Mayor John Harkins reached an agreement with and paid $250 to the State Elections Enforcement Commission after being accused of using public dollars to advocate the sale of the town’s Water Pollution Control Authority plant.
As part of the stipulated agreement, reached on Feb. 27, Harkins agreed to work closely with the SEEC in the future and made a voluntary payment of $250 to the commission to settle a complaint that had been filed by Mark Dumas, a former town councilman and critic of Harkins. The mayor said the complaint was “baseless” and that no wrongdoing was admitted.
The SEEC approved the agreement on March 22. It was made public last week. Harkins’ attorney Kevin Reynolds and SEEC Executive Director Michael Brandi signed the agreement.
A portion of the six-page agreement says the SEEC concluded that Harkins’ leaving advocacy materials for the sale of the WPCA plant to the Greater New Haven Water Pollution Control Authority in his Mayor’s Monthly Minutes columns in June and July 2015 “did not comport with the requirements of General Statutes Section 9-369b.” That section notes that “except as specifically authorized in this section, no expenditure of state or municipal funds shall be made to influence any person to vote for approval or disapproval of any such proposal or question or to otherwise influence or aid the success or defeat of the referendum.”
The agreement also notes that the SEEC found that the dissemination of a “Regionalization Fact Sheet” produced with public funds prior to the Nov. 3, 2015, referendum did not comport with state rules. However, the agreement notes, application of that statute to allegations regarding litigation before the referendum was included on the ballot “is unwarranted under these narrow and specific circumstances,” and that allegation was dismissed.
Harkins was the chief proponent of the proposed sale of the sewer plant and claimed it would save the town millions in maintenance costs and would reduce residents’ sewer bills. The Town Council approved the sale in April 2015. A group of residents then challenged the proposed sale. After a petition to force a referendum was initially thrown out, a Superior Court judge in June 2015 ordered the town to continue verifying the signatures collected. The state Appellate Court denied the town’s request to have the case heard and the referendum was held in November. Residents overwhelmingly voted against the proposed sale. Opponents of the sale included Philip Young, Marianne “Mitzi” Antezzo and Tina Manus, all of whom would become Town Council members in that year’s election, along with Dumas.
As part of the agreement, Harkins “fully agrees and embraces the core purpose of Conn. Gen. Stat. §9-369b which is to ensure that no official may use the public [dollars] to influence any person to vote either for or against a local proposal or question. At the same time, [Harkins] recognizes his duty to communicate timely with his constituents on matters of importance.” It concludes that Harkins “firmly believes that the emergence of the referendum in July 2015 obviously was a noteworthy event in Stratford, demanding [his] comment.” The agreement reads that if Harkins had failed to talk about the referendum, “to many, that would suggest that he is either not paying attention to his job or, alternatively, that he is unconcerned about the opinion of his constituency.”
Harkins said in a statement Tuesday that the settlement “eliminates the significant time and costs of a hearing, and nullifies what we believe was a baseless complaint. The settlement also includes no mutual finding or admission of wrongdoing.”
Harkins continued that he had an obligation to communicate with residents.
“We have an interpretation of the statutes, just as SEEC has its own interpretation. Part of the argument we raised was that a chief elected official of a municipality has an obligation to communicate with their constituency, especially on matters of such significance,” Harkins said. “Based on the settlement, it is clear the SEEC recognized at least some merit to the argument made on our behalf.”