Law firm steers clear of Preston referendum dispute

Preston - The town's law firm will not weigh in on whether town officials or agencies acted improperly prior to the Nov. 27 referendum that rejected an $8 million loan package to clean up the former Norwich Hospital property, deferring the matter to state election officials.

The Board of Selectmen had asked Halloran & Sage to review allegations that members of the Board of Finance might have violated state election laws by campaigning against the ballot question. Finance board member Norman Gauthier countered with a question of whether the Board of Selectmen and the Preston Redevelopment Agency also might have violated election laws.

Attorney Duncan Forsyth informed First Selectman Robert Congdon that the firm would not address the allegations forwarded to him. Contrary to selectmen's previous understanding, Forsyth said town officials have not missed any deadline for the state Elections Enforcement Commission to hear a complaint.

Selectman Timothy Bowles said he would have preferred a less formal review without possible punitive action against town officials or agencies. Gauthier agreed and said he didn't yet know if he would file a formal complaint to Elections Enforcement.

Either way, Congdon will invite state Freedom of Information Commission education officer Thomas Hennick to meet with the agencies involved to discuss whether any actions might have violated FOI laws. The session with Hennick is not yet scheduled.

Just prior to the Nov. 27 referendum, Gauthier and three other Board of Finance members - a quorum of that agency - co-wrote opinion pieces published in local newspapers criticizing the loan package. Gauthier printed and distributed fliers to residents urging them to "Vote NOvember 27."

The $8 million loan package was defeated, but a month later, residents approved a $4 million loan package for the hospital property.

Gauthier objected to public information meetings and a computer presentation by the PRA outlining the loan package. But Congdon said the presentation, the meetings and all written materials distributed by the PRA were submitted to the Elections Enforcement Commission for review and approval ahead of time.

Gauthier said last week he submitted a letter objecting to Halloran & Sage doing the town's review of the allegations, because the firm also approved the PRA materials. But on Thursday, Gauthier said he preferred a non-punitive review to the more formal state complaint process.

c.bessette@theday.com

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