Rules Committee offers little conflict resolution
A recent meeting of the RTM Rules Committee left some present, and later around Darien, feeling something between confusion and outright anger. The meeting followed Election Day, and served as the opportunity to assign members to committees. All members of the RTM must serve on a committee.
The Rules Committee meeting is the latest in a long string of events, dating nearly an entire calendar year, that has raised tensions in Darien when it comes to RTM committees, who serves on them, and the way potential issues are handled.
The Rules Committee meeting featured lengthy discussion about potential Education Committee members, particularly in the wake of an audio recording featured members speaking personally about what some viewed as Darien schools personnel, rumors, and other gossip. Committee member Joann Sawitsky said even though she was on the RTM Education Committee, she did not go to Board of Education meetings, or even want to attend. Sawitsky also works for Darien schools, and often could not vote on issues as it was a conflict. It also featured member Jay Hardison speaking about having unredacted materials related to a Darien personnel issue, along with critical remarks about the Board of Education and Superintendent Dr. Dan Brenner. The meeting in question became the subject of an Ethics complaint, with former chairman Dennis Maroney accidentally outing the name of the person who made the complaint to members of the committee during another meeting. The very existence of an ethics complaint, let alone who has made one, is kept highly confidential as per the Ethics Committee chairman at the time of the complaint, David Bayne.
The Rules Committee meeting spoke about Hardison and his return to the RTM Committee. Hardison made news recently as part of a Board of Education decision to make the Freedom of Information Act request log accessible by the public. As discussion about the log went on between board counsel Tom Mooney and the Board of Education, it was revealed that Hardison had cost the district nearly $100,000 in legal fees alone, along with hundreds of labor hours, with over two dozen FOIA requests. It was asked at the meeting if it was reasonable to put Hardison back on the Education Committee when he recently pushed for hundreds of thousands of dollars in cuts from the education budget, even as his FOIA requests were costing the district money.
Moderator Seth Morton asked to take the discussion to executive session as they were talking about a specific individual, at which point RTM member Jim Cameron, who was present in the audience, said that this discussion does not rise to the level needed to go to executive session. “It is the duty of this Rules Committee to create committees in an open and clear fashion,” Cameron said, adding, “the town deserves to hear your thought process.”
Wendy Ward was also present and spoke against the committee assignment for Hardison.
“I have a major problem with keeping someone on the Ed Committee from district four who has a personal agenda, and that agenda is costing the town money,” Ward said. “People have come forward, the town has spoken. Jay Hardison does not deserve to be on the education committee anymore,” she added.
Hardison’s FOIA requests had to do with decisions and the process of discipline regarding an incident in which Darien football coach Rob Trifone struck a player on the helmet during a game. Trifone was suspended twice following the incident, once initially and then once again shortly after once administrators saw video of the event.
Hardison spoke on the recording of the RTM Education Committee meeting about having an unredacted letter he possessed in relation to the incident. At a Board of Education meeting recently, Hardison presented some results of his FOIA requests as evidence of wrongdoing. Hardison showed that he had received FOIA’d emails from board member Michael Burke and former board chairman Michael Harman saying that they had no records or communication pertinent to his requests. Hardison then showed an email between Burke and Harman prior to them informing Hardison saying they had no information, and that showed Burke asking Harman about how to respond to Hardison’s FOIA request. Hardison said that, “there’s something wrong here,” before leaving the meeting and handing the FOIA materials he shared to a reporter from the Darien Times.
The Darien Times asked board counsel Tom Mooney if this was in fact evidence of wrongdoing, or a misstep of any kind in the FOIA process. The Times was told that it was quite the opposite. People who are subject to FOIA requests often interact and ask each other about their response to those requests. It is part of a good faith effort to be as thorough as possible while still protecting any sensitive parties under FERPA.
Hardison appealed the results of his FOIA requests to the FOIA commission in Hartford on four occasions. He would accuse a school administrator of perjury at one of these hearings, and his appeal in all four cases was denied. The commission ruled that the board and administration acted appropriately and in a manner in accordance with FERPA, even though Hardison believed administrators and the board had concocted a FERPA defense to cover their tracks after what he viewed as mishandling the Trifone situation.
At the Rules Committee meeting, it became clear that Hardison would be put back on the Education Committee, as would Sawitsky. Jack Davis, Chairman of the Finance and Budget committee, also sits on the Rules Committee and was outspoken against the slate of assignments as they were laid out, and was the only person who voted against them. Jen Montanaro and Sarah Parent were both RTM members who had requested to be on the education committee and were placed elsewhere, despite having relevant credentials and experience with the school district. Sawitsky has since resigned from the RTM.
As for the still pending ethics complaint, the Ethics Board is having a meeting on Thursday evening at town hall at 7:30, with an agenda that only contains “general discussion” and an adjournment to executive session.