North Branford Council Refrains from Seeking State Attorney Review of Actions of Education Board
On Dec. 5, North Branford Town Attorney Vincent Marino (standing) discusses his statement at the Town Council meeting. Listening in are (left) Town Manger Mike Paulhus and (right) Town Council member Al Rose (R). (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Sound)
On advice of Town Attorney on Dec. 5, North Branford Town Council will refrain from seeking a review by the Office of Chief State’s Attorney’s concerning past Board of Education (BOE) chairs’ “will of the board” actions.
The council’s initial discussion for such an investigation began in September but had yet to be acted upon. Now, the investigation will instead been returned to BOE for the time being; for reasons described in an opinion read into the record on Dec. 5 by the new town attorney (full text appears below). In a related action on Dec. 5, the Town Council unanimously approved appointing Democrat Jana Balsamo to fill a vacated seventh BOE seat (term expires 11-12-19) to complete the seven-member board.
The Dec. 5 Town Council meeting was not without contention and drew a standing room-only crowd. The first to take issue with the new direction being taken by the council was Democratic councilman George Miller, who questioned why the town attorney’s statement, which was new to him, was made ahead of opening the night’s Water Pollution Control Authority and Town Council agendas. It was later explained that, per town charter, meetings proceed at the discretion of the Mayor; and in this case, Mayor Mike Doody (R) had requested a statement to be drafted and read by counsel. The night also included reminders from some members of the Republican majority (six members) to some members of the Democratic majority (three members) that the newly-elected town council was no longer a Democratic majority body.
The decision to turn the review back to the BOE comes on the heels of a controversial split vote of the BOE on Nov. 16 which did not allow for approval of one-year extension (to June 30, 2020) of Superintendent of Schools Scott Schoomaker’s current three-year contract. On Nov. 16, new BOE chair Sara Querfeld (R) said she didn’t support a one-year extension at the time as there were questions being examined by the Town Council which had yet to be answered. She also noted the three-year contract is set to be part of a regular contract review in June 2018. The BOE vote was a 3-3 tie on Nov. 16 because the Town Council, on Nov. 14, failed to raise a majority vote to re-appoint interim member (October, 2017) and Democrat Lynn Riordan to the remainder of vacated seventh seat term.
As previoulsy reported here the BOE’s Nov. 16 vote was not met well by supporters of Schoonmaker. Many turned out to a Nov. 19 rally organized by Riordan calling for a show of support for Schoonmaker. Many attended and spoke at the Dec. 5 Town Council meeting, as well.
On Dec. 5, Town Attorney Vincent Marino (Cohen & Wolf P.C., Orange), who was installed on Nov. 14 by a vote of the newly-elected 2017-19 Town Council, read the following statement into the record:
“Members of the Town Council requested that I prepare and make a statement concerning issues involving the superintendent, past policies and procedures of the Board of Education as well as specific actions taken by past members of the [BOE]. The members of your Town Council take their responsibility to your community seriously. The Town Council believes that the public’s trust in its local government is maintained through a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration.
Unfortunately, concerns have arisen about benefits being granted to the superintendent without board action as a public forum. The Town Council has been advised that prior chairmen of the [BOE] routinely approved the extension of healthcare benefits and additional compensation for unused accrued time without full board vote and without public notice and meeting. I have been advised that past chairmen took sole action with the mistaken understanding that such action was appropriate because it reflected the ‘will’ of the board.
While I am new to this matter, I am confident that stating that the ‘will’ of any public board or commission can only be determined by a vote of such body. Action without a vote of the body politic is considered an ultra vires act. This means that if an act requires legal authority and it is done without such authority it is invalid.
The Council recognizes that the Charter charges it with the responsibility and authority to investigate all offices and agencies of the Town and it now finds itself in the uncomfortable position of seeking answers to these questions. If proven, these allegations, and I want to underscore that these are only allegations, could lead to this matter being referred to the State’s Attorney and/or the State Board of Education for investigation and possible action and could potentially extend liability and/or culpability to individuals within our community.
The Council believes, however, that it should reserve the rights afforded to it under the Charter and refrain from taking any action at this time. The Council recognizes that a local municipal election took place just about a month ago. The [BOE] is newly constituted and should be afforded the opportunity to investigate these matters on their own, without interference from outside forces.
The Town Council appreciates that the [BOE] review of this matter will not be quick and we know that this process may frustrate some; but the Town Council believes neither it, nor the public, should jump to any conclusions. Rather, we ask the public, like the Town Council, reserve judgement and refrain from taking any action until after the [BOE] has completed its review and make its decision known.
The Town Council also appreciates that some of you may be here this evening because of concerns relating to the extension of the superintendent’s contract. The decision concerning the superintendent’s contract is wholly within the discretion and control of the [BOE] The Town Council has no jurisdiction over that matter. Any concerns about the superintendent’s contract should be directed to the [BOE], but we would ask that before you confront the [BOE] on this topic, you permit it some time to conduct its review.”