Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Bill would target town attorneys who take top role in politics

By Suzanne Carlson
Journal Inquirer
Published: Monday, February 28, 2011 10:05 AM EST

HARTFORD — Rep. Claire L. Janowski, D-Vernon, has introduced a measure that would bar those who hold top positions in political committees from serving as town attorneys in the same town.

And while Janowski contends such a rule change is long overdue and is intended to prevent “potentially politically biased legal advice of town attorneys,” the Republican town chairman in her hometown disagrees.

“I’m surprised that anyone in such a highly sensitive position as town attorney would want to maintain a role of being a political party leader at the same time,” Janowski said.

But Town Attorney and Republican Town Chairman Harold R. Cummings calls the measure payback for his participation in efforts in November to unseat the then-five-term lawmaker.

“She can deny it all day long, but when you analyze the law and the way it’s worded, it’s clear that it targets a specific individual. And I think the legislature has a lot better things to do,” Cummings said.

Preventing a town attorney from also being in charge of political campaigns and other publicly partisan actions should be “simple common sense,” if only to avoid the perception of bias, which is “vital for building an atmosphere of trust and credibility,” Janowski said.

The bill would require that a “chairman or officer” of a political town committee resign that position if he or she is “paid to provide services as an attorney” in the same town, to reduce “the potential for political bias that may affect legal advice.”

A partner in a South Windsor law firm, Cummings was appointed as special counsel in 2003 by former Republican Mayor Diane Wheelock. He served in that capacity for several years at the occasional request of former Town Attorney Joseph D. Courtney, a Democrat who went on to become the representative of the 2nd Congressional District, and former Democratic Mayor Ellen Marmer.

In 2006, the Republican Town Committee elected Cummings to be its chairman, and Mayor Jason L. McCoy appointed him as town attorney after McCoy’s election in 2007. Cummings replaced Democrat Susan Boyan, who now serves as assistant town attorney along with fellow Democrat Martin “Bo” Burke.

Minority Democrats at the time complained that Cummings’ dual roles posed a conflict of interest and rumblings to that effect have continued, but Cummings said their concerns have been overblown.

“They have a misunderstanding. … Most of these opinions and decisions that come across are pretty black and white, they’re pretty routine,” he said. “They think there’s a lot more political bias in town attorney opinions than there really is. And unlike in politics, lawyers’ ethics are strictly scrutinized,” Cummings added.

A statement Boyan made about the appointment in 2007 supports Cummings’ position that the role of town attorney is more mercenary than some might assume.

“I think people see this as a political appointment, but it’s really not a job that is politically driven,” Boyan said at the time. “It’ll be business as usual, with no surprises.”

Cummings also said that from a purely practical standpoint, he would be a fool to twist the law to suit Republican interests.

“I’m not going to mess around with my ability to practice law by writing some bogus opinion,” he said. “On the other hand, appreciating the sensitivities of the other side, that’s why we have Bo and Sue involved. Plus, they’re very good, competent attorneys with a wealth of knowledge.”

In an effort to assuage Democrats’ fears about political bias, Cummings said, he lets Boyan or Burke write the opinion when dealing with controversial issues, .

Concerns over Cummings’ influence in town matters had died down until prior to the election this past November, when Republican Councilman Mark Etre challenged Janowski in the 56th House District.

When Eastern Connecticut Health Network President Peter Karl announced in September that Rockville General Hospital would close its maternity ward, local leaders were baffled as to how such a move could take place without a public hearing.

Cummings, known for his acuity in wading through dense texts, spotted a critical provision in the budget bill state lawmakers had approved in May that allowed hospitals to add or eliminate services without government oversight.

The provision went unnoticed by Janowski and nearly everyone else at the Capitol.

A lobbying firm employed by Mayor Jason L. McCoy to protect the town’s interests at the state level also missed the addition, and was dismissed for the oversight.

But Etre, who had been scrambling to find a toehold in the race, used the tip from Cummings to blast Janowski’s abilities as a legislator on Oct. 30, just days before the election.

“You should read what you’re voting for,” Etre said, indicating he felt there was no excuse for Janowski not having read the bill in its entirety.

“I didn’t see it, to be frank with you, and neither did anybody else,” Janowski said at the time, pledging to propose legislation to undo the changes if re-elected.

Etre’s strategy to redirect residents’ resentment from ECHN to Janowski failed to prevent her from being elected to a sixth term. But now, Cummings said, Janowski is trying to get back at him for making her look inept.

“She blamed me because I was very vigorously working on Mark’s campaign,” Cummings said. “I just think it’s a cheap shot.”

But Janowski expressed surprise when told of Cummings’ assertions, saying it had been her understanding that McCoy was the one who alerted the media to the story via fax.

“Regardless, Mr. Cummings can rest assured that the bill would apply to all 169 towns equally,” Janowski said, adding that it wouldn’t affect Cummings anyway because the bill wouldn’t be retroactive.

It’s unclear whether Cummings is the only town attorney in the state who also leads a political committee, but the situation is uncommon.

“In order to get somebody, what you have to do is carefully craft the law so that it appears to be a generic law that applies to lots of folks, but when you sort through it, usually there’s only one person who’s affected,” Cummings said. “Of course, often there is some collateral damage. … But the fewer people who are in the targeted category, the more suspect the bill.”

McCoy also said the measure would limit his ability to pick a town attorney he thinks is best for the job. McCoy lauded Cummings’s work and said his record speaks for itself. “He’s a good attorney. If he wasn’t a good attorney I wouldn’t use him.”

And regardless of whether he’s forced to resign as the Republican chairman, Cummings said a change in title wouldn’t affect his efforts to help get fellow committee members elected.

“If they say I can’t be chairman of the Republican Town Committee, fine. I’ll be the Grand Poobah instead,” he said.

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