ruskewich, however, forwarded to The Bulletin on Tuesday a copy of an email from Price to Birck and Hampson on Sept. 25, 2014, in which Prices asks, “Karen can I get some more of the pink flyers from you?” She planned to hand them out at the soccer fields. She also forwarded a message to Hampson that she sent to friends encouraging them to vote for the project.
Hampson responded to both messages, “Susan: This is terrific… you sure can do that. If anyone asks … the flyers were paid for by private parties.”
Ruskewich said he believes this shows culpability on the part of town officials’ involvement “with the preparation of the pink [”Vote Yes”] flyer.”
Also in his complaint, Ruskewich said building committee members gave what amounted to sales pitches for the project at parent meetings in September. The commission said there was no audio or video recordings to support this claim, nor was Ruskewich able to present any witnesses other than Curt Noel, a member of Sensible Wilton, and John Macken, a parent who spoke at the Sept. 23 Special Town Meeting.
Town officials told the elections commission the building committee gave presentations to many civic groups and meet-the-teacher events to outline the plans to renovate the school. At these events a brochure was handed out that the commission affirmed was neutral in its information.
In addition, the town asserted Parent Night at Miller-Driscoll over the past several years has included a brief presentation on a subject of general interest and this year it was the school renovation. There were three Parent Nights in September and a presentation was made at each.
Bruce Hampson provided an affidavit that said the information presented through a PowerPoint presentation was factual in nature. Susan Price made a statement as a witness that neither committee nor school officials “gave any express opinion as to how people should vote.”
The commission, in its findings, acknowledged both Karen Birck and Bruce Hampson would be inclined to favor a “yes” vote, but there was insufficient evidence to show they actually expressed that opinion at any of the public meetings.
Another email Ruskewich provided contradicts this finding, he said. In an email to John Kalamarides, dated Sept. 8, 2014, and copied to building committee members, she writes:
“Bruce and I spoke to a full house of 2nd grade parents tonight. I told them there was organized opposition … I went on to say that the project is in jeopardy unless supporters get to the polls. told them if the project did not pass we don’t know what the next steps will be but whatever they are they will be delayed and will cost more. Need to scare people who think it is a done deal so that they go to the polls.”
Instead, the elections commission said, “we have hearsay and competing narratives on what might have occurred, but no concrete record to review.” With insufficient evidence “to make a finding that it was more probable than not that public funds were used to advocate in a referendum here” the commission dismissed the allegation.
The complaint had said these presentations, along with the “Vote Yes” pamphlet improperly influenced the outcome of the vote and a revote was justified.
The final complaint centered on the town-hosted PTA calendar for Cider Mill School PTA that advocated for the renovation. The allegation here is that it is “an impermissible expenditure of municipal funds.”
The PTAs have their websites on the school district servers, but the school district exerts no editorial control over them. This does not necessarily absolve the district from liability, however.
The commission’s investigation found a Cider Mill parent, Madhavi-Sharma Vallabhajosula posted the item in question. She claimed she posted “Vote for Miller-Driscoll Renovation! on the calendar as an event item. She said the wording was not precise because English is not her first language.
Taking into consideration the tone and timing of the post, the commission found it did not rise to the level of advocacy because a “reasonable person would … consider these words, especially in their context on a calendar, to be merely informative rather than anything more.
This complaint was also dismissed.
Ruskewich could not disagree more. “This particular one I could never imagine they could twist the logic … This is not a calendar event. This is Vote for Miller-Driscoll Renovation!
“Overall,” Ruskewich said, “my opinion is that legalese was twisted to fit a certain set of facts.”
One thing both Brennan and Ruskewich agree on is the entire incident has had an effect on the town. But that is where the agreement ends.
Ruskewich said the project will result in 3% mill rate increases for the life of the bond, which is 20 years.
Brennan said the “continued attack” has discouraged people from volunteering to serve the town. “There has been fallout,” he said. “I hope we get this behind us. … I am hopeful we can get on with good, productive relationships with all citizens of Wilton.”
This is not the end of the matter, however. Sensible Wilton has filed a suit in Connecticut Superior Court to compel the town to call a Special Town Meeting in order to vote on whether to repeal the $50,022,000 bonding authorization for the Miller-Driscoll renovation project. Representatives from the town and Sensible Wilton are due in court on Monday, June 22.
Both Ruskewich and Brennan expect the SEEC decision to have an effect on the outcome of the lawsuit.
“It’s bound to have an effect,” Ruskewich acknowledged.
Brennan did not want to make predictions, but he said, “I don’t think it helps them. This was a major plank in their argument. That’s been eliminated now.”