Ethics Panel Sends Rulings To BOS
Following separate closed deliberation sessions and secret balloting April 18, both which may have Freedom of Information implications, Newtown's Board of Ethics recommended local selectmen consider a number of violations against a current, and a former, school board member.The Newtown Bee following the hearing that failure to conduct a public vote, in which each board member indicates their directives publicly, is likely a violation of state FOI statutes, and he could find no evidence to support secret balloting in state law.The Bee went to press the morning of April 21.The Bee that once probable cause is found to conduct an ethics hearing at the local level, all subsequent meetings and hearings are bound to be held in public. Probable cause notifications sent to the respondents were dated February 15, 2016.The Bee they were never given the opportunity by ethics officials to have all deliberations involving them conducted in public.Ethics Code QualifiedThe Bee, former school board member David Freedman announced that he had released details from that e-mail, which also eventually appeared on social media.The Bee in early November 2015, that the e-mail included attorney-client privileged discussion and would be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, but he later said the text message is not exempt.The Bee after the ethics hearing that he admitted what he did and apologized, because he sought to put an end to any activity that would generate added expense to local taxpayers.
While the ethics panel investigates and renders opinions on whether subjects of complaints may be in violation of the local ethics code, in Newtown, selectmen make the final decision on whether to accept or reject any or all of those recommendations.
The matter involves separate complaints or "referrals" filed by Board of Education members Keith Alexander, John Vouros, Debbie Leidlein, Michelle Ku, and Laura Roche alleging violations of the Code of Ethics by respondent and former board member David Freedman and current board member Kathryn Hamilton.
Following the two separate April 18 hearings, during which potentially illegal closed or executive sessions and secret, unidentified balloting instead of public voting were conducted, the ethics board found each respondent in violation of certain points in the local code.
Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission spokesperson Tom Hennick told
However, during the hearings and under questioning by the school district's legal counsel about that specific issue, Ethics Chairman Jacqueline Villa assured the attorney that such secret balloting was appropriate.
Ms Villa responded to an e-mail from the newspaper requesting clarification, saying she would provide it. But that clarification was not received by the time
The FOI spokesman also notified
According to Ethics Board minutes and activity during the April 18 hearing, members conducted at least three closed or executive sessions on these cases, after notifying both Ms Hamilton and Mr Freedman of probable cause to investigate violations against them.
In addition, both respondents told
Both Mr Freedman and Ms Hamilton maintained after the ethics rulings that the sole reasoning behind releasing what they believed were public documents was to evidence that the Newtown Board of Education was conducting illegal meetings via text messages and e-mails.
During the early stage of the hearing, attorney Mark Sommaruga, who represented both respondents, coincidentally noted a preliminary ruling that was handed down from a state FOI Commission hearing officer several days earlier, confirming documents serving as the foundation of local ethics complaints were public records.
However, Ms Villa indicated at the hearing that the FOI ruling would not be considered in the scope of her board's deliberations. Whether that issue did come up in either party's case is not known since those discussions convened in a separate room away from the respondents, press, and attendees to the hearings.
Mr Freedman did not appear at the final ethics hearing April 18.
Ms Hamilton was in attendance, along with Mr Sommaruga. The school board complainants were represented by attorney Richard Mills.
No witnesses were called to testify during the hearings, and virtually all public arguments on behalf of the complainants and the respondents were made by their attorneys.
During a February 29 ethics board meeting, the panel determined that sections A, B and D of Section 27-2 would be considered. Those sections of the code read as follows:
"Officials and employees have a special responsibility, by virtue of the trust invested in them by the town's residents, to discharge their duties conscientiously, impartially, and to the best of their ability, placing the good of the Town above any personal or partisan considerations.
- Officials and employees have an obligation to act morally and honestly in discharging all assigned responsibilities.
- Officials and employees will conduct themselves with propriety, discharge their duties impartially and fairly, and make continuing efforts toward attaining and maintaining high standards of performance.
- No official or employee shall use, or attempt to use, either directly or indirectly, his or her town position to secure any preferential right, benefit, advantage or privilege for himself or herself or for others, including without limitation in relation to his or her occupation or source of income.
The panel also agreed February 29, that sections A and B of Section 27-6 would be considered. Those sections of the code read as follows:
"Because of their position in town administration, officials and employees have access to information that may not be in the public domain. A delicate balance exists between the public's right to know about town affairs and the actions of elected and appointed officials and officers on the one hand, and the rights of the individual to privacy with respect to matters that are not in the public domain on the other hand. Additionally, during the course of certain preliminary procedures, such as town negotiations with bargaining groups, the premature disclosure of specific positions would be detrimental to the public interest. Such information as is cited above is confidential. Confidential information is any information not in the public record and which is obtained only by reason of an official's or employee's position. Therefore, the interests of the public, the town, and the individual must all be preserved and maintained in proper harmony with one another."
- No official or employee shall, without prior formal authorization of the public body having jurisdiction, disclose any confidential information or divulge personal matters pertaining to others that do not bear upon the official's or employee's discharge of official duties.
- Whether or not it shall involve disclosure, no official or employee shall use or permit the use of confidential information to advance his or her financial or personal interest or to advance or to damage the financial or personal interest of any other person.
The ethics panel also determined earlier that sections A and B of Section 27-10 would be considered. Those sections of the code read as follows:
"All officials and employees are free to engage in political activity to the widest extent consistent with the proper discharge of their official town duties and fair and equal treatment of all town people. The achievement of this objective does, however, require certain limitations."
- Officials and employees shall not allow partisan political activities to interfere with the proper discharge of their official duties.
- No official or employee shall be ordered to participate in political activities.
In the matter of Mr Freedman, the ethics panel referred violations of sections 27-2a, 27-2b, 27-6a, and 27-6b of the local ethics code to selectmen. In the matter of Ms Hamilton, the ethics panel referred violations of sections 27-2a and 27-2b to selectmen.
History SurroundingÃÂ ÃÂ Complaints
The complaint against Ms Hamilton resulted from an admission that she shared a text message correspondence among school board members that eventually showed up on local social network sites.
An e-mail made public from January 2014, revealed communications related to the superintendent's contract that was shared among board members and the board's attorney at the time. In a letter to
School board Chairman Keith Alexander told
The text message, from June 2015, referenced a planned executive session about non union employee increases, according to Ms Hamilton. The information is on the public record according to Mr Alexander.
After Mr Alexander sent the June text message, and a separate e-mail about the superintendent's salary negotiation, Ms Hamilton said she asked the chairman to refrain from sending messages to the school board as he was holding the equivalent of an online meeting.
Ms Hamilton said she spoke with Mr Alexander prior to an October 26 (2015) executive session, noting that nothing in the text message was private or confidential.
Mr Freedman told
Mr Freedman also vowed to provide documentation, and alleged that in excess of $20,000 had been spent by school board officials for legal counsel related to the ethics matters. That documentation was received subsequently and will be included in a future report after review.
Presumably, selectmen will entertain the ethics board referrals during a future meeting.