Sweetman v. St. Elections Enforcement Comm'n Bd. of Educ.

Decision Date22 June 1999
Parties(Conn. 1999) CHARLES F. SWEETMAN, JR. v. STATE ELECTIONS ENFORCEMENT COMMISSION BOARD OF EDUCATION OF REGIONAL SCHOOL DISTRICT NUMBER 17 ET AL. v. STATE ELECTIONS ENFORCEMENT COMMISSION 15919, 15920
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court

John C. Yavis, Jr., with whom were Kari L. Olson and, on the brief, Joseph P. Fasi, for the appellant in the first case (plaintiff Charles F. Sweetman, Jr.). Charles L. Howard, with whom were Sheila A. Huddleston and, on the brief, Alisa N. Fay, for the appellants in the second case (plaintiff board of education of Regional School District Number 17 et al.). Gregory T. D'Auria, assistant attorney general, with whom were Jeffrey Garfield, Joan Andrews and, on the brief, Richard Blumenthal, attorney general, and Carolyn K. Querijero, assistant attorney general, for the appellee in both cases (defendant state elections enforcement commission). Patrice McCarthy and Joan G. Libby filed a brief for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education et al. as amici curiae.

Callahan, C. J., and Borden, Berdon, Palmer and Ronan, Js.

Berdon, J.

OPINION

This consolidated appeal calls upon us to resolve a number of issues surrounding the expenditure of public funds by the plaintiffs, the board of education of Regional School District Number 17 (board), certain individual members of the board, and Charles F. Sweetman, Jr., the superintendent and chief executive officer of the board (collectively, the plaintiffs). 1 In broad strokes, the plaintiffs used public funds to print and distribute a pamphlet discussing an upcoming referendum on the budget that the board had proposed (pamphlet). The defendant, the state elections enforcement commission (commission), determined that this pamphlet improperly advocated an affirmative vote on the referendum in violation of General Statutes §§ 9-369b. 2 Accordingly, the commission directed the plaintiffs to (1) "strictly comply" with §§ 9-369b and (2) reimburse the district for $2573.68, the cost of printing and mailing the pamphlet. In addition, the commission imposed a civil penalty of $1000 on Sweetman. The trial court dismissed the plaintiffs' appeals from these orders. 3 We decline the plaintiffs' invitation to disturb this ruling.

The commission found the following facts. "By letter dated June 8, 1996 . . . [a] complainant requested that the [commission] investigate [the pamphlet, which was] mailed to households in Regional School District No. 17 [district] at public expense by the [board] in April [of] 1996 concerning an upcoming referendum . . . ." The complainant alleged a violation of §§ 9-369b (a), which prohibits the "expenditure of state or municipal funds . . . to influence . . . vote[s] . . . ." 4

The district "is solely comprised of the towns of Haddam and Killingworth. . . . [A]t all times relevant to this [appeal], the [board] was comprised of the following ten members: Helen Reeve, Jeannetta U. Coley, Robert H. Lentz, Robert J. Bilafer, Edward A. Vynalek, Anne E. Wolak, Rebecca L. Bergeron, Michael F. Dagostino, Robert S. Daves and James E. Sheppard. . . . [T]he town of Haddam has six members and the town of Killingworth has four members on [the] board, in accordance with each town's percentage of population in the total district."

"[A]ll members of the board are members of the budget subcommittee." This subcommittee "met on February 29, 1996, with . . . Reeve, Lentz, Coley, Sheppard, Wolak and Sweetman present, and discussed the . . . [pamphlet]. . . . [T]he budget subcommittee of the board met again on April 4, 1996, with . . . Reeve, Lentz, Coley, Bergeron, Daves, and Vynalek present, and discussed the [pamphlet]." "[A]t its April 9, 1996 meeting, the [board] voted to adopt the legal call for the district['s] annual meeting on May 6, 1996, and to set the voting hours for a referendum on the budget for May 7, 1996. . . . [T]he budget subcommittee of the board met on April 16, 1996, with . . . Reeve, Lentz, Bilafer and Sweetman present, [and] discussed, finalized and approved the [pamphlet] for distribution to households in the district. . . ."

"[T]he format of the [pamphlet was] based upon that of previous flyers, including an introductory letter authored by . . . Lentz as budget chairman. The introductory letter went through several drafts, and in response to [the] suggestion that it was too strong, a specific exhortation to vote for the budget was removed from the first draft. . . ."

