Tempers at Town Council roil in New Canaan
Updated 12:59 pm, Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Tempers on the Town Council came to a boil on Wednesday, May 15, after member Roger Williams threatened legal action earlier in the week when the council denied his request attend the meeting by phone.
On Friday, May 10, Williams requested that arrangements to be made so he could call in rather than miss the meeting, at which the mill rate for the upcoming 2013-14 fiscal year would be set. When this request was denied for fear of setting a precedent, Williams informed the council his attorney would file a petition for injunctive relief on the grounds that there was no statute that would preclude inclusion in a meeting in such a way, and that there was, in fact, some legal basis in favor of it. Subsequent to Williams' announcement via email of his intentions, Town Attorney Ira Bloom, opined that Williams was correct, and Town Council Chairman Mark DeWaele made arrangements for Williams to communicate by phone.
Williams' legal threat proved extremely unpopular with his peers on the council, who spent about 40 fast-and-furious minutes criticizing his action.
Town Council Secretary Kit Devereaux announced she will retire at the end of her term, which expires in the fall, partly in reaction to this episode.
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"It used to be a great pleasure to serve on Town Council," she read from a written statement. "The Town Council is no longer the collegial body it once was. And now a member of the council has threatened the council with legal action in order to achieve a goal -- rather than allowing the council to vote on the matter and set its own policy."
Devereaux called Williams' legal threat "the straw that broke the camel's back."
Council member Tucker Murphy said the disregard for the process of the council, by going for injunctive relief rather than just talking about it, made her feel that she "was not respected."
Chris Hussey, who has sat on the Town Council since the mid-1980s, said she has never witnessed such conduct in all her years.
"It is the height of insult and very poor form to bully one's colleagues into acquiescence. It is the behavior one would expect from a spoiled child, not from an adult," she said.
Setting a precedent was a concern for some on the council. Bloom mentioned that though there may not be examples of doing so at a Town Council regular meeting, there is precedent from many other bodies' meetings. Earlier that day, he said, a member of the Westport Board of Selectmen called in and voted on 22 agenda items.
Vice Chairman Steve Karl asked Bloom about the consequences of having allowed Williams to participate in such a manner.
"I don't have any issue whatsoever with someone participating electronically," Karl began. "What I have issue with is how it has occurred. This is a Pandora's box: Does that mean Skyping is OK? FaceTime is OK? I could be sitting in my office attending meetings, or at my kids' games? That would be great. What you've said is that any form of communication would stand up in court. (How about) telegraphs? Smoke signals?"
DeWaele, too, expressed his displeasure at Williams' tactics in the situation.
"We actually applaud the interest in participating, the interest in having everyone's voices heard, but this has been something that's upsetting and something that's attacked us at the core," he said.
Soon after, and against the advice of Bloom, who had said earlier in the meeting that a vote on bylaws concerning remote communication should take place at a future meeting, council member Penny Young made a motion to outlaw telecommunication at Town Council meetings, effective immediately.
"It's a sad day," she said, lamenting that the council had come to such a vote.
But Williams lowered his head and charged on.
"I just wanted to say that my preference would absolutely be to be at the table with all of you tonight," he said through the phone with a microphone pointed at it at the end of the table. "This is not the best way to be at the meeting and I wouldn't have asked if this wasn't such an important meeting. We're setting the tax rate and it's probably the most important meeting of the year ... Let's suffice it to say I disagree with a lot of the opinions expressed tonight. It's important to have participation, (and) full transparency."
"I am absolutely astounded at the behavior, but I will not suppress that freedom" of speech, Karl offered, as an explanation for his vote against the motion.
Councilman John Emert made the point, which Bloom had earlier in the meeting reiterated, that it is completely legal to phone into a meeting.
"I think not only listening to Bloom but also to my own mind, and I think that would be unwise," he said of the motion. "There's nothing in the statutes that prohibits the body from having electronic access."
For his part, Williams voted against hanging up the phone on himself.
Ultimately, Young's motion failed 5-7.
Later on in the meeting, during item nine on the agenda, about FEMA reimbursements for the work done around superstorm Sandy and winter storm "Nemo," a series of loud and odd sounds coming from the telephone disrupted DeWaele, who asking a question about insurance. What sounded a bit like an emergency alert noise followed, before silence. Then came the sound of a ring. "He's calling back," someone said. Councilman Robert Hamill picked up the phone and said quietly, "Roger? You there?"
"I'm here," Williams responded.
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