December 27, 2013 01:13PM
By Dan Brechlin
MERIDEN — Members of the Republican Town Committee and the leader of We the People are suing a city councilor, the city’s corporation counsel and four people appointed to various boards and commissions on the former mayor’s recommendation.
They were notified by state marshals on Christmas Eve that they are defendants in lawsuits challenging their recent appointments with the plaintiffs stating that the City Charter was not followed properly when the appointments were made. The plaintiffs are represented by attorney Craig Fishbein, who is also a Republican town councilor in Wallingford.
“My clients’ position collectively is that the Charter, as written and as being the guiding law of the City of Meriden, was not followed,” Fishbein said.
In one lawsuit, the appointment of David Lowell to the City Council Economic Development, Housing and Zoning Committee, John Benigni to the School Building Committee, David Salafia to the Building Code Board of Appeals, Philip Mangiaracina to the Human Rights Advisory Board and William Kroll to the Municipal Pension Board are being challenged by Republican Town Committee members Anna Neumon and Martin Horsky. Michael Quinn’s reappointment as corporation counsel, the city’s chief legal adviser and head of the Law Department, is being challenged in a separate lawsuit by We the People Chairwoman Lois DeMayo and John Biafore, a Republican.
Benigni, Salafia, Mangiaracina and Kroll were recommended by former Mayor Michael S. Rohde to fill vacancies on the respective boards and commissions before Manny Santos was sworn in as the new mayor, Dec. 2. The recommendations were listed on the Dec. 2 City Council agenda and — despite Santos being sworn in prior to the meeting that night — the council approved the appointments by an 8-4 vote. Republicans Dan Brunet and Lenny Rich, in addition to We the People members Bob Williams and Walter A. Shamock, voted against the appointments, unhappy that the outgoing mayor was allowed to make recommendations. Rohde was not a part of the meeting in the Washington Middle School library, only in the room, and Santos was not present for the meeting.
The lawsuit challenges the appointments stating that Santos was the official mayor at the time of the council meeting and, because he never recommended the appointments, the suit asks the court to “immediately vacate the alleged appointment...and vacate any (and) all decisions and or actions made by (the defendant) during the illegal term under the improper color of right to do so.” It is requested that the plaintiffs are awarded the costs of the legal challenge and to “make whatever other orders that it deems to be fair and equitable.”
In the second half of the meeting, held in a separate room at Washington Middle School, Lowell was among the appointments to various council committees. The council unanimously supported a slate of committee members that included Lowell’s appointment, despite attempts by Santos to rule councilors out of order. In one part of the lawsuit, City Council Deputy Majority Leader Brian Daniels’ name was mistakenly written instead of Lowell’s.
Santos, however, has charged that, according to the Charter, he has the power to recommend all appointments. In a separate slate, he proposed the same group of councilors to each committee that was approved, except for Lowell, who Santos replaced with Williams on the Economic Development, Housing and Zoning Committee.
Quinn’s reappointment as corporation counsel also came in the second part of the meeting and was challenged by Santos. Again, Santos said he had the power to recommend the appointment, citing a section of the Charter that states: “The Mayor shall recommend any and all appointments to officers or positions within the appointing power of the City Council (except as to chairpersons of the standing committees to the City Council) for approval.” A separate section of the Charter states: “The City Council shall appoint and may remove a Corporation Counsel.” Prior to becoming mayor, Santos walked into Quinn’s office and told Quinn he would not be corporation counsel under the new administration.
Quinn, who by Charter is responsible for hiring outside legal counsel, hired attorney Hugh I. Manke of Updike, Kelly and Spellacy in New Haven to give a written legal opinion. Manke determined that it was up to the council to make the corporation counsel appointment, in addition to the appointment of council committee members, despite noting some ambiguity.
Santos cited the legal opinion of another attorney, Glastonbury-based Justin Clark, the former counsel for the state Republican party. Clark argued that it was up to the mayor to recommend candidates for all City Council appointments, including that of corporation counsel and City Council standing committees.
Though he is not listed as a plaintiff, Santos had said he was considering legal action because he disagreed with the city’s legal opinion regarding the Charter and the council action that followed. Santos, however, did not veto any of the decisions because they passed by a large enough majority to override a veto.
Interviewed Thursday, Santos said he could not say whether he knew that the lawsuit was being pursued, but was informed by an attorney just before it was filed that he was mentioned in it.
“Everyone knows my opinion on this,” Santos said. “This probably preempts my own legal action. If this takes care of it, I don’t know? Maybe I will let this play out. I’m not completely surprised...I will say, this needs to happen in order to clear up a lot of issues that started from Dec. 2.”
Papers served on Christmas Eve
Though the new mayor is not named as a plaintiff, some of those involved pointed fingers in his direction as either having a hand in the lawsuit or being the cause for it.
“These two lawsuits give new meaning to the term frivolous lawsuit,” said Quinn, a Democrat. “It’s unfortunate the taxpayer will have to foot the bill for the new mayor’s follies. And I don’t even think Abe Grossman would ... have these served on Christmas Eve when there is clearly no timing restraints.”
