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New London - Seeking information about downtown parking and a recent shooting, Councilor Martin T. Olsen stopped by the police department last week to speak with Chief Margaret Ackley.
Ackley was unavailable, but later emailed Olsen to tell him that Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio had ordered her to refer all questions about law enforcement to his office.
The email brought to the surface a tension between Olsen, the council's sole Republican, and the mayor's office, and prompted questions about the lines of communication between the City Council, the mayor's office and the city's department heads.
At Monday's City Council meeting, Olsen asked Chief Administrative Officer Laura Natusch, who represented the mayor's office at the meeting in the absence of Finizio, if the mayor has issued a "gag order" on department heads.
"There is not a gag order for department heads," Natusch said. "I believe that all along department heads have been instructed that they may provide information to councilors if authorized by the mayor."
Natusch said the mayor had amended his order to allow department heads to provide councilors with information relevant to council committee work. She said she does not believe Finizio has ever denied any councilor access to any department head.
"I think that's outrageous that a city councilor cannot go to the police department and ask the police chief for information regarding a constituent query," Olsen said Monday.
Later, he added, "I find it to be a bit over the top that a city councilor, or any citizen of New London, can't ask the chief of police questions without going through the mayor."
Natusch said the mayor recently sent Police Chief Margaret Ackley an email "that reiterated not to speak to councilors without being authorized.
Natusch declined to provide The Day with a copy of that email without it first being requested under the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act. The Day has filed a formal request for the public document.
Finizio was not available for comment.
The email, Natusch said, "was a clarification of something in the city charter where communications between department heads and councilors flows through the mayor's office."
She cited Section 40 of the charter, which reads in part, "Except for the purpose of inquiry, the council and its members shall deal with the administrative service solely through the mayor's office..."
She also cited charter sections 39 and 73, which concern the powers of the mayor and the composition of the police force, respectively.
Olsen said other department heads have told him that he could contact them directly "to ensure that we have clarity" if he has any questions.
He said it was not made clear to him "whether this gag order is reflective of the entire council or if it is just particular councilors."
"I would hate to think that it is partisan," Olsen said.
Ackley, when reached by email, said she "can not comment per order of the mayor" and directed all questions to the attorney representing her in her ongoing lawsuit against the city.
Ackley's attorney, Leon Rosenblatt, did not return a call seeking comment Friday. Natusch, citing the lawsuit Ackley has lodged against the city, referred questions specifically about Ackley to the city's attorney, Jeffrey T. Londregan.
Other city councilors said getting information from department heads has not been a serious hindrance to doing their jobs as councilors.
"The chief had also told me at one time that she needed some kind of pre-arrangement with the mayor to talk to me," Councilor Anthony Nolan, who is also a city police officer, said. "But the mayor corrected that and said that he just wanted things to go through his office because he didn't want councilors' questions to disrupt the daily duties (of department heads.)"
Nolan said his questions were answered within 24 hours and that the delay was because Ackley was busy, not because Finizio had barred her from responding.
Councilor Michael J. Tranchida said he has not been affected by the policy, but "could see where other councilors would get frustrated by it."
"I would like to see the mayor discontinue that policy, if it is a policy between him and the police chief or deputy chief, I would like to see him sit down with the council and hash this out," Tranchida said. "We're too small of a city to have these roadblocks between departments because we all have to work together."