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Sides argue Meriden City Charter lawsuits in Thursday hearing

MERIDEN - Attorneys on both sides of a legal battle over how to interpret the City Charter squared off in court Thursday during an hour-long hearing and a ruling from the judge is now expected.

Arguments were heard Thursday morning over lawsuits filed in December challenging recent appointments to boards and commissions, as well as the corporation counsel position. Although some city officials were present for the hearing in Meriden Superior Court, there was no testimony heard from witnesses.

Since the last hearing close to a month ago, briefs were filed by both sides clarifying arguments in the case. They also outlined the background of the case, which has been playing out since just before Mayor Manny Santos took office Dec. 2, 2013.

The plaintiffs in one lawsuit, Republican Town Committee members Anna Neumon and Martin Horsky, are challenging the appointments of 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. The lawsuit alleges that, because the appointments recommended by former Mayor Michael S. Rohde, were approved by the City Council after Mayor Manny Santos was sworn in, they should be voided.

City Councilor David Lowell, a Democrat, was also originally named a defendant, but Fischer had earlier dismissed the section of the lawsuit naming Lowell.

The sides differed as to whether or not the City Code of Ordinances could be used in the argument. Judge Jack W. Fischer also questioned whether the City Charter would be trumped by the City Code of Ordinances. Attorney Robert M. DeCrescenzo, who represents the defendants, argued that the two documents work hand-in-hand and refer to one another. DeCrescenzo is a New Haven-based attorney with Updike, Kelly and Spellacy law firm.

Craig Fishbein, a Wallingford attorney who represents Neumon, Horsky, DeMayo and Biafore, countered that the City Code of Ordinances is irrelevant in the case. Fishbein, also a Republican town councilor in Wallingford, added that the charter is “very clear” while making his argument in the case.

“Our (argument) is very simple,” he said. “The charter speaks for itself.”

Eliot Gersten, who represents another plaintiff and executive of the Carabetta Cos., Joseph F. Carabetta, agreed with Fishbein in that the charter is “clear.”

DeCrescenzo outlined the history of the case verbally, and argued that because the recommendation for board and commission appointments came before Rohde exited office, it was then in the City Council’s hands to make a decision by either voting to confirm it, rejecting the recommendations, or doing nothing, which would also effectively confirm the appointments.

“I have no problem with the mayor executing power until the very last second he is in office,” Fischer said, making the counterpoint that a new mayor was in charge when the decision was made. Rohde “was not the mayor. It doesn’t say the former mayor.”

Plaintiffs in the other lawsuit, We the People Chairwoman Lois DeMayo and Jack Biafore, who has since become a member of the Republican Town Committee, argue that the mayor has the power to make any and all appointments, including that of corporation counsel. Biafore is also the brother-in-law of Republican City Councilor Lenny Rich. The lawsuit was filed against the City Council-approved choice for corporation counsel, Attorney Michael Quinn.

DeCrescenzo argued that, while the city manager typically appoints department heads, the City Charter stipulates that the position of corporation counsel, the city’s chief legal advisor and head of the Law Department, is a City Council appointment.

“The City Council shall appoint and may remove a Corporation Counsel,” it reads.

The defendants have also made the case that the City Charter is ambiguous, which Fischer said he has not decided upon yet. The plaintiffs, however, have said there is only one section that should be referred to.

According to the charter, “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.”

Fishbein noted that in the section, it specifically “carves out” the chairpersons of standing committees, whereas there is no mention of other specific appointments. Because of that, Fishbein said, it’s clear the position should be recommended by the mayor.

The hearing took just over an hour. Fischer has yet to render a decision.

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