Town accused of campaign violations on close renovation project vote

Town officials have been accused of violating state election laws in the weeks preceding a vote on the proposed Miller-Driscoll renovation, which passed by 27 votes two weeks ago.

A local action group, Sensible Wilton, sent a complaint Thursday, Oct. 2, to the State Elections Enforcement Commission (SEEC) alleging what it says was town officials’ improper use of official school meetings and printed materials to promote a renovation of the primary school.

“These are serious violations of state statutes by town officials,” Alex Ruskewich, president of Sensible Wilton, said in a press release. “With a margin of victory of only 27 votes of over 1,900 votes cast, Sensible Wilton seeks a re-vote.”

First Selectman Bill Brennan issued a statement Wednesday, Oct. 8, saying town officials believe there is no basis to the complaint and that it will utlimately be dismissed. The town will move ahead with plans to renovate Miller-Driscoll School.

In response, Mr. Ruskewich said via email, "Sensible Wilton notes that First Selectman Brennan and Town Counsel did not deny the use of town funds for Vote Yes advocacy brochures. … Under the law town counsel was obligated to ensure all printed material issued by the town was neutral."

On Wednesday, SEEC spokesman Josh Foley confirmed the commission had received a complaint from Sensible Wilton. He explained the administrative body “cannot nullify a vote. Only a court can do that.

“We can refer a case to the state’s attorney, or to the attorney general, or the complainant can appeal the decision to the Superior Court,” Mr. Foley said, “but, probably to overthrow an election you would have to go before a judge.”

Nonetheless, the complaint will be brought before the elections commission Tuesday, Oct. 14. Aside from acknowledging receipt of the complaint, the SEEC is not able to comment publicly on the matter before then.

According to information sent to The Bulletin by the action group, Sensible Wilton’s first complaint regards the town’s use of 13 school-sanctioned “Meet the Teacher Open Houses” and “Officially Scheduled Parent Nights” as advocacy sessions for the referendum.

Though the presence of town officials advocating for a “yes” vote could not be independently confirmed at all 13 meetings, a parent told The Bulletin that town officials had set up a table in support of the Miller-Driscoll renovation during an open house at the school before the referendum.

It was not immediately clear which aspect of Connecticut election law such canvassing violates, but Mr. Ruskewich said “using an official school meeting as an advocacy session to a captive audience is prohibited by state election laws for referenda.”

The second complaint filed by Sensible Wilton regards the town’s alleged distribution of printed materials encouraging voters to “Vote YES” on the referendum.

A subsection of Connecticut’s election laws, Title 9, Chapter 152, Sec. 9-369(b), states that municipalities may only distribute printed material regarding a referendum that is “neutral” and “explanatory” in nature.

Though messages from Sensible Wilton state the SEEC has confirmed “that each of the actions detailed in the complaint was a statute violation,” Mr. Sensible Wilton says it hopes a re-vote will be ordered.

“Since there are [only] 11,000 registered electors in Wilton, a town-sanctioned/funded advocacy campaign with preferred access to thousands of potential voters could be expected to have a material impact on the outcome of the vote,” Mr. Ruskewich wrote in the formal complaint.

“Since the ultimate margin of passage — only 27 votes of 1,931 total votes cast — is just over 1%, complainant submits the appropriate remedy is a re-vote.”