MERIDEN — Arguments on two lawsuits challenging recent appointments to City Council committees were much more brief than anticipated Thursday morning. Attorneys representing both sides appeared at Meriden Superior Court, as did some city officials and interested residents.
The attorneys appeared before Judge Jack W. Fischer for close to an hour, but no testimony was heard after questions arose over how history influences the case. Both sides are expected to file briefs with the court in two weeks and a hearing is scheduled for March 27.
One lawsuit, filed by We the People Chairwoman Lois DeMayo and Jack Biafore, who has been nominated to join the Republican Town Committee, argues that the mayor has the power to make any and all appointments, including 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, Corporation Counsel Michael Quinn.
The other lawsuit, filed by Republican Town Committee members Anna Neumon and Martin Horsky, challenges 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, which were recommended by former Mayor Michael S. Rohde, were made after Mayor Manny Santos was sworn in, they should be voided.
Meriden City Councilor David Lowell, a Democrat, was also originally named a defendant, but Fischer earlier dismissed the section of the lawsuit against Lowell.
The plaintiffs are represented by Craig Fishbein, a Wallingford-based attorney and Republican member of the Wallingford Town Council. The defendants are represented by Hugh Manke, an attorney from the New Haven-based Updike, Kelly & Spellacy law firm. Also a plaintiff in both cases is Joseph F. Carabetta, chief executive of The Carabetta Cos., who successfully intervened in the case. Carabetta is represented by Eliot Gersten, of the Hartford-based Pullman & Comley law firm.
Arguments did not make it far Thursday after attorney Robert M. DeCrescenzo called City Councilor Brian Daniels to the stand as a witness. DeCrescenzo is another attorney with Updike, Kelly and Spellacy.
Daniels, the deputy majority leader and former majority leader, was called as a witness because he sets the council agenda and has been involved in the appointment process, DeCrescenzo explained to Fischer. Both Fishbein and Gersten objected, however, arguing that the history of the case was “irrelevant.”
“Our position is that there is no ambiguity (in the City Charter),” Fishbein said. “The charter speaks for itself. The history is totally irrelevant there.”
DeCrescenzo answered, stating that the history is relevant. While an investigation by Manke found some parts of the charter to be ambiguous, it made sense to look at its history and development. Specifically, one section that states the mayor has the ability to make any and all appointments, while another section states that the corporation counsel appointment is made by the City Council.
Fischer, however, said he did not want to discuss whether or not the charter was ambiguous if he did not find anything ambiguous.
“If I find it (to be ambiguous) then we can come back and face another hearing,” Fischer said.
Daniels was asked to be seated and City Manager Lawrence J. Kendzior was called up by the defense. Again, history was brought up and it was questioned whether Kendzior or City Clerk Irene Masse were in charge of maintaining the city codes and ordinances. DeCrescenzo argued again that the history was important to the case, but Fischer countered.
“Just because the city has been doing it one way for a long time, I can’t go against the language of the statute,” Fischer said. “If the court finds ambiguity, then we can have a hearing. ... That’s putting the cart before the horse.”
Kendzior stepped down and Fischer said he would consider reviewing the City Charter if it could be done quickly. Because the charter, along with other documents, could have taken a lengthy period of time, Fishbein said it made sense to allow the attorneys to file briefs and argue them instead.
With Fischer unsure of how to proceed, DeCrescenzo began explaining background of the case, sections of the charter and history of how appointments have previously been made. Fishbein countered, offering the plaintiff’s argument.
Masse was called to the stand as a witness by Fishbein, and she was asked to verify that a document had been mailed to voters when the charter was adopted in the early 1990s. DeCrescenzo objected and Fischer agreed that because he had previously prevented Kendzior and Daniels from testifying on history following objections, Masse would not be allowed to, either.
Fischer then asked the attorneys to submit their briefs and work to pick a date for a hearing.
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