Preston directs lawyer to review referendum issues

Preston - Lingering questions and ill feelings about alleged election law violations surrounding the Nov. 27 referendum defeat of a proposed $8 million loan package for the former Norwich Hospital cleanup will be reviewed by the town's law firm.

Residents defeated the $8 million loan package, 319-261, on Nov. 27, and three weeks later approved a $4 million loan for the former hospital cleanup, 304-251.

Supporters of the first referendum proposal accused four members of the Board of Finance with violating state election laws by campaigning against the package during the final weekend before the vote. Norman Gauthier, Jerry Grabarek, Kenneth Zachem and Andrew Bilodeau co-signed opinion pieces in newspapers, and Gauthier distributed fliers urging residents to "vote NOvember 27" on the referendum.

Gauthier last week told the Board of Selectmen that he believed both the Preston Redevelopment Agency and First Selectman Robert Congdon also violated election laws. In the weeks prior to the first referendum, the PRA held public informational sessions explaining the loan package and how the money would be spent. Gauthier objected to those sessions and accompanying written materials.

After the selectmen meeting, Congdon said Gauthier's statement was "the first I've heard of" any complaint against his or the PRA's actions. The PRA sent all written materials and the computer projector presentation to the town attorney and state Elections Enforcement office for review and approval prior to the public meetings, Congdon said.

The time period has passed for either side to file formal elections complaints with state officials, and none of the parties wanted to seek fines or legal rulings against the town or agency members.

But the Board of Selectmen agreed to forward the accusations and information to the town's law firm, Halloran & Sage, for review and opinion. In his motion, Selectman Timothy Bowles directed the law firm to spend up to 10 hours looking into the conduct of all parties involved in the referendum.

"It's worth us having a third-party review without spending an inordinate amount of time on it," Bowles said.

PRA member William Legler objected to Gauthier's claims.

"I find it absurd that anybody who put out a flier saying 'vote no' would consider somebody in violation of state election laws," Legler told selectmen.


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