"[B]y letter dated April 18, 1996 . . . Sweetman sent the completed budget [pamphlet] to . . . Reeve, chair of the board, disavowed any responsibility for the [pamphlet] and indicated that it would be sent to the printer no later than April 19, 1996 unless she instructed him otherwise. . . . Neither the [board] nor [Sweetman] had the [pamphlet] reviewed by an attorney prior to its mailing. . . ."

"[P]rior to the referendum vote on May 7, 1996, the approximately 4800 households within the district received the twelve page [pamphlet], which included charts, graphs, a question and answer section, and statements such as: `We need to set aside monies for such basic capital improvements as roof and oil tank replacement and black top resurfacing. . . . It is imperative to maintain our facilities. . . . Please think for a minute of your own budget over the last few years. Have you or your friends had an increase in income to keep pace with inflation? If not, how did you or they cope? What did you cut or adjust? . . . [W]e on the board are faced with the same realities. . . . We look forward to a high turnout at the polls. We need voter participation to validate our educational priorities and directions. . . . [T]he budget [pamphlet] cost $1,950 to print and $623.68 to mail, and such printing and distribution was at the expense of the school district."

Based upon its independent review of the pamphlet, the commission concluded that, "taken as a whole, [the pamphlet] advocates an affirmative referendum vote. It was issued days before the referendum was held and repeatedly refers to the referendum, the difficulty the district experienced with a zero percent budget increase the previous year and the need for repairs and maintenance of school facilities. It further states that `in recommending this budget, the [board] is attempting to strengthen the District's present level of education' and encourages voter turnout to `validate our educational priorities.' . . . [T]aken as a whole, the [pamphlet] has the effect of influencing a person to vote in favor of the referendum." (Emphasis added.) The commission further concluded that the board "approved the [pamphlet] for printing and distribution, and that [Sweetman] is administratively and professionally responsible for sending the [pamphlet] to households within the district." Accordingly, the commission found that the "board, its individual members, and [Sweetman] violated [§§ 9-369b] by authorizing the expenditure of municipal funds to prepare, reproduce, and distribute the [pamphlet]." The commission characterized this violation as "a serious offense."

With respect to Sweetman's responsibility for distributing the pamphlet, the commission explained that he had previously "taken decisive action to stop the board from committing what he felt would be a violation of the General Statutes (the freedom of information laws) by locking them out of a designated meeting place." Moreover, the commission emphasized that Sweetman was "under prior order of the commission to ensure the district's compliance with [§§ 9-369b], pursuant to two prior cases . . . ." 5

With respect to the board's responsibility for distributing the pamphlet, the commission explained that "seven of the ten present board members were board members at the time the Commission approved [a] consent agreement and order with . . . Sweetman [consent order]. 6 . . . The board members were: Helen Reeve, James E. Sheppard, Robert J. Bilafer, Robert S. Daves, Edward A. Vynalek, Anne E. Wolak and Michael F. Dagostino. . . . [I]n October [of] 1995, board members were informed of the consent [order] by the then chairman in a board meeting, and by press release distributed to board members. A copy of the consent agreement and order itself was distributed to the four board officers, which at the time included . . . Bilafer and Sheppard. . . . Board members' testimony to the contrary that they were unaware of the [consent order] is improbable, at best.

"It is found that . . . Sweetman and the seven board members identified . . . above, have not demonstrated good faith in attempting to comply with the provisions of [§§ 9-369b]."

Based upon the foregoing findings and Conclusions, the commission issued the following order:

"1. The [plaintiffs] shall henceforth strictly comply with the prohibition in [§§ 9-369b] and shall ensure that no expenditure of municipal funds shall be made to influence any person to vote for approval or disapproval of a referendum question."

"2. The [plaintiffs] shall henceforth not distribute any information concerning a referendum vote without the approving opinion of counsel that such distribution is not in violation of [§§ 9-369b]."

"3. . . . Robert H. Lentz, Jeannetta U. Coley and Rebecca L. Bergeron are reprimanded for the above-cited violation of [§§ 9-369b]."

"4. . . . Sweetman and the . . . board members who served on the board at the time the consent agreement and order were adopted . . . shall reimburse the district for the cost of the printing and distribution of the [pamphlet], $2573.68, to be allocated equally among such eight individual [plaintiffs]. Helen Reeve, James E. Sheppard, Robert J. Bilafer, Robert S. Daves, Edward A. Vynalek, Anne E. Wolak, Michael F. Dagostino, and Charles F. Sweetman, Jr., shall each remit the amount of three hundred and twenty-one dollars and seventy-one cents ($321.71) to the district within thirty days of the adoption of the final decision in...

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