North Stonington finance board pick questioned, defended

North Stonington - Following allegations that Board of Finance Chairman Dan Spring was appointed to the board illegally, the town's law firm has said a strong argument can be made that the appointment is acceptable.

After losing an election to the board in November 2013, Spring was appointed to fill a vacancy created by the resignation of the recently re-elected Brent Woodward. The appointment took place during a regular meeting on Dec. 4 and was not included on the meeting's agenda. Spring became chairman during the board's Dec. 18 meeting. Woodward has since been reappointed to the board.

Resident Brian Rathbun called Spring's appointment into question in a Freedom of Information complaint filed Jan. 7, alleging that the town did not follow a state law regarding the appointment because it did not occur during a special meeting.

The town does not have a charter and instead follows state regulations. Connecticut General Statute 7-343 states that, should a Board of Finance vacancy arise, the remaining members shall appoint a successor "at a special meeting called by the chairman for that purpose."

"I think it's very simple," said Rathbun on Sunday. "It's nothing against Dan (Spring). I like Dan."

He said he filed the complaint - which asked for agendas and minutes regarding Spring's 2013 and 2010 appointments to the board, some of which appear to be missing from the public record or incomplete - because he wanted to make sure the town was on solid legal ground.

"I love the town and I don't want to see it make a big mistake," said Rathbun, who would have preferred that the Board of Finance hold a special meeting and reappoint Spring immediately following his Freedom of Information complaint. "I just believe we've got to be honest about the whole thing."

In a legal opinion sent to First Selectman Nicholas Mullane, Town Attorney Nicholas Kepple, admitted that "it is difficult to provide the town with definitive legal guidance on this issue," about which no court decisions exist.

Kepple, however, cited several cases in which Connecticut courts distinguished between "mandatory" and "directory" statutes. Directory statutes, wrote Kepple, are designed to keep proceedings in order and are meant as guidance rather than as binding laws.

He argued that Statute 7-343 is directory because it describes a procedure for an appointment and does not include any language that would invalidate an appointment should the statute not be directly followed.

The mention of a special meeting in the law "could, for all we know, have been a result of the legislature's recognition of the fact that in some small communities, outside the budget season, Board of Finance meet(s) only monthly and sometimes even less frequently," wrote Kepple.

Because Spring has voted on expenditures bonded by the town, some residents question if those votes are legal because of circumstances surrounding his appointment. Kepple recommended the town be guided by its bonding attorneys as to the legality of those votes.

As of last week, Mullane said he had not received an official decision from the bond counsel. Kepple's letter, however, said that in his conversations with the bond counsel, they supported his opinion.

On Sunday, Rathbun said he had not read the entire legal opinion but was skeptical of the attorney's attempt to distinguish between mandatory and directory statutes.

"It's black and white," said Rathbun. "I feel they're dancing around."

Rathbun, who is retired and lives on a small farm in town, seemed unsure whether he would continue to press the issue and bemused by all the "dancing" in response to his complaint.

"I'm just a neighbor saying, 'Hey, you made a mistake here," said Rathbun, who said he didn't want the issue to become political.


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