Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Minutes maelstrom envelops council

By Kym Soper
Journal Inquirer
Published: Thursday, May 8, 2008 3:09 PM EDT

VERNON — Democrats say that Town Council minutes have been illegally edited, or at the very least “politically massaged” by top Republicans, in violation of the rules governing the body.

The issue surfaced late Tuesday at the Town Council meeting when Democratic Councilwoman Marie Herbst questioned why the unapproved minutes of seven untelevised budget workshop meetings were labeled as “last edited on April 29, 2008.”

“These are not legal minutes,” said Herbst who, along with other council members, was seeing the drafts for the first time.

Robert’s Rules of Order “states that only the Town Council can edit or change their minutes, and we didn’t — no one else has the right to touch these minutes, ” she said.

The town administrator can proofread and correct spelling, but is not allowed to change the content, Herbst said.

In response, a clearly angry Mayor Jason L. McCoy told Herbst that the minutes have always been reviewed by the administrator before being submitted to the council for adoption.

“Whatever way it’s been done for the last 12 years, that’s what happened,” an exasperated McCoy, a Republican who was elected mayor in November, told Herbst.

No so, said Republican Nancy Herold, who for 20 years was the executive secretary in the mayor’s office before running for a council seat last year.

“There is no need for editing in any way, shape, or form,” Herold told McCoy and the council. “I was happy to get them in such a nice format, but to get them edited before I have an opportunity to edit them is not appropriate.”

Republican Deputy Mayor Diane Wheelock tried to explain.

“The minutes were submitted in draft form to the mayor to read, but he was busy with the budget, so I did it for him,” said Wheelock, who said she asked the clerk only to include omitted dollar amounts in motions that affected the budget total.

But Democrats easily found other examples where major changes were made without their consent or knowledge.

Herbst noted that when she made a motion to cut the mayor’s proposed $30,000 lobbyist she didn’t call it a “governmental relations firm” as she was incorrectly quoted in the revised minutes.

“I called it a lobbying firm — this is an example of the council’s minutes being politically edited,” she said.

Michael Winkler, another Democratic council member, also found a glaring example.

On March 19, Republican Town Committee Chairman Hal Cummings spoke publicly on the hot-button issue of McCoy’s decision to testify at the February sentencing of a man convicted of sexual assault.

The man is the father of Wheelock’s grandchild, and during the public comment session of the council meeting Cummings blasted Democrats for sparking a witch-hunt.

Democrats vehemently deny the accusation and never spoke out publicly as a group.

Winkler pointed out that at the March 19 meeting there were 11 speakers, and all had a brief synopsis of the issue they discussed reflected in the minutes, except for Cummings, where there was no indication at all of what he said.

“I’ve been aware for some time that the minutes have been politically massaged, and I’m truly getting concerned,” Winkler said. “I think it’s best if we let the town clerks write and record the town minutes rather than leaving it to the politicians.”

On Wednesday, McCoy said that numerous changes had to be made because the clerk was editorializing in the draft and did not correctly attribute quotes.

“They were a mess, and I’m not going to put it on the agenda if they’re not in the proper format,” McCoy said, adding that those who disagreed with him were wrong.

When asked for a specific example of a mistake in any of the seven minutes, however, he could not come up with one.

Herbst, a mayor herself at one time, finds that unlikely.

“We’ve never had a problem with the town clerk’s office before,” she said. McCoy “told me that people here don’t know what they’re doing, but I’ve been around for 30 years and if people didn’t do their jobs, they’re told to go. But we never had this problem before. The town employees, they’re the stability — mayors come and go.”

Meanwhile, the town clerks and other employees say they are not allowed to speak to the press or at public meetings.

For now, the Democrats want the town clerk to send them draft copies of the minutes by e-mail within 48 hours.

of the meeting. They also want a copy of the administration’s marked-up minutes included in every agenda packet for comparison purposes.

“There’s a gag order against these people — they can’t speak out,” which is a violation of their civil rights, Herbst said.

As for the minutes, Herbst said that Democrats are now looking to see what recourse the council may have.

“Those minutes belong to one group only and that’s the Town Council — not the mayor,” Herbst said, adding: “I don’t trust him, and that’s a terrible thing to say about a person. But some of the behavior makes you wonder what else they’re doing behind those closed doors, and we’ve decided this is the only way we can control our minutes and make sure they’re correct.”

The minutes were incorrect "in the majority of places at least 90 percent of the time," he said.


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