Events at recent meetings of the Representative Town Meeting Education Committee have resulted in an ethics complaint filed against the committee, and criticism from fellow elected officials.
Critics called the meetings a “Reckless gossip session” and alleged bias.
Audio of a Sept. 18 meeting of the committee was recorded by Darien TV79. RTM Education Committee Chairman Dennis Maroney was not present, and members of the committee spent most of the meeting, which seemed to lack an agenda, discussing and criticizing members of the Board of Education and school administration.
The audio of the meeting was downloaded more than 50 times within two days, a much higher than typical number. Without video or any kind of roll call, it is challenging to identify which voice belongs to which RTM member.
The discussion opened with a questioning of the staffing at Fitch Academy, the alternate program at Darien High School, in its pilot year. Members of the committee said they heard a rumor that the teachers at Fitch were also the new program coordinators. Superintendent Dr. Dan Brenner said this was indeed the case at a recent Board of Education meeting, and offered the rationale for doing so. Committee members at the September meeting were upset because they felt they were misled as far as the staffing is concerned.
From that point, the committee members took issue with the board and administration itself. Committee members wondered aloud why the Board of Education doesn’t ask the same questions they do. They then asked about how to make a change, with one member saying, “Isn’t that why [Committee Chairman Dennis Maroney] is running? Get new people in there and change it.” The committee members then likened the Board of Education to a “rubber stamp board.”
The committee then went into a lengthy discussion about the new commitment and substance use policy, with some members openly doubting its effectiveness. One committee member who had attended a session said one of the speakers was, “boring,” and that the program was “OK, but it needs to be tweaked.” Another committee member took issue because the program was mandatory, saying, “I loathe anything mandatory.” The committee said this material should be taught in health class, and also wondered if coaches at DHS are allowed to set their own commitment policy for individual teams. Further specific commentary was made regarding a particular team and the students on that team.
There was also discussion about what an in-school suspension, as opposed to out-of-school actually meant. Committee members believed in-school suspension meant that it was punishment for breaking a rule in school, which is not the case.
The talks acknowledged that there is an ongoing problem substance abuse. However, committee members also seemed to believe that the approach now being taken by the administration and Board of Ed, which was discussed at length over a series of several Board of Ed meetings, would prove to be ineffective. The discussion dwindled as the committee began wondering why they were even talking about commitment policy at all.
At this point the discussion turned to the ongoing debate over publication of a log of Freedom of Information Act requests. The Board of Education is planning to make public a log of requests, their nature and who initiated them. Member Jay Hardison spoke in this discussion as he has recently been identified by the Board of Ed for being personally responsible for a great deal of requests that cost the district almost $90,000 in legal fees. Hardison points out that FOIA requests from the Darien News added up to 15,000 emails, while his were fewer. Committee members pondered whether or not the district should hire a junior attorney to have in house to handle all FOIA requests as a way to save money and the time of administrators. Hardison also said that all of his requests have been, “incredibly productive.”
Hardison then goes into specific requests he has made, including requests for the full administration evaluation of Brenner for the last school year. Hardison has also made a number of requests related to the suspension of DHS football coach Rob Trifone for striking a student on the helmet on the field a year ago. Another committee member said that someone put, “a FOIA in my mailbox,” that discussed the Trifone incident in detail. Hardison then told the committee he has the unredacted version of this exact document himself.
At this moment, the committee is told that they are being recorded and are live on air. Hardison responds, reading the note he is handed out loud and saying, “We knew that.”
Hardison then resumes the FOIA discussion, saying making the log public is an “intimidation tactic designed to discourage people.” Hardison says he doesn’t think the log should be public, but he doesn’t care if they publicize his requests. He continues to say that the log is “designed to be punitive. It’s because I’m making a lot of requests.”
Committee members spoke about how they get, “cranky” because no one answers their questions, and said they need to see changes with the Board of Ed. One Education Committee member then acknowledged rarely even going to Board of Ed meetings, and that committee members “need to divvy up who’s going to go to these, because I don’t want to go.” Some committee members chuckle at this, and another says they, “need a partner to go with.”
One of the people who heard the audio of the meeting was Planning & Zoning Chairman John Sini, who reached out via email to RTM Moderator Seth Morton, Finance and Budget Chairman Jack Davis, and Vice Chairman Joanne Hennessy to voice concerns. Sini was not the individual who filed the ethics complaint.
“As a former RTM member that served with you all and deeply respect your work, I am completely and utterly ashamed and embarrassed that the Education Committee’s discussions devolved into nothing more of an unguided, unstructured and even reckless ‘gossip session’ containing uninformed comments including rumors and innuendo,” Sini wrote.
Sini would continue, “Shockingly, there is a time during the meeting that members realize they are being taped and then begin to speak in hushed tones and whispers (~minute 47). A few times, a couple of committee members admit that they don’t even understand what their committee’s role is in town government.”
Sini would also offer a solution to prevent future meetings such as this, writing, “I propose that the Rules Committee create a formal information and guidance program delivered by RTM Rules and leadership informing members of the various committees’ role and rules related to conducting public meetings. Perhaps such an effort would mitigate such embarrassing meetings in the future.” Sini sent this email on Sept. 29, and Morton forwarded it along to Maroney on Oct. 5 to review with the Education Committee.
Maroney was present at the Oct. 16 Education Committee meeting and informed members that a complaint had been filed with the Ethics Committee. Hardison asked Maroney who complained, and Maroney named the person, even though those names are meant to be confidential under the Ethics Board. Hardison suggests the complainer list their affiliations on the complaint. Maroney then says that he has spoken to Wayne Fox, the town counsel, and that the complaint has no merit. Committee members then said they did not know they were being recorded at the previous meeting. However, on audio, they were told during that meeting they were being recorded, and even acknowledged that they were aware on the recording of the meeting.
The substance of the complaint is “bias, agendas, and preconceived ideas,” Maroney said.
Maroney pointed out that Fox said there was no formal way to complain about how the meeting in question was conducted other than the ethics complaint, so he likened it to more of a “shot across the bow to get our attention.”
“There were some upset people in the community about how the meeting was conducted and how we conducted ourselves,” he said.
Fox asked Maroney to point out that the people discussed at the previous committee meeting in question “are our neighbors and colleagues and friends and we need to behave civilly and work collaboratively with them.”
Maroney pointed out that even if the ethics complaint was dismissed, it may be a cause for the Education Committee to do some self-reflection about what is said and how it conducts itself.
On Oct. 19 the hearing was held, and typically that would typically mark whether or not the complaint would be put to rest. The individual who filed the complaint told The Darien Times it has not been put to rest.
David Bayne, who serves as vice-chairman of the RTM’s Board of Ethics, declined comment on the matter, citing policy.
“Board of Ethics proceedings, including whether a complaint is even made, are strictly confidential. I, therefore, cannot confirm the existence of such a complaint or otherwise comment,” he said.
Jim Cameron, who has been a member of the RTM for nearly 20 years, said he served on the Ethics Board for four years and in that time only received a handful of complaints. He also pointed out the expected confidentiality of the proceedings.
“When a complaint is received they meet in executive session to review it, even calling witnesses. Only if they think it has merit do they go public,” Cameron said.
“We heard maybe three or four complaints, one with subpoenas, but none ever were found to have merit. So they were all sealed,” he said.
As per minutes, those in attendance at the Sept. 18 Education Committee included Hardison, Young Sup Lee, Edward Waschecka, Lucy Fiore (vice chairman), Sandra Savage, Pamela Sparkman (who is running for the Board of Selectmen), Deborah Ven, Joann Sawitsky and Janet Grogan.