Photo: Laura Weiss / Hearst Connecticut Media
FAIRFIELD — As a protest against a vote, three fellow school board members opted to do the exact opposite — walking out of an April 6 meeting rather than casting their own votes.
The walk-out protest, meant to question the legitimacy of a board member, all stems back to the town charter, with opposite sides disputing its interpretation.
The member, Vice Chairman Anthony Calabrese, has been serving as interim director of the town’s Parks and Recreation Department since Gerald Lombardo retired from the post at the end of October and is now set to take on the role permanently. The town charter dictates elected or appointed town officers are ineligible to hold elected town office, including Board of Education membership. According to Town Attorney Stanton Lesser, Calabrese will officially be on the job April 17 and if that is the case, would then be ineligible and required to resign from his elected office.
Town leadership maintains the rules only require Calabrese leave the board once his employment is finalized and that they are following the town attorney’s opinion. The Board of Education members that exited in protest question whether the charter’s intent and word is being followed.
“You don’t get to pick and choose the rules you follow,” board member John Llewellyn said in an interview. “The intent is to avoid a conflict of interest.”
What the charter says
The town charter (section 2.1 C. Single office requirement for elected town office) dictates, “No person shall be eligible to hold any elected Town office, including membership on any elected board or commission, who is at the same time an elected RTM member, an elected or appointed Town officer, an elected state official, or a member of an elected board or commission or a permanent appointed board or commission. For purposes of this paragraph, the term ‘Town office’ does not include Justices of the Peace or Constables, but does include members of the Board of Education.”
He later added, “It’s a lack of ethics. The intent is there. The charter is black and white. (Chairman Philip Dwyer and First Selectman Mike Tetreau are) choosing to interpret it the way they want rather than through the intent and the actual words. Take all of that — that’s why we walked out.”
Lesser provided his opinion, also sent to Republican Town Committee Chairman Jamie Millington. “As I informed (First Selectman) Mike (Tetreau), it is my opinion that, given the circumstances which exist here, Anthony (Calabrese) may continue to serve on the BOE,” he wrote. Lesser continued that his opinion was based on that he had been informed there was an active search to fill the role, making Calabrese an interim director and not prohibiting him from holding both positions.
“Should the town cease to make bona fide efforts to find a new director, then I think that, for purposes of the Charter, Anthony would become the de facto permanent director, and he would have to resign his seat on the BOE,” Lesser wrote.
Calabrese declined to comment after the meeting, redirecting comment to Tetreau. Tetreau confirmed Calabrese remains the department’s interim director as the town negotiates the details of his permanent appointment. Asked to clarify whether Calabrese had been selected, where the search was no longer going and for a timeline, he offered, “I believe that we have followed the Town Attorney’s ruling and as such, things are moving forward within a reasonable time frame.”
Llewellyn, Eileen Liu-McCormack and Donna Karnal walked out after Llewellyn challenged Calabrese’s ability to vote at the April 6 meeting, citing information that Calabrese was set to be the permanent recreation director. Calabrese did not comment during the exchange though Dwyer spoke in support of his eligibility, which led to a board vote upholding Calabrese’s ability to vote.
Even though a member was absent, the minimum for a quorum — required to conduct certain business like voting — was still present when the three walked out — but not according to Llewellyn. Llewellyn said Calabrese’s vote was ineligible and he did not constitute a quorum after he and the other two walked out, making all votes taken after the walk out that night ineligible.
Llewellyn said he had not determined whether he would pursue action questioning the validity of votes after the three left, which included approval of an amendment to the board’s racial imbalance plan intended to meet state-conditional approval.
Llewellyn, Liu-McCormack and Karnal often vote as a bloc, while the board’s remaining six members — including Calabrese — tend to vote in concert. Liu-McCormack voiced concerns with the board’s amendment to its racial imbalance plan before the three walked out without voting on the amendment.
Citing Calabrese’s roughly five months as interim director, Tetreau said it was not clear to him “why certain Board of Ed. members would make that an issue now.” On the walkout, he added, “Their actions are a mystery to me since this has been going on for several months and they didn’t take any action until this past week.”
Llewellyn cited evidence during the meeting indicating Calabrese’s late March selection as permanent director. He referenced the town charter, an email exchange saying Calabrese’s appointment had been authorized and a meeting with him was forthcoming, Calabrese’s listing on his personal LinkedIn page and the town Parks and Recreation site as director and Calabrese’s recognition as director at a March town meeting, among evidence to support his position.
In the interview Llewellyn called the interpretation Calabrese could remain an elected official until his agreement is finalized “form over substance.”
Calabrese will resign from the Board of Education when his agreement to become the permanent parks and recreation director is finalized, Tetreau said, and he will then be replaced with a Republican successor chosen by the Board of Selectmen. The selectmen typically accept a party’s choice, so the Republican Town Committee’s recommendation for the open seat would likely be appointed.