You could almost hear the collective sigh from Southington Republicans when the hearing officer released her recommendations to the Freedom of Information Commission in Hartford on Jan. 19. The local GOP, in the midst of a mass exodus, probably needed a bit of good news.
The FOI complaint centered around a meeting of Town Councilors that took place before the last election. A well-known local Democrat charged that a GOP election campaign caucus turned into an “illegal meeting” when a Democrat councilor was telephoned about the Columbus statue controversy. It didn’t help that all the people involved were also at the center of a highly-charged, politically controversial promotion/appointment of a high-level town official.
Click here for copy of the report: FOI Report – FIC 2017-0469
The hearing officer found, after looking at the evidence, that the “illegal” meeting allegations were unproven. She determined that the Democrat was not physically at the caucus and discounted charges about the phone call to the Democrat. The proof of the call was an article in a local newspaper (not The Observer) that claimed she was called in about the “the Christopher Columbus statue over which there was some dispute in the minds of some people in the town.”
The “meeting” was determined to be a “caucus” based on the facts and proof presented, and that recommendation was forwarded to the FOI Commission. This was a big win for town Republicans, who really needed a big win.
There is definitely some truth in Mike Riccio’s assessment of the situation. Riccio, one of the Republicans named in the complaint, said the charges were politically-motivated before a town election. He called it “dirty politics” and pointed at local Democrats because the last ethics and FOI complaints were lodged during election cycles. On the other hand, ethics complaints are always politically motivated because nobody likes to point fingers at their own party until things devolve into a crisis, impasse, or mass exodus.
We think that, lost in this whole discussion, is a bigger issue about ethics, openness, and expectations that residents should expect from town officials. It’s between the lines in the FOI complaint. Why was it believable that Republicans called a Democrat at the caucus meeting when talk turned to the Columbus statue? Because the Democrat (along with a Republican at the caucus) were the ones spearheading the Columbus statue controversy even though they were members of the group that was proposing the project.
So much of the rumor, innuendo, and complaints could have been avoided if these councilors distanced themselves from any discussions about the Columbus controversy rather than leading the talks. It’s an important lesson for everyone.
Southington’s code of ethics says that any town official that has a “private financial or personal interest” in an issue must disclose the true nature and extent of such interest on the written record. Then they must refrain from any comment or vote on the matter and physically remove themselves from the panel until the matter has been dispensed. It would be great if ethics were considered before, not after, a discussion or vote.
We are in an era when town officials will have to make a lot of tough decisions. The town’s already discussing budget cuts and opening hard discussions that could lead to cutting teachers or municipal jobs. Because of the nature of these discussions, they will polarize people on both sides. It becomes even more important that officials think carefully before they vote—or even enter conversations—about staffing or anything else if they have skin in the game.
As long as they disclose, abstain, and leave the discussions, there will be no fuel for finger pointers after the fact.
To read Southington’s Code of Ethics, visit: www.ecode360.com/27540774
To comment on this story or to contact Southington Observer editor John Goralski, email him at JGoralski@SouthingtonObserver.com.