In the wake of a controversial decision by first selectman Bill Brennan to expedite the search for a replacement for outgoing CFO Sandy Dennies, three Wilton residents have filed a Freedom of Information (FOI) Complaint against Brennan and the other two members of the search committee. They have requested an “expedited resolution” from the FOI Commission, and are asking the FOIC to issue an “order to cease and desist.”
What’s more, GOOD Morning Wilton has learned that the Wilton Republican Town Committee passed a resolution on the issue, urging Brennan to refocus the direction he takes with the search. Dated Sept. 8, 2015, the resolution calls for, “… the search for and hiring of an INTERIM CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER and only an INTERIM CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER. In the absence of such a search and hire, the WRTC may seek other remedy, legal or otherwise.”
Brennan’s committee has put as priority finding a permanent replacement for Dennies as quickly as possible, rather than let the next first selectman and new board of selectmen members–who will take office as of Dec. 1–lead the effort.
On September 17, three Wilton citizens–Marissa Lowthert, Kevin Hickey and Detlef Fuhrmann–filed a complaint via email with the CT Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC) in Hartford. A copy of the complaint was released to GMW.com by Thomas Hennick, the public education officer with the FOIC. Hennick also forwarded four other documents that were included as accompanying exhibits to the complaint.
The complaint was filed against the Town of Wilton, Brennan, selectman Dick Dubow and Bd. of Finance chair Warren Serenbetz. Brennan, Serenbetz and Dubow make up the search committee to find a replacement for Dennies, who will be leaving Wilton effective Nov. 30, when Brennan leaves office.
In the complaint, the three residents charge that the search committee has had “a series of secret meetings,” citing an article in GOOD Morning Wilton as evidence of such, and they imply that no proper steps were taken to notify the public of the committee’s meetings.
“A search of the Town’s website reveals no notices of meetings, agendas, or minutes from any meetings of the CFO Search Committee…. No public notice was given prior to such meetings, no agendas were published, and no minutes were recorded or publicly posted after such meetings,” the complaint states, and asserts that this is evidence of violations of the Freedom of Information Act.
The complaint alleges that the town has previously violated the FOI Act, and “in the last six (6) months alone, the Town has been ordered twice to comply strictly with the provisions of the Act, and has promised in writing to comply with the Act as a condition of withdrawing a third complaint.” In all three cases, the complaints were filed by Lowthert. Moreover, the current complaint regarding the CFO search includes as an exhibit a letter Brennan sent to Lowthert, dated March 13, 2015, stating:
“[i]n return for your withdrawal, and as required by law, we will honor all provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. Specifically, we will notify the public of any change in the time and location of a posted meeting. The notice will be placed on the Town website. Whenever we change the time or location of a posted meeting, those changes will also be posted at the previously scheduled meeting place.”
The complaint characterizes the committee’s actions as having “willfully flouted the [FOI] Act’s requirements” even after having been “repeatedly…ordered” to comply.
Conflicting Opinions on Search Committee’s Approach–and an RTC Rebuke
The search committee’s formation and goal has not been unanimously supported among all town officials. At the Sept. 8 meeting of the Board of Selectmen, the board’s discussion revealed that not everyone agreed with Brennan’s approach emphasizing a search for a permanent replacement.
With Brennan’s last term ending on Nov. 30, and an election to find his successor taking place on Nov. 3, some town officials have stated their belief that the next first selectman should lead the search for the town’s next financial officer, and the next board of selectmen should be the body to approve that selection and appoint the next CFO.
Surprisingly, the Wilton RTC, Brennan’s own party, passed a resolution that seems to disapprove of the approach he’s taking. GOOD Morning Wilton has obtained a copy of the RTC resolution passed on Sept. 8, which states that the RTC “strongly supports the search for and hiring of an INTERIM CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER and only an INTERIM CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER. In the absence of such a search and hire, the WRTC may seek other remedy, legal or otherwise.”
According to the resolution, there were 32 members present at the Sept. 8 RTC meeting, and the motion passed unanimously.
