Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Legal opinion: Wheelock’s new job OK; Dems call for another review

By Kym Soper
Journal Inquirer
Published: Wednesday, August 6, 2008 2:13 PM EDT

VERNON — Two legal opinions say Deputy Mayor Diane Wheelock’s new town-paid job as executive assistant to the mayor is permitted under state law and the Town Charter, but Democrats are calling for a third “outside, independent review.”

Republican Mayor Jason L. McCoy hired Wheelock on July 29 to fill the job left vacant by Charlotte Adams, who left in July to work in the Ellington town clerk’s office.

According to Dan Sullivan, Human Resources director, Wheelock will be paid $66,979 annually and start work sometime after Aug. 11 and before Aug. 25.

Ninety-seven people applied for the position, which was advertised with a pay scale range of $51,105 to $65,028. A search committee of town staff narrowed the field to four, and McCoy said he chose Wheelock, a day-care operator, because as a former mayor she was familiar with the workings of the office. Wheelock is a Republican.

The first legal opinion was written July 31 — two days after a news story ran on McCoy’s hiring of Wheelock. The opinion was written by Town Attorney Hal Cummings, who is Republican town chairman.

The second, which is not dated, was authored by the town’s consultant labor lawyer Edward F. O’Donnell, a partner in the Hartford firm Siegel, O’Connor, O’Donnell, & Beck.

Both opinions state that the charter prevents council members from holding certain volunteer appointed offices, such as Planning and Zoning Commission member, or a paid town job such as town clerk, police chief, or economic development coordinator.

But because the executive assistant job is not listed as an exclusion, Wheelock’s appointment is permitted, the opinions state.

“There is no limitation in the Town Charter which would prohibit the executive assistant from serving on the Town Council,” O’Donnell wrote.

“It is my opinion that an incumbent Town Council member may be hired as an employee of the Town of Vernon for any position, other than those identified … ” Cummings wrote.

But Democrats charge the position of executive assistant did not exist when the charter was last revised in 1990, and if it had, it would have been excluded.

“It might follow the letter of the law, but the spirit is being violated,” Democratic Town Chairman Tom DiDio said.

DiDio, who is calling for Wheelock to step down from the council, said his phone and e-mail box have been flooded with messages asking Democrats to take action against the appointment.

“Even though the charter doesn’t specifically refer to that exact position, it does say there should be a separation of powers and prohibits personal enrichment, and that is what is being violated,” DiDio said, adding that the two opinions were “clearly biased.”

DiDio wants a legal opinion from a nonpartisan, outside source that is not already contracted with the town so that residents could be assured it’s fair and accurate.

Democratic Councilwoman Marie Herbst isn’t sure if even that will do, however.

“I think these are legal opinions, and as lawyers operate you can get whatever decision your client wants,” Herbst said, adding: “You can get a different answer for a different client — he wanted Diane. He said he wanted Diane before the selection process began, and that’s what he got.”

Cummings, who said his opinion was vetted by Democratic Town Attorneys Martin Burke and Susan Boynton, says it’s appropriate for Wheelock to resign her position as deputy mayor, which is a supervisor to the executive assistant, but should keep her seat on the council.

“We anticipated the sensitivity of this, and that’s why we got the labor lawyer’s opinion,” Cummings said, adding that as Republican town chairman he was a “little bit disappointed” in the appointment, but for a different reason.

“As executive assistant to Jason, she can never run for mayor again, and she was our biggest vote getter on the council,” Cummings said, adding: “The Democrats should be happy she’s been taken out of contention for the future.”

Copyright 2008 - Journal Inquirer