Herbst rips Police Commission, plans FOI action

From left; Former Trumbull First Selectmen Timothy Herbst, Ray Baldwin, Jr., and Dave Wilson on stage at the Trumbull Swearing-In Ceremony at Trumbull High School on Monday, December 4, 2017. — Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Connecticut Media

A blistering letter from one former first selectman to another set off a chain reaction that could land the town’s Police Commission in a state Freedom of Information hearing.

The issue is a zoning change that cleared the way for a senior housing development at the former United Healthcare property on Monroe Turnpike. Attorney Timothy Herbst, who represents three residents of the Woodland Hills condominium complex across Route 111 from the proposed senior development, accused Police Commission Chairman Raymond Baldwin and the other commissioners of meddling in the proceedings, besmirching the head of the town’s police union, and conducting an illegal commission meeting via email.

In a letter dated May 22, Herbst wrote that Baldwin and the Police Commission had interfered in the zoning case in crafting a letter to the Planning & Zoning Commission back in December before the P&Z approved the zone change. In the letter Chief Michael Lombardo and then-Chairman Angelo Magliocco disputed Sgt. Robert Coppola’s testimony to the commission that the Police Department’s manpower was stretched thin. Coppola testified under subpoena from Herbst, whose clients opposed the zoning change.

In their response, which was also published in the Trumbull Times, Magliocco and Lombardo stated that Coppola’s testimony did not reflect the position of the police chief or commission.

“The Trumbull Police Commission is in constant communication with the chief regarding current and future staffing needs,” the two wrote. “The safety of the public is and always will be our number one priority and all police shifts are staffed at the required levels.”

But it was a series of emails between commissioners that Herbst read April 21, while reviewing documents of a Freedom of Information request he had filed against First Selectman Vicki Tesoro and the P&Z commissioner, that ignited the latest battle.

“This document review also revealed the Machiavellian actions that you took in holding an illegal meeting of the Police Commission,” Herbst wrote. “Specifically, your comments besmirched Sgt. Robert Coppola, an eighteen-year veteran of the force and the current Police Union President.”

In the email exchange, Baldwin, Commissioner Lisa Labella and Lombardo discussed Coppola’s comments. Baldwin told the others that Lombardo “vehemently” denied response times were a problem.

“Since the days I was on the TPD, the one thing our department has always been noted for is our quick response time to emergencies,” Baldwin wrote. “As First Selectman, and in the short time I’ve been on the Commission, officer response time has never been an issue or concern. Coppola overstepped his authority and overstated the situation.”

Lombardo later clarified that he believed Coppola had been referring to EMS calls, not police, in his comments about response time. But Coppola’s comments about the department’s manpower being stretched also drew ire.

“The Chief and Commission assess and allocate resources, not the union,” Baldwin wrote. “Coppola is not a spokesman for the TPD.”

Baldwin, who had served as the union president while a member of the Police Department, said he viewed Coppola’s comments as a union leader advocating for the members.

“I would have done the same when I headed the union,” he said. “But we (the commission) do not believe it is the place of the union head to testify to P&Z about manpower levels.”

Coppola, in a written response to the commission dated May 31, took exception to what he called questions about his credibility and misrepresentations about his testimony in the email exchange.

“We raised concerns about the impact of a proposed multi-unit development (with residential and medical components) relative to current police staffing levels,” he wrote. “Absent additional officers, especially on the midnight to 8 a.m. shift, it’s indisputable that emergency calls emanating from a new complex would leave us short-handed when other calls come in. We cannot be in two places at once. This is a matter of public safety, plain and simple.”

After receiving Herbst’s letter, Baldwin consulted Town Attorney Daniel Schopick, who advised him that the emails between commission members could constitute a commission meeting. In response, the commission at its May 14 meeting placed the emails and discussion of Herbst’s letter on the agenda. The meeting minutes indicate that by holding the discussion, the commission considered that the emailed correspondence was now part of the public record.

“The emails and so forth are now part of the minutes of that meeting. Everything that was discussed is documented,” Commission Clerk Vivian Munoz wrote in the minutes.

But Herbst also disputes whether the ex post facto meeting record truly documents everything that was discussed, stating that Baldwin selectively omitted some of the email communications from the May 14 agenda. Baldwin said he did not know what Herbst was referencing.

Herbst, who concluded his letter with a statement that he planned to file an FOI complaint against the commission, said he had seen the alleged missing documents during the April 21 Town Hall visit.

Baldwin brushed aside the threat of an FOI complaint and possible hearing.

“The potential FOI remedy would be to order us to create a public record of the discussion, which we’ve already done,” he said.