RTC chair Al Alper confirmed that Brennan acknowledged receiving the resolution but did not respond, as “it wasn’t delivered with a question for which to reply.”
As for what legal or other remedy might be pursued, Alper said, “Given that a majority of the BoS will be brand new, the RTC strongly believes that an interim CFO is the prudent and reasonable course of action as the new First Selectman and her Board members may have a different set of criterion for qualifications and scope. Some of the remedies are currently being explored via a FOI complaint recently filed by some citizens.”
Alper seemed cautiously accepting of the FOI complaint–to a point, saying: “When citizens avail themselves of the mechanisms of redress from their government it only strengthens our democracy. If and when it goes beyond that and the discourse degrades to include harshly rendered opinion and mis/dis-information , that is what damages the Town, by silencing debate and keeping good citizens from raising their hands.”
Search Contract Signed
Despite any disagreement on the Board of Selectmen about how to approach the search and who should lead it, the search committee has not strayed from its commitment to retain the NESC (National Executive Service Corps), the search company that works with non-profits on executive searches. A letter dated Sept. 14, 2015, included with the FOI complaint, details the retainer agreement between the town and NESC.
The contract letter states that NESC will “assist in the identification and selection of an Interim or Permanent Chief Financial Officer/Treasurer…” and the description of the position includes a title of “Chief Financial Officer & Treasurer, Interim Acting; leading to full-Time position…”
This Sept. 14 letter seems to be an updated version of a similar letter from NESC to Brennan dated Aug. 26, 2015, confirming that Wilton had retained NESC “…to conduct an executive search in the identification and selection of the Chief Financial Officer/Treasurer.” The title of the position described in this Aug. 26 version makes no mention of ‘Interim’ or ‘Interim Acting.’
According to the contract, NESC is charging a fee of $28,500 (plus expenses), calculated as 20-percent of the first year total projected salary and compensation. That fee is based on an estimated CFO salary of $142,500, and it is not contingent on the town eventually hiring a candidate identified by NESC; rather it is characterized as a fee for “professional services rendered.”
The complaint filed by Lowthert, Hickey and Fuhrmann takes issue with the job qualifications listed as well as the terms of the agreement itself, charging that the “CFO Search Committee apparently retained NESC without disclosing the matter in any public forum… because Respondents kept the CFO Search Committee’s meetings secret, the public was unable to provide any input or criticism of Respondents’ actions prior to Respondents’ entering into the NESC Agreement.”
Can the FOIC Issue a Cease and Desist Order?
Lowthert and the others have asked the FOI Commission to expedite their investigation and findings. They cite this being an election year as a prime reason why they want the FOIC to “grant expedited relief.” They acknowledge that asking for a cease and desist order may not be specified in the commission’s regulations, they are hoping the commission will intercede anyway.
Charging that Brennan and the others “have not hesitated to violate the Commission’s recent orders, and they continue to govern the Town in secrecy…” the three complainants say that they are afraid that the town will commit financially to more than the $28,500 already contracted to NESC including:
- legal costs to undo any contract executed if someone is “secretly hired”
- potential liability if a new first selectman decides to terminate any such contract
- further costs associated with hiring a new CFO
- or the town will “have to live with the CFO selection made by the Respondents, who are acting without legal authority and in blatant violation of the Act and the Commission’s prior orders.”
They’ve also asked the FOI Commission to declare that the agreement with the NESC, the job description and any decisions made by the search committee be made null and void. In addition, they’ve called for the “maximum” fines to be issued.
The FOI Commission’s Hennick said that he couldn’t say for sure whether or not the commission would be able to fulfill the complaint requests.
“The staff reviewing the request for an expedited hearing have many other tasks due to the high volume of complaints we receive (more than 900 annually) so it could be sometime next week, but I simply don’t know. As for a cease and desist order, I have never seen our commission order something like that without a formal hearing, so again, I honestly don’t know, Hennick said.
GOOD Morning Wilton emailed Bill Brennan for a comment, but hadn’t heard back by press time.