Trumbull Democrats file suit against Town Clerk

Two of Trumbull’s elected Democrats are suing Town Clerk Suzanne Burr Monaco, claiming the town clerk refused to accept petitions to conduct a special election for a Board of Finance seat, left vacant by State Rep. Dave Rutigliano (R-123).

Town Council member Vicki Tesoro and Board of Finance member Tom Kelly, the plaintiffs in the suit, are also alleging there was an effort to cover up Rutigliano’s resignation for a 10-day period, in order to prevent a special election, allowing for the first selectman to appoint a replacement.

“This really is a basic fundamental right of Democracy,” Kelly said. “Voters should be able to choose their representatives.”

Tesoro and Kelly submitted a request for a “Mandamus to enforce public duty” last Friday, that asks the court to direct Burr Monaco to move forward with the scheduling of a special election. There is a hearing in Bridgeport Superior Court Jan. 13.

Burr Monaco responded to the lawsuit, saying that she followed town attorney legal advice and checked with the Secretary of State to ensure to she followed proper procedures regarding the posting of the resignation. First Selectman Tim Herbst also criticized the lawsuit, saying the Democrats involved could have obtained the information on the resignation had they checked the clerk’s office sooner. He also said the lawsuit was counterproductive to moving the town forward in a positive way.

Tesoro and Kelly said Monday that Democrats never heard about or saw a public announcement regarding Rutigliano’s resignation until a legal notice in the Connecticut Post Dec. 10. On Dec. 12, an announcement was made at a Board of Finance meeting, where First Selectman Timothy Herbst’s appointed replacement, Bill Haberlin, served as a new member. Haberlin was sworn-in earlier that day, according to Herbst.

On Dec. 13, Tesoro and Kelly say they went to the Town Clerk’s office, requesting petition forms, since they believed they were still within their 10-day limit, by Charter, to petition for a special election. Burr Monaco said it was too late, since Rutigliano's letter of resignation was received by the town clerk Nov. 27. Burr Monaco said the 10 business days were up Dec. 12. However, Democrats argue that the Town Charter is clear that the 10 days should start the day after the resignation date, making the final day Dec. 13.

Burr Monaco did grant Tesoro’s and Kelly’s request for the petition forms and the two went out and collected 25 signatures in four hours, which is five more than required for a special election.

“That may not sound like a lot,” Tesoro said of the signatures. “But this was the middle of the day, two weeks before Christmas.”

When they returned with the signatures, the town clerk would not accept them. The clerk said she was not allowed to do so, according to Kelly.

Democrats say the refusal violates her duties as town clerk. They also allege the clerk’s office didn’t follow state regulations, requiring the Secretary of State be notified of a vacancy within five days. A email between Kelly and Peggy Reeves, the assistant to the Secretary of State, confirms that the state did not receive notice of vacancy and were following up with the town.

Burr Monaco submitted a response to the allegations Monday.

“Upon receipt of Representative Rutigliano’s resignation, my office contacted the Town Attorneys as well as Ted Bromley from the Secretary of the State's office to ensure that all actions taken in properly posting this resignation were in accordance with the Trumbull Town Charter and the Connecticut General Statutes,” Burr Monaco said. “My handling of this matter comported with the Trumbull Town Charter and followed the directions given by the Secretary of the State's office and the Town Attorney. Only after ten days passed and after Mr. Haberlin was sworn into office did Mr. Kelly and Ms. Tesoro attempt to obtain special election petitions.”

Herbst said the Town Clerk followed the charter by requesting a legal opinion and charter interpretation from town attorneys.

“She did her job and one thing Suzanne is, is thorough and another is she’s non-partisan,” Herbst said.

'Veil of secrecy?'

Democrats believe there was a concerted effort to keep the resignation quiet until the 10-day period was up.

They say the “levels of complicity” in the efforts to conceal the resignation include Rutigliano himself, who has not made a public statement regarding his resignation from the finance board.

“He owes his constituents — both as state representative and as a member of the Board of Finance — an acknowledgment that he no longer holds both positions,” Kelly said.

Kelly and Tesoro said Rutigliano's resignation letter is also suspicious, since it misspells Herbst’s name and later misspells his own last name.

Rutigliano said he did not try to cover-up his resignation.

"I wrote a letter and I sent it to the Town Clerk, fulfilling all my legal obligations," Rutigliano said Tuesday.

Rutigliano, who is owner and culinary director with the SBC Restaurant Group and also represents Trumbull in Hartford, said he gave himself a year to try to balance his roles in Hartford with the Trumbull finance board and his career.

As State Representative, which Rutigliano says he really enjoys, he also began to see how demanding a role it could be.

Recently, his restaurant group opened a new restaurant in Fairfield. Also, a chef became ill and unable to work, leading to much more demanding schedule.

"Between being State Rep. and my professional obligations, I just thought it was time," Rutigliano said. "I thought this was a good time, so my replacement could be in before the budget starts right after the first of the year."

The Board of Finance seat could have been filled during the November election, had Rutigliano resigned sooner, Democrats argue.

“Aside from the politics, is this the way things should have been done,” Kelly said. “If he resigned prior to the election he could have avoided a potential special election. But this gave Mr. Herbst the opportunity to appoint a successor.”

Rutigliano said, despite criticism from Democrats, he will keep trying to do the best he can for Trumbull.

"I'm OK with all of it," he said. "I'm just trying to do the right thing for the town."

Democratic Town Committee Spokesman Tony Silber said he felt the efforts to cover it up were politically-motivated and the issue is beyond a “Democratic or Republican game.”

“There is a certain amount of frivolity in trying to conceal it,” Silber said. “I don’t think there is a level of maturity there.”

Herbst responds

The first selectman said residents are tired of negativity put out by some town Democrats, and this lawsuit is another example.

“Ms. Tesoro and Mr. Kelly like to talk about their concern for the Trumbull taxpayers, yet they have no problem spending thousands of dollars of taxpayer money on a special election for a seat that the voters of Trumbull elected a Republican to in 2011,” Herbst said. “And in 2013, they apparently didn’t hear the 70% of Trumbull voters who believe Trumbull is moving in the right direction. This type of behavior is exactly why they continue to lose by larger margins in each local election since 2009.”

Herbst said he supports the action of the town clerk and the issue is now in the hands of the court. In the meantime, Herbst said he feels confident in his appointment of Bill Haberlin. Haberlin ran on the GOP ticket in November for a seat on Planning and Zoning.

“If the courts decides their argument is warranted we will do anything and everything in our power to make sure he is elected,” Herbst said of Haberlin.

Tesoro said the lawsuit is about making sure citizens have a voice, more than it is getting a Democrat in the Board of Finance seat.

So what if a special election goes forward and her party’s candidate loses?

“It’s democracy at work,” Tesoro responded with a shrug.