TNAC Tussle: Herbst, commission chair spar over FOIA request

The Trumbull Nature and Arts Center might need to find a new home if the building committee selects the 7115 Main Street location as the site for the town's new community center.
The Trumbull Nature and Arts Center might need to find a new home if the building committee selects the 7115 Main Street location as the site for the town's new community center.

A Freedom of Information request sent by First Selectman Tim Herbst last week to the Trumbull Nature and Arts Center became a much larger discussion this week on child safety, Herbst’s leadership style and questions about TNAC’s future. It also led to Herbst deciding not to reappoint Nature Commission Chair Pamela Georgas to her post, saying that Georgas has been misleading the public with posts on social media. Georgas, for her part, said that Herbst needs to learn some diplomacy.

Before hundreds of residents chimed in on Facebook this week on the unfolding story, it started when Georgas wrote about the FOIA request in the Keep Trumbull Real Facebook group.

Herbst’s office sent the request on May 27. Herbst said under FOIA, he wanted all the information on TNAC’s financials, programs participants, donors, messages between Trumbull Nature Commission members and more — in preparation for the arrival of Trumbull’s new Director of Parks and Recreation Stuart McCarthy. TNAC formed a 501(c)3 nonprofit, but the Nature Commission still works with the center, since it is on town property. Georgas said TNAC, which has its own board, would be happy to provide information to Herbst but she was upset it came in the form of an FOIA request. She also said she did not feel comfortable providing names of all TNAC participants, as requested by the town, because many are children. Herbst has argued that other groups like sports organizations also provide the town with these lists.

“Let me remind you that the Parks and Recreation Commission through the Parks and Recreation Department requests all sports teams, leagues and system users provide the town with a list of rosters (which include names) that are kept in the custody of Mary Markham in the Recreation Department,” Herbst wrote to Georgas. “This is not published on Facebook or blogs. It is kept in the custody of the Town of Trumbull.”

Georgas responded that she had every right to ask why the town needed names of students in the program.

“I am a volunteer, not a lawyer or politician,” Georgas wrote to Herbst. “Particularly concerning when you are not giving me information on why you needs these names and personal info., and what you will do with them.”

Georgas said she felt Herbst was trying to pick a fight with her that wasn’t there.

“This entire request could have/should have been handled with more diplomacy,” Georgas wrote in an email to Herbst. “It’s not like you ever asked for this info and I refused it, so why the FOI?”

In response, Herbst says he will refer the matter to the Freedom of Information Commission.

Georgas said Tuesday she knows the TNAC board will be more than happy to provide all the information requested, other than names. Many fear the information could be hacked.

TNAC operates on a piece of town-owned property, formerly the Wagner Tree Farm. Georgas said the town pays about $7,000 a year for the facility utilities and upkeep.

Herbst said the town has asked for specific information from TNAC for the past five years and never received it.

“We have tried to politely ask and we were never provided with specifics,” Herbst said.
Parks Commission
On Monday, Herbst said he will be requesting the Parks Commission add the property that the TNAC facility is on officially to the parks system.

Herbst said he took it upon himself to check the TNAC schedule and was disappointed to see lack of programming.

“In reviewing the events calendar on the TNAC website for the month of May, there were only eight scheduled events, with not more than one per day,” he said. “I should note that some of these events are not even associated with TNAC.”

Georgas said Herbst did not get a full picture of programs from the website, and should have waited for the information he requested to be put together and sent to his office. TNAC hosts field trips, Scout trips, community impact days and allows other organizations to use the facility, like the Trumbull Community Women. There is also room for growth and the organization has been trying more and more to work with other groups, she said.

“He wants to think this is a failure and this isn’t,” Georgas said.

In a letter to the Parks Commissions, Herbst also brought up garbage not being property disposed of when he took a site visit. Georgas said a garbage can in the bathroom was full from a field trip the day before and volunteers hadn’t yet had a chance to empty it.

She was also bothered that Herbst never spoke to the Nature Commission about the property getting added to the Parks System.

“This is all about communication,” she said. “I had no idea this was happening and it is under my commission’s purview. He went ahead without any discussion with anyone involved.”

“As far as I am concerned he runs over commissions, and is not inclusive with people who should be included in decision-making,” she said.

Herbst siad he didn’t understand why Georgas raised issues with the FOIA. He said he finds it disturbing there has been any resistance.

“If our programming is better than every other town, if we are a regional leader, than why the number of roadblocks in providing information to town?” Herbst asked.

On June 1, Herbst sent Georgas a notice saying she would not be reappointed to the Nature Commission. On Tuesday he announced the appointment of four new members to the five-member commission.

“Can I have a person chairing a board or commission taking that approach?” Herbst said of responses he has received from Georgas. “It sends the wrong message to taxpayers.”

Herbst has been widely criticized on Facebook for filing the FOIA and for not reappointing Georgas. He said much of the story has been “lost in translation” onto Facebook.

“Based on what I’ve seen, Pam obviously has intentionally attempted to mislead the public because she does not want to address very valid questions,” he said.

Georgas said she has always been apolitical and simply stated facts on Facebook that many have found upsetting, for good reason, she said.

Georgas plans to continue to work with the TNAC student leadership group she started, which organizes events throughout the year for younger students. She is also still a member on the board for the Trumbull Arts Festival.

She believes that the TNAC board will do a good job running TNAC without her and she encouraged everyone to continue to support it, by attending programs this summer.

“Tim can take the commission seat away from me, because he has the power to do so, but he can not take away my passion for our parks and teaching our children the importance of including nature, environment and arts in their life,” she wrote on Facebook.