Vernon Town Council re-appoints town attorneys after debate

By Steve Smith - Staff Writer
Vernon - posted Thu., Nov. 21, 2013
Councilwoman Pauline Schaefer said the town attorney's position has become too political, as the Vernon Town Council discussed the appointment on Nov. 19. Photos by Steve Smith.
Councilwoman Pauline Schaefer said the town attorney's position has become too political, as the Vernon Town Council discussed the appointment on Nov. 19. Photos by Steve Smith.

The first meeting of the new Vernon Town Council included some lightly-heated debate over whether the town's attorneys should be reappointed. Mayor Dan Champagne's recommendation was to re-appoint Town Attorney Hal Cummings, as well as Assistant Town Attorneys Elizabeth Foran and Martin Burke, but some council members thought there was a conflict of interest with Cummings being re-appointed, because he also happens to be the Vernon Republican Town Committee chairman.

Councilman Michael Winkler, a Democrat, said that he and fellow Democrats have opposed Cummings holding both roles, but perhaps had not been clear about that in the past. Using a hypothetical example, Winkler said that a potential conflict could come when a party chair urges a person to run for, and become mayor, and then uses his or her position as town attorney to obfuscate violations by that mayor of the town charter.

“A person who chairs the party that nominates the candidate for mayor may choose to defend his party's mayor as town attorney, rather than uphold the charter,” Winkler said.

Winkler said a second, more specific reason for not supporting the nomination, is that he feels that Cummings' past interpretations of the charter have created a strong-mayor/weak-council form of government, rather than vice-versa, which is called for by the town's charter. “Attorney Cummings has written opinions to back up mayors taking new powers,” Winkler said, adding that those powers are clearly defined in the charter.

Fellow Democrat Ann Letendre invited the council to think of the dual roles in terms of a governmental construct, and not about a specific person. “The role of a town chairman, be it Democrat or Republican, [is that] he or she sets an agenda,” Letendre said. “They are a visible public figure with an agenda. On the other hand, the town attorney makes opinions that we would expect to be unbiased. It's not clean. It's not good government for one person to be in these two roles. I think what it does is set precedent that we should not be doing. I think it's a slippery slope.”

Democrat Pauline Schaefer said she worked with Cummings when both served on the Board of Education and said that, since then, the town attorney position has become very political, noting that she believes it should be filled by someone perhaps from another town, or at least with less involvement in the politics of the town.

Republicans were quick to defend Cummings's appointment. Councilman Bill Campbell said that the matter before the council has nothing to do with who is a party chairperson. “The motion on the floor is for town attorney, and that's it,” he said. “I think attorney Cummings has done a great job for the town, time after time.”

“Hal has done an excellent job for the town,” said Republican Steven Peterson. “I haven't seen where any of his judgements were party-affiliated.”

“We have a unique position in this town where the people we have in these roles are amazing professionals,” said Councilman Rob Kopec. “I have utmost confidence in their ability to differentiate their jobs' roles, whatever they are.”

The council voted in favor of Cummings's re-appointment by vote of 8-4, with all Republicans in favor and all Democrats opposed.

The assistant attorneys, both of whom are both Democrats, were re-appointed unanimously. Campbell reiterated that he supports the people for the job they have done, regardless of party affiliation.

“We have two Democrats, I believe, and one Republican who are our town attorneys,” Campbell said. “All three have done a great job for the town.”

In 2011, state Rep. Claire Janowski (D-56), who represents Vernon, proposed House Bill #5885, titled “An Act Concerning Potentially Politically biased advice of Town Attorneys.” The bill required that “a chairman or officer of a town committee resign such position if such chairman or officer is paid to provide services as an attorney for such town.” A letter from Letendre dated March 7, 2011, to the Goverment Administration and Elections Committee supported that bill.

A spokesperson from the House Clerk's office said the bill had gone to public hearing (at which Janowski and Letedre both testified) on March 7 of that year, but nothing happened with it after that. “It died a quiet death,” the spokesperson said.

Janowski said that she introduced the bill because several other towns at the time had similar instances, and that it was not aimed at Cummings or any person in particular. She said it is not unusual for bills to have a public hearing, and then to go nowhere.

"It was great that the chairs thought it was worthy of a public hearing," Janowski said. "There were so many other issues in the GAE committee at that point, so it never came out of committee."

Janowski said she felt that there is at least perceived conflict of interest in a dual role where one is a paid position, and the other on a volunteer basis.

"If I were taking that kind of a paid position, I would relinquish the other, just to avoid the potential for the perception of a conflict of interest," she said.

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