Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Town attorney issue shows council-mayor power struggle

By Jason Rowe
Journal Inquirer
December 6, 2006

VERNON - When the sun began rising over Town Hall Monday morning, local lawyer Martin B. Burke was poised to become the next town attorney.

By sunset, Burke was off Tuesday's Town Council agenda and a letter of resignation had been sent to the mayor's office stating that he would no longer serve as special town counsel.

Mayor Ellen L. Marmer had intended to nominate Burke to replace Town Attorney Joseph D. Courtney, who was elected in November to represent the 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Instead, the town attorney discussion was pulled from the agenda of Tuesday's Town Council meeting, presumably because of a continuing squabble about executive authority between the mayor and the Republican Town Council majority.

After learning of Marmer's decision to pull his name out of the running, Burke said he decided to tender his resignation as special town counsel, a post he has held since the mid-1990s.

"It was discovered that the majority of the council was in disagreement with the opinion that I rendered on the appointment of the police chief and would not back my nomination," Burke said today.

A member of the New York bar since 1966 and the Connecticut bar since 1968, Burke has practiced law for 37 years.

Burke, a Democrat, also served as state representative from the 56th House District during the mid-1970s and as town attorney during that time.

He also served as town attorney in Ellington during the mid-1970s and mid-1980s and recently served on Gov. M. Jodi Rell's Commission on Judicial Reform.

"I'll match my qualifications to anybody's," said Burke, who added that he was "disappointed" with the situation and would have liked to see his nomination come up for a vote. "Unfortunately, it's not a matter of qualifications."

Burke's legal opinions recently came into conflict with the Town Council's seven-member Republican majority after several members were critical of Marmer's handling of the appointment of a new police chief.

Republicans have contended that Marmer did not correctly follow the process for choosing a chief as outlined in the town charter and personnel regulations. They say Marmer should have asked them whether the town should have gone to an outside search to get more than the two candidates who applied for the job.

But during the Nov. 21 Town Council meeting and in a Nov. 27 letter to Marmer, Burke said the mayor's process appeared proper.

During Tuesday's Town Council meeting, Republican Town Council members asked for a second opinion on the police chief issue, citing Burke's resignation.

Despite contentions that Burke didn't have enough support among Republican council members, Republican Deputy Mayor Jason L. McCoy said his party was not opposed to the nomination.

But McCoy, who also is a lawyer, said it would have been difficult for Burke to get in the middle of what has become a protracted argument over town leaders' different interpretations of the town charter.

"He's a great lawyer," McCoy said of Burke. "I think he just didn't want to get in the middle of a political scuffle."

After the meeting, Marmer said she was sorry that someone with Burke's experience felt the need to resign as special town counsel.

"I think he has served our community very well," said Marmer, who would not comment on her specific reasons for pulling the town attorney discussion off the agenda. "There's a lot more at play, but I choose not to take a political tact. We lost the chance to have an excellent person as our town attorney."

Marmer said she expects to have another nomination for town attorney at the Town Council's Dec. 19 meeting.

Until then, Courtney will continue to serve, she said.

In other business, the Town Council voted along party lines to reject the reappointment of Democrat Michael Winkler to serve on the Board of Directors of the Community Voice Channel cable channel.

All seven Republican members voted against Winkler's reappointment while all five Democratic members voted in favor.

Republican members would not discuss the reasons for their vote during or after the meeting.

During the 2003 municipal election, Winkler was the center of controversy after he made a sign held by Democrats at Maple Street School, which read, "Don't close this school. Vote Democratic."

Republicans have said that the sign might have swung the election in favor of Marmer, who defeated Republican incumbent Diane Wheelock by 26 votes. Democrats also took an 8-4 majority on the council.

Before the sign's appearance, there were no formal plans or discussions relating to the closure of town schools.

The possibility of closing schools had been briefly brought up earlier that year during an informal Board of Education strategic planning session about declining school enrollment.

But by most accounts, the suggestion disappeared as quickly as it appeared and the school board never proposed or approved any plans to a close a town school.

Winkler said today that he believed the vote was connected to his actions in 2003, and that he was "disturbed" by the fact that Republicans appeared to be punishing him for exercising his right to free speech.

"I really like cable television and I'll continue to produce programs for it," Winkler said. "It's kind of humorous how long their memories are. It's disturbing that Republicans would punish somebody for holding a sign three years later."

Tuesday's vote irritated Marmer, who chided Republicans for rejecting Winkler's appointment and not publicly stating the reasons behind their decision.

©Journal Inquirer 2006