Judge denies protective order in Preston registrars' dispute
With references to calls for political civility expressed last week at the funerals for President George H.W. Bush, New London Superior Court Judge Emmett Cosgrove denied a request for a civil protective order following a two-hour court hearing in the bitter relationship between two Preston election officials.
Current Democratic Registrar of Voters Cheryl Roberts had filed an application for civil protective order against former Republican Registrar Norman Gauthier, the current Republican Town Committee chairman, citing numerous incidents of alleged intimidation and harassment.
At the end of two hours of testimony during a hearing Monday on Roberts’ application, Cosgrove paused for several seconds before making his ruling. He said the evidence did not show the required two or more incidents of alleged threats to physical harm to Roberts. But he acknowledged she likely felt fear of potential physical harm.
Cosgrove called their bickering “junior high school behavior.” And while he denied the civil protective order, Cosgrove noted that Roberts’ term as Democratic registrar ends in early January. He implored the two parties to avoid each other for the next month.
“It doesn’t sound like you have any need to contact each other over the next month,” Cosgrove said.
He said he couldn’t stop Gauthier from continuing to closely monitor Roberts’ operations in the registrars’ office, but any input he provided most likely would lead to more disputes between the two.
“I see things that don’t make you proud to see how public officials are conducting themselves,” Cosgrove said in general about the atmosphere of political rancor in the nation. He quickly added that he admires those who serve in local government.
Cosgrove reflected on repeated comments made during Bush’s funerals last week that Bush could have resolute political disagreements with political opponents, but still respect them personally and professionally.
“It’s pretty clear from your testimony and from Mr. Gauthier’s testimony,” Cosgrove said to Roberts, “that you don’t get along, don’t treat each other with respect.”
Following the hearing and Cosgrove’s ruling and request that the two avoid each other, Gauthier said he had planned to “follow closely” the actions of a committee formed to recommend whether the town should move its polling place — Roberts is on the committee — but said he would stay away from any meetings in the near future. Roberts said no meetings are scheduled for the committee at this time.
During the hearing, Gauthier denied the allegations Roberts raised of bullying and intimidation and told Cosgrove he believed Roberts filed the application in retaliation for a letter he wrote to Secretary of the State Denise Merrill outlining their ongoing acrid relationship and to seek mediation. Gauthier said that action led to Roberts’ not being endorsed for election as registrar last summer.
Roberts petitioned for a primary but lost to registrar-elect Karen Stockton. Although a Republican, Gauthier actively campaigned for Stockton during the primary.
For much of the hearing, Roberts recounted numerous confrontations over the past year she said showed his hostility and intimidation. A year ago in November, Gauthier witnessed a heated, obscenity-laced argument between Roberts and then-Republican Registrar Lennie Spencer in which Roberts alleged Spencer backed her against a tall filing cabinet in the cramped registrars’ office at Town Hall. She said Gauthier, the deputy registrar at the time, did nothing to stop what she called an assault.
On Feb. 6, during a town referendum, Roberts said “it was fight after fight” all day between herself and Gauthier. Roberts alleged that Gauthier at one point poked her in the back hard enough to cause her to stumble forward a few steps. Gauthier told Cosgrove “I never laid a finger on her.”
Spencer resigned as Republican registrar, and Gauthier assumed the role as Republican registrar. Roberts said Gauthier removed how-to manuals from the registrars’ office, locked computers and took other actions to obstruct her work. First Selectman Robert Congdon attempted to intervene in March to no avail.
She refused to work with him in the office and told the judge she sometimes went to Town Hall at 6:30 a.m. to avoid working with him.
In June, Gauthier had taken a monthlong vacation and failed to arrange for Republican coverage of the town budget referendum. She filed an elections complaint against him with the state Elections Enforcement Commission. Since Gauthier resigned at the end of June, the commission dismissed the complaint, but with strong wording that his potentially negligent actions would have been referred to the Secretary of the State’s office if he had remained in office.
Gauthier filed his own election complaint against Roberts and current Republican Registrar Desiree Majchier alleging the Town Hall polling place does not meet the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. That complaint is pending with the Elections Enforcement Commission.