The Board of Ethics held a Special Meeting on Monday August 9, 2010 at 7:00 pm in the Council Chambers at the Newtown Municipal Center, 3 Primrose Street, Newtown, Connecticut.
Board Members Present: Brian Ochs (Chair); Stephen Sedensky (Vice-Chair); Janice Butler; Suzanne Copp; Neal DeYoung; Addie Sandler; George Schmidt; and Ron Wilcox.
Public Present: Several members of the public and press were present.
Chairman Brian Ochs called the meeting to order at 7:00 p.m.
Complaint Against Mary Ann Jacob by Thomas Bittman
Mr. Ochs stated that the meeting is to begin the investigation process into a complaint against Mary Ann Jacob made by Thomas Bittman, dated July 12, 2010. He first reviewed the Board’s process to the public when a complaint is received. He explained that the complaint must be in writing, specifying who the complaint is against and explaining the nature of the complaint. When the Board receives a complaint it is first investigated. If the complaint warrants a hearing, the respondent has the right to demand a hearing, move right into a full hearing, skipping the investigation process. The investigation process is private and confidential unless the respondent requests it otherwise (as has happened in this case). If the Board determines the complaint warrants a hearing, a hearing
date will be set and the respondent has the right to cross-examine anybody that is providing testimony, provide their own testimony, submit evidence, and call witnesses, etc.
He stated that this meeting is public but the Board will proceed exactly as if it were a private process. He then explained that the Board may ask questions of others in attendance, but would need a motion to do so.
Mr. Ochs then asked the Board if anyone had a conflict of interest in this particular case. Ms. Sandler said that she and Ms. Bittman both had their children in the play group about ten years ago but wasn’t sure if it was a conflict of interest. Mr. Wilcox prepared a statement (attached to the minutes) recusing himself from the proceedings due to professional associations with Ms. Bittman, referring to the Cedarhurst Association and the Newtown RTC. Ms. Butler was asked to sit in for Mr. Wilcox.
Mr. Ochs stated that the complaint will be attached to the minutes. He did not read the full complaint but noted that it references a statement made by Ms. Jacob on Facebook regarding the Board of Education Chair, Ms. Bittman, claiming that the statement is invalid. Three codes were sited in the complaint letter: 36.2 Standards of Service; 36.4 Treatment of the Public; and 36.10 Political Activities. Mr. Ochs then read the statement in question, "Did you know the Board of Education was asked to share in the reduced revenue losses and the Board of Education Chair told the Board of Finance they would discuss the issue in public? Did you know only the Republican members of the Board of Education voted to discuss the issue?"
Atty. Sedensky listed materials he has received pertaining to this complaint to confirm them for the record: Board of Finance Meeting 02-25-10 (one page); Board of Education Minutes 03-02-10; Board of Education Minutes 03-16-10; Board of Finance Minutes 03-25-10; Printout of an Editorial from the Newtown Bee; Two-page printout from a Facebook page with some highlighted areas, the second page contains the quote in question; Board of Education Minutes 04-06-10.
Mr. Ochs asked the Board for discussion. Atty. Sedensky stated that the first line of the statement in question does not seem to be an issue. He questioned whether the statement even fits within a potential violation code or should even be considered by the Board of Ethics. He questioned whether an investigation is warranted.
Atty. DeYoung agreed stating that he does not feel there’s anything in the complaint to trigger an investigation.
Mr. Ochs asked for further affirmation of Atty. Sedensky’s statement. Atty. Sedensky said that in reading the complaint, he feels there is nothing that triggers responsibilities to go to the next level.
Ms. Copp stated that she felt this is not an appropriate ethics situation.
Mr. Schmidt stated that he is also in agreement and does not believe this rises to the level of an ethics violation. He also said it’s worth noting that because of the way the Newtown Code of Ethics is written, public officials in elected office within the Town should take a cautionary note and walk a fine line to avoid finding themselves liable for this kind of action.
Atty. DeYoung stated the responsibility of the Board is to look at the complaint before them and that he does not feel theoretical arguments should be considered. He also stated that he does not feel justified to move forward with the complaint. Atty. DeYoung then said that the Board should look at each complaint on an individual basis in case another similar situation later on falls within the purview of the Board of Ethics.
Ms. Sandler agreed that the essence of what was posted was not in violation of the Code of Ethics.
Ms. Butler also agreed and said that people should be cautious of what they post since it is open to interpretation.
After further discussion, Atty. Sedensky motioned that the complaint does not warrant a hearing. The motion was seconded by Atty. DeYoung. Mr. Ochs stated that part of the process is that the Board notifies the respondent and complainant not only of it’s findings but also the reason behind it’s finding, he asked if the motion can include more detail. Atty. Sedensky amended the motion, stating that the complaint does not warrant a hearing based on the language of the Code and that the one sentenced involved “Did you know only the Republican members of the Board of Education voted to discuss the issue?" does not in of itself warrant a hearing. Motion seconded by Mr. Schmidt. The motion was carried unanimously.
Atty. Sedensky stated that the three codes should be referred to in the letters as well.
Adjournment: Having no further business, Mr. Sedensky motioned to adjourn the meeting at 5:45 p.m. Mr. Schmidt seconded motion. Motion approved unanimously.
Respectfully submitted by: Tammy Hazen, Clerk