Herbst: Library fanned the controversy flames

First Selectman Tim Herbst
First Selectman Tim Herbst

UPDATED Friday, March 6: First Selectman Tim Herbst is accusing the Library Board of fanning the controversy flames this week, following a painting’s removal, and he is alleging that the Library Director may have violated the town Ethics Code.

Herbst sent an email Thursday to Board Chairman Jeannine Stauder, copying members of the media.

The controversy started Monday, when Herbst released a statement on his order to remove a painting from the library’s display of The Great Minds Collection, citing copyright and other legal concerns. The painting in question featured Mother Teresa and pro-choice feminists. A Catholic group in Trumbull found the painting offensive and were working to get it taken down.

Stauder released a statement Friday, saying "The Trumbull Library Board of Trustees stands by its decisions in this matter and will address issues raised by the First Selectman as a group next week at the Board's monthly meeting," she said. "The Board does not feel that it violated the Code of Ethics of the Town of Trumbull in any way and has always acted first and entirely with the interests of the full Trumbull population in mind."

On Wednesday, Herbst blamed the library for causing division in the community and said "going forward, as I appoint citizens to serve on the Trumbull Library Board of Directors, my litmus test will be whether members approach their duties fairly and impartially, placing the good of the Town ahead of any personal or partisan considerations.”

"The Board of Trustees of the Trumbull Library values the opinions and concerns of all the members of its public. The Board was not involved in the removal of the work in question by the First Selectman, and was unaware of his actions until after the fact," Stauder said Monday. "The Board invites all members of the public to address comments at its monthly meetings, where the concerns of all can be heard and discussed fairly and openly. Our next meeting is scheduled for March 11 in the Kiwanis Room at 7 p.m.”

Director Susan Horton told The Times she was in a tough position when Herbst ordered the painting removed, since she is a town employee but hired by the board.

“I’m more heartbroken than anything else,” Horton said this week. “I would hate to have Trumbull known for anything so negative because it’s such a positive exhibit.”

Herbst's message Thursday focuses on email communications between Director Susan Horton, the painting owner, Richard Resnick, Resnick’s attorney and public relations consultant, Michael London.

London is also a Republican who serves on the Trumbull Town Council. He said Thursday that he was not acting in any official capacity when he answered Horton's questions, and was speaking only on behalf of his client, Resnick.

"She was asking very simple questions and it certainly did not suggest to me that she was doing anything inappropriate," London said. "Under no circumstances did I see anything that hinted at being an ethical violation."

Of the overall handling of the painting controversy, London said it could have been put to rest as soon as the owner offered to indemnify the town, which happened after Resnick was informed the town had a concern.

"This is just nuts," London said.

Below is Herbst's email to the board chair:

Dear Chairwoman Stauder:

I have spoken to Town Attorney Robert Nicola this morning as to whether Dr. Resnick has signed the indemnification agreement and provided a certificate of insurance to the Town, pursuant to the communication sent yesterday by Town Attorney Dennis Kokenos regarding the same. Attorney Nicola met this morning with Attorney Elstein who advised him that Dr. Resnick does not have insurance for the artwork and is not planning on getting insurance for the artwork to resolve this matter.

While I find it difficult to understand how there is no insurance for artwork as valuable as the Great Minds Collection, nevertheless both Attorney Nicola and I have spoken to the Town’s Insurance Carrier who has advised us that he will work to obtain an insurance rider from the Town of Trumbull that will cover Dr. Resnick’s artwork until May. Notwithstanding Dr. Resnick’s public statements, we are working diligently to get the necessary indemnification and are attempting to show good faith in working with our insurance carrier to provide necessary and proper coverage for the art work.

Attorney Elstein and Dr. Resnick have received a draft indemnification agreement, sent yesterday by Attorney Kokenos. I have attached a copy for your review. We are waiting for their signatures so we can bring closure to this matter.

That being said, I have elected to carbon copy the Library Board on this communication so all members can see the communications that have occurred between you, the Library Director, Dr. Resnick, his attorney, Bruce Elstein, his public relations consultant, Michael London and other third parties. I am hoping you can answer and respond to the following concerns:

1.) Why doesn’t the Library Board of Directors follow a similar policy like the Town in requiring indemnification agreements for artwork that hangs in municipal buildings?

2.) When the display of this artwork was discussed by the Library Board, did anyone consider asking for a certificate of insurance or consulting the Town Attorneys for legal guidance?

3.) In the email communications between you and Mrs. Horton, you say, “Okay, the gloves are off.” Exactly what did you mean by this statement? Clearly, your adversarial tone is not intended to bring resolution to the matter. In point of fact, it gives every appearance that you had every intention of escalating this matter;

4.) Perhaps most disturbing are the email communications to and from Mrs. Horton. In one communication, she is taking direction from Michael London, a paid public relations professional retained by Dr. Resnick. In one email exchange Mrs. Horton indicates that she instructed her staff not to speak to anyone and asks Mr. London if she should do so again. Mr. London confirmed that she should. Perhaps ironically, the very individuals who are condemning what they perceive as “censorship” are in fact practicing “censorship.”

5.) Do you and the board feel it is appropriate for a Town employee to be taking direction from a contractor hired by a third party to potentially take actions which might be adverse to the Town? Were you aware of this and did you bring this to the attention of the rest of the board?

6.) In multiple email communications, Mrs. Horton refers to three members of the Library Board as being “in the First Selectman’s pocket.” I would be interested in knowing who these three Library Board members are and if you and the Board think it’s appropriate for the Library Director to speak about members of the Library Board in such an insulting and condescending manner? Do you refer to these three unnamed members in the same way?

7.) In one email communication, Attorney Elstein advises individuals in a group email (of which Mrs. Horton participated) that “legally is more difficult until the copyright issue is cleared up,” referring to the claims of the Missionaries of Charity. Attorney Elstein then advises that an aggressive media campaign is a better course. I would ask you and the Library Board how this type of conduct works towards resolving the matter to protect the Town from legal and financial liability.

I believe these email communications reveal multiple violations of the Trumbull Code of Ethics, specifically:

• Section III, Standards of Service, Subsection A and B.

• Section IV, Use of Town Resources, Subsection B.

• Section V, Treatment of the Public, Subsection A and B.

If you require guidance in this regard, I would suggest that the attorneys for the Library Board of Directors are the Trumbull Town Attorneys. They are Dennis Kokenos, Robert Nicola and Vincent Marino. I trust you will reply promptly to the concerns raised in this communication.