Santos did not defend himself, only stating that he “can’t say either way” about his name being used by defendants.
Quinn said the city will be responsible for providing representation to the defendents. A hearing has been scheduled for Jan. 13 at 9:30 a.m. in Meriden Superior Court. According to the lawsuit, the defendants had to be notified by Jan. 1, 2014.
The lawsuit cites Connecticut General Statutes 52-491 as legal grounds for litigation, which Quinn did not dispute. The law states: “When any person or corporation usurps the exercise of any office, franchise or jurisdiction, the Superior Court may proceed, on a complaint in the nature of a quo warranto, to punish such person or corporation for such usurpation, according to the course of the common law and may proceed therein and render judgment according to the course of the common law.”
Salafia, a former city councilor and current family-liaison coordinator for the Board of Education, said he thinks Santos has “gotten off on the wrong foot,” but was most offput by the timing of the lawsuit. Salafia, a Democrat, also ran for City Council in the previous election.
“If there’s procedures that the Republican leadership is questioning, then so be it...They obviously have the right to pursue what they believe and how the Charter is written or interpreted,” Salafia said. “To actually serve someone a handful of papers on Christmas Eve is just wrong.”
Salafia, whose father is a state marshal, said he believes receiving notice on Christmas Eve was intentional.
“That’s politics at its worst when it comes to that...It doesn’t send the right message and I believe, in my heart, it was wrong,” he added.
Benigni, who is the executive director of the YMCA, said he reached out to Rohde more than a year ago about joining the School Building Committee and was excited to have a voice in the renovations of Maloney and Platt high schools, in part because his children likely will attend one of those schools eventually. Tuesday, off from work, Benigni said he was notified of the lawsuit surrounded by those four children, which upset him.
“I had no clue this was coming,” Benigni said. “It comes with my kids around and I have to explain on Christmas Eve why this stranger is at my house and it’s just uneasy. There’s a process, I understand that. It’s a little bit unsettling with the timing...It could have been done in a different manner.”
Brunet, Republican town chairman, said he was also surprised to learn about the lawsuit and sent out apologies to many of those involved. Brunet agreed that the timing was bad.
“Personally, I knew nothing of this before it took place. It was an act of individuals that weren’t representing the Republicans,” Brunet said. “I apologize to anybody that had to go through this process on Christmas Eve.”
Brunet said he was not shocked a lawsuit was filed, noting that Santos had “made his thoughts known that night and hasn’t changed his opinion.” He added that the lawsuits were something that the Republican Town Committee should have been notified about.
Fishbein said the lawsuit was filed Dec. 23 and he did not order the paperwork to be handed out on any specific date.
“The papers are served when the marshal gets around to serving them. I have no control,” Fishbein said. “Papers are served every day.”
Lowell said he will let the court process play out, but said he thinks “it’s an inappropriate use of time.”
“Our city deserves better than this type of behavior,” Lowell said. “It’s certainly a bit confusing to me why I’m named in a lawsuit and this smells of some divisiveness.”
The former mayor, Rohde, took issue with the lawsuits saying that he made his appointment recommendations while still mayor and assumed those people would hold the positions after being approved by the council.
“It’s kind of strange how all of this is developing and it could get very expensive,” Rohde said.
Mangiaracina, a teacher at Platt High School and former Democratic candidate for City Council, said he had never been part of such a process.
“I was scared out of my mind,” he admitted. “I was surprised because at that meeting, even the Republicans were saying if we weren’t approved our names were likely to be put in again and we might get appointed under Santos’ term...There are far better uses of time. Things are getting stirred up for nothing it feels like.”
Two of the plaintiffs have connections to former Republican state Sen. Len Suzio. Neumon is a former campaign manager for Suzio, while Horsky’s wife, Kathy Horsky, was Suzio’s legislative aide. Neither Neumon nor Martin Horsky could be reached for comment, Thursday.
Suzio said he had no involvement in organizing the lawsuit, only that he was asked by an unnamed person to join the suit who was not a member of the Republican Town Committee. Suzio said he declined after giving it serious thought.
“I do support the idea of the lawsuit; it’s an extremely important issue,” Suzio said. “It’s not just a Quinn-Santos issue, it’s pertaining to the rights and what authority and responsibilities are in the Charter. I think this has a very important long term significance.”
Suzio added that it is clear to him that the mayor has the authority to make the appointments and that he had spoken with four different lawyers he considers to be friends that gave similar opinions. Fishbein was not among them, Suzio said.
Biafore, a city resident, said he is not active in politics, but was fed up with the “back door deals” in the city.
“I’m just a very concerned citizen of Meriden,” Biafore said. “No one else would do it so I stepped forward. The Charter speaks for itself.”
DeMayo said she did not want to comment on the lawsuit, other than to say that “the Charter speaks for itself.”
Fishbein, who was at Santos’ inaugural meeting, said it was “unfortunate what occurred.” He added that it is “pretty clear” what the Charter states.