Legal and administrative costs at Town Hall and the Weston Public School District are rising from a torrent of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) demands, most from two residents who have also filed complaints with State agencies alleging misconduct in a budget referendum that was never actually held, and charge that a “cabal” governs Weston in secret, misleads the public, and “pre-orchestrated” budget approvals.
On June 3, after years of working to reduce Town staffing levels, the Board of Selectmen voted to request a $10,000 extra appropriation — probably just for starters — to hire a part-time staffer dedicated to handling document demands.
Costs are rising at the school district as well. As of March, the district has received at least 91 demands for thousands of pages of documents, most filed by Gregg and Jennifer Haythorn. Hundreds of staff hours have been spent in response.
In addition, taxpayer-borne legal costs, which Mr. Haythorn himself estimates to already be $50,000, are likely to rise as Town and school district officials defend charges that they have violated Freedom of Information and election laws.
In filings, correspondence, and social media posts, Mr. and Ms. Haythorn issue harsh personal attacks on a widening range of school administrators, Town officials, and committee members. They claim that their efforts have somehow saved taxpayers “$millions$.”
The attacks, usually confined to posts on a private social media page, came in for a rare public rebuke at a Board of Education meeting on May 17.
In the Public Comment section of the meeting, a statement by Mr. Haythorn was read into the record calling for the resignation of Board chair Tony Pesco.
Among other charges, Mr. Haythorn alleged that Dr. Pesco had somehow acted improperly by urging support among fellow Democrats for the Board of Education’s proposed budgets, somehow acted improperly by joining with First Selectman Chris Spaulding to also advocate Democratic support for the Town’s proposed budget, and somehow engaged in an “email as vote charade.”
The allegations had already been, and continue to be, leveled in complaints to the state’s Elections Enforcement Commission, along with one that recurs: that Dr. Pesco had “collaborated with the Town Administrator to withhold their knowledge from voters of $775,000 in documented cost savings from a change to the District's health insurance provider.”
It is false.
It was later repeated in a statement to the Board of Education by Ms. Haythorn and a resident named Travis Worrell. Despite the repetition, which continues, it remains false.
Town and school district officials did indeed “collaborate” to consider ways to possibly mitigate ever-rising health insurance premiums, including exploring whether the district might be able to withdraw from the State Partnership Plan that provides its increasingly expensive coverage.
$775,000 was one of several hypothetical coverage savings if a number of factors cooperated, not the least being the consent of labor unions. The district chose not to attempt a renegotiation of health coverage at the height of a pandemic.
While the Town Administrator found a way to at least cap Town premium increases for a few years and the district got somewhat lucky when rates rose somewhat less than expected, other potential saving opportunities have not yet materialized. Perhaps they will in the next round of district-union negotiations, but the extent of net cost reductions, if any, will also depend on the vagaries of the health insurance market at that time.
The Board responds
Immediately after hearing Mr. Haythorn’s latest accusations, Vice Chair Melissa Walker read a statement on behalf of the entire Board.
You can view and download the entire statement here. In parts, it reads:
“We feel compelled to underscore that this board has acted at all times in what it believes to be in the best interests of the students and families … To suggest anything to the contrary is irresponsible and slanderous.”
“Relying on snippets of email without consideration of nuance or context is deeply misleading and irresponsible. … The prior writer has had every opportunity to engage directly with members of the board, but prefers to attack us publicly.”
Regarding FOIA demands, “The prior writer asserts, ironically and seemingly without a modicum of self-awareness, that the Board is wasting taxpayer money by responding to his requests through counsel.” It goes on to explain why the advice of counsel is often needed.
“Finally, the seven of us feel compelled, not as board members but as parents and residents, to express our concern with the accelerating decline in civil discourse in the community. Grandstanding by the loud, angry few threatens to drown out the reasonable many, and public character assassinations risk the destruction of volunteerism and governance in Weston at a time when we need to pull together.”
It is hard to measure the extent, but the threat to volunteerism in town appears to be real. In recent weeks, we have heard from a number of people — on both sides of the political aisle — who question whether beginning or continuing to serve is worth the abuse many experience. It’s a threat because, to a very large degree, the town runs on volunteer power.
In November of 2020, Mr. and Ms. Haythorn filed a complaint with the Connecticut Elections Enforcement Commission regarding the Weston Annual Town Budget Meeting (ATBM) and Budget Referendum in 2020.
There was no ATBM or Budget Referendum in 2020.
That may be one reason the EEC dismissed the complaint out of hand, even before receiving objections prepared by attorneys for the Town and Board of Education.
Another reason may be that Mr. Haythorn chose not to complete a required section of the complaint form that specifies exactly which laws he believes were violated.
Mr. Haythorn filed a new, expanded complaint on May 22. In it, he says the required section in the previous filing was left “purposefully blank … conscious that complaint dismissal was a foregone conclusion. Perfunctory. We did so because Weston officials are our neighbors, most unpaid volunteers.”
By then, Mr. Haythorn knew that his taxpaying neighbors were already on the hook for at least $18,190 in fees incurred by the school district and $15,670 through March by the Town for legal services related to document demands and defense of the first EEC complaint. He had requested and been given copies of attorney invoices. In an email on May 13 to Superintendent William McKersie, he seemed to doubt that everything on the district side had been included, asking if the bills were “no more than $18,190 in total?”
In that same email, Mr. Haythorn again asserted that, “Whatever the total expense to date authorized in response to FOIA and EEC complaints, it is a small fraction of the $millions$ in secured and documented savings opportunities for WPS and the Town.”
Some of those claimed “$millions$” saved are “suspension of a planned $60,000,000 capital expense project.”
That is false. No capital project for anywhere near that amount has been proposed in any budget, ever, unless you go back to the roughly $80 million bonding package twenty years ago for school construction, which voters approved.
Mr. Haythorn began his first complaint by claiming “the First Selectperson independently canceled” the 2020 referendum.
That is false.
The Board of Selectmen as a whole unanimously voted to obey an executive order by Governor Ned Lamont to cancel public meetings and referenda and delegate final budget approval to the municipal budget authority, which in Weston and many towns is the Board of Finance. Mr. Lamont actually issued the order twice to remove all doubt of his intent.
Mr. Haythorn’s new EEC complaint is a mashup of accusations about the 2020 budget cycle, where there was no public vote, and this year’s process, where there was.
He recycles his accusation that $775,000 in health insurance savings was withheld from voters. He accuses officials of illegally “influencing public sentiment” in 2020 by informing the public of what a possible mill rate increase (which was not enacted) would mean to their tax bill and by asking town staff to look up the Referendum vote count in prior years.
The third bullet point in the summary of his complaint is “Etc.”
Mr. Haythorn also accuses a variety of officials of “conducting an illegitimate proxy FY21 budget referendum” because, in 2020, Board of Finance member Amy Gare took it upon herself to sort emails sent to the Board of Finance for its virtual public hearing and add up how many were for and against the proposed budgets.
In a Board meeting, Ms. Gare reported her analysis: that the percentages of those for and against were roughly the same as when actual ballots were cast in prior years, and urged her colleagues to take the input into account as an indicator of public sentiment. (This reporter’s take on the numbers, having examined the same emails, was approximately the same as Ms. Gare’s.)
Mr. Haythorn names Ms. Gare in his complaint and demands to know under what authority she tallied up public input and at whose command, alleging that it somehow amounted to an illegal “proxy referendum by email,” which also somehow makes invalid the outcome of the actual 2021 Referendum, where voters once again approved final budgets.
Quality, not quantity
Here is what happened next, regarding the emailed public input, at the Board of Finance: several members vowed to ignore it