Trumbull Ethics Commission plans three meetings in nine days
TRUMBULL — The Ethics Commission appears to be accelerating its review of a pair of complaints, though the exact nature of the complaints remains unknown.
The commission, which did not meet from June 2017 to September 2019, has met three times since Oct. 12 and has scheduled three more meetings in the nine days between Dec. 13 and Dec. 21.
The commission’s recent meetings have been confidential. What’s known is there have been two complaints — 1-2019 and 2-2019 — filed, although their content or the individuals involved have not been disclosed. Ethics complaints remain private until the commission formally decides to dismiss or move forward with hearing it. Before they do so, however, they often bring in individuals to learn more about the allegations.
Former First Selectman Tim Herbst was one of four individuals to meet with the commission at its Nov. 25 meeting, where complaint 1-2019 was discussed. The commission also interviewed Finance Director Maria Pires, Labor Relations Director Jim Haselkamp and Board of Finance Chairman Elaine Hammers.
Of the four, Herbst is the only one who is not currently a town elected official or employee. He also was the only one to attend the meeting with an attorney, Peter J. Martin.
The Ethics Commission’s bylaws would indicate that Herbst is not the subject of either complaint since he left office two years ago. The commission only has authority over current town officials and employees, or over former officials and employees whose standing with the town has been terminated within the past year. In an emailed comment, Herbst said he was “neither the complainant nor the respondent” in 1-2019.
The commission also discussed that complaint at meetings Oct. 12 and Oct. 28.
At its Nov. 25 meeting, the commission discussed the first case and also began discussions on complaint 2-2019. The Dec. 13, Dec. 17 and Dec. 21 meeting agendas all list 1-2019 and 2-2019 as discussion items.
Under the Town Charter, the Ethics Commission does not have regularly scheduled meetings, instead convening upon receipt of a complaint. The commission consists of five members and two alternates, recommended by the first selectman and approved by a 2/3 vote of the Town Council. Members serve five-year terms with one term expiring each year.
The current commission consists of Attorney Thomas Lee, who serves as chairman, attorneys Laurie Giles and Mark Gurevitz, author and former journalist Charles Slack, and the Rev. Lawrence Fullerton of Black Rock Church. Attorney John Walkley is currently the only alternate.
Gurevitz’s term expired Dec. 2 with the swearing-in of the town’s new slate of elected officials, but commissioners whose terms expire remain on the board until their replacement is confirmed. This became an issue in February 2019 when First Selectman Vicki Tesoro nominated Sujata Gadkar-Wilcox, a constitutional and human rights law professor and two-time recipient of the Robert J. Myers Fellowship from the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, for a seat on the commission.
The nomination failed on a 11-10 party-line vote (nominations require 14 votes), with every council Republican voting against the motion. Council Chairman Mary Beth Thornton, a Democrat, called the result “a completely political, partisan vote.”
Republicans acknowledged Gadkar-Wilcox’s qualifications, but defended their votes by expressing a preference for William Brown Jr. to remain on the commission. Brown, a retired military judge whose term had expired in 2017, had remained on the commission since there had been no replacement named, and the commission had not met in the interim.
The GOP members also cited Gadkar-Wilcox’s run for state senate as a reason for their opposition. Brown, citing a desire not to be a distraction, resigned from the Ethics Commission a few days later and the council unanimously approved Slack at its next meeting.
The council had unanimously approved Giles in a routine vote in January 2019.
The council also clashed over a nomination for an Ethics Commission alternate seat in 2015 when Herbst nominated Deacon Sami Bal of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church. The Town Charter mandates that the two alternates cannot be members of the same party. Bal, a Republican for more than 30 years, dropped his GOP affiliation and registered as an unaffiliated voter just days before his nomination. Tesoro, then a member of the Town Council, said the move violated the spirit of the charter.
“If someone is a Republican for 35 years and they change their party affiliation two days before an agenda comes out, to me that just doesn’t seem right,” she said.
Bal was confirmed, but submitted his resignation at the commission’s Oct. 12 2019 meeting.
With Gurevitz’s term having expired, Tesoro could nominate a replacement at any time. When this replacement is seated it would mean that Herbst appointees would no longer make up a majority of the commission. With Democrats holding 16 seats on the council, it is likely a Tesoro nominee would secure the needed 14 votes.
The Town Council’s next meeting is Jan. 6.
Tesoro on Thursday declined to comment on the Ethics Commission’s actions or state when she expected to name a nominee to replace Gurevitz.
“I gave my inauguration speech last Monday,” she said. “Just read that and see how I intend to continue to lead.”