NEWINGTON – A group of residents is suing the town for violating their rights as citizens by raising the cost of the Town Hall project by $2.8 million.
They’re alleging that voters in a November 2017 referendum sanctioned a $28.8 million project – not the $31.1 million Guaranteed Maximum Price (GMP) the Town Council moved forward in March. This is a triple violation of the town charter, according to a lawsuit filed by attorney Timothy Herbst in Connecticut Superior Court on Tuesday, June 4.
The 13 plaintiffs have made a case against the Town of Newington, specifically, Town Manager Tanya Lane, Town Clerk James Krupienski, Mayor Roy Zartarian and the Town Council. They are seeking a court hearing to cease construction until further notice and hold another referendum, for voters to sanction the new cost if they see fit.
“The plaintiffs believe there exist at least three separate violations of the town charter and are seeking to have a court not only enforce the charter but issue a mandamus directing the town to schedule another referendum,” Herbst explained.
The group will have its day in court, but when exactly has yet to be determined.
“It was filed electronically with Superior Court today so it’s a question of when we will be assigned a date,” Herbst said Tuesday.
His firm, Cohen and Wolf, is based in Orange, where he practices municipal, land use and zoning law.
“We have never dealt with an issue like this specifically, but our firm is very well versed in mandamus relief,” Herbst said. “We’ve represented municipalities before and we’ve brought actions against municipalities before.”
The suit’s first named plaintiff is Michael Camillo, a member of the Town Plan & Zoning Commission and owner of West Hill Automotive Truck & Trailer in Newington. The other plaintiffs include Dana Havens, an administrator of the popular What’s Happening in Newington Facebook page. Many of those posting to the private page over recent weeks and months are discussing the controversy.
The lawsuit references Sec. C-408 of the charter, requiring voters to approve a special appropriation exceeding $975,000. It also refers to Sec. C-303, dictating the responsibility of the Town Attorney to represent the Council and other town boards and commissions.
Town Attorney Ben Ancona’s legal opinion advised against appropriating the $2.8 million without voters’ consent.
“I believe it would be illegal to circumvent the obligations of our Charter and the intent of the electors by applying taxpayer funds from other accounts to exceed $28.8 million without the prior further consent of the voters,” Ancona said.
Lane sought a second opinion from Attorney Richard Roberts, who had a different take on the matter.
“While there may have been an understanding by voters reading the explanatory text that the project would not cost more than that amount,” Roberts said, “such an interpretation does not prevent the Town Council from exercising its independent powers under the charter to make additional appropriations if necessary.”
The lawsuit alleges that it was illegal for Lane to seek and follow this second opinion.
Residents are torn over the issue, some taking the side of the plaintiffs and others wanting the long-awaited project to continue despite the overage.
During a Feb. 19 meeting, the council was urged by dozens of citizens to approve more than a half-million dollars for a gym expansion and equipment in the new community center. These are two of the items that went on to raise the final cost. One letter was signed by 39 families endorsing the double-gym, which they agreed is necessary for youth basketball.
“If we are going to develop an awesome, vibrant, new community center and town hall, do it right,” the group urged.
On March 12, the council voted 6-3 to raise the GMP. The lawsuit alleges that “this improperly contravened Ancona’s legal opinion and relied on the unauthorized legal opinion provided by Roberts.”
The second count alleges, “By failing to follow Ancona’s legal advice and violating the relevant provisions of the charter, the defendants have denied the plaintiffs the right to exercise their constitutional rights as concerned citizens and taxpayers to vote on issues of public concern involving taxpayer dollars. ...Those rights will be forever denied and lost, causing the plaintiffs and all other electors to suffer irreparable harm.”
Erica Drzewiecki can be reached at 860-801-5097 or email@example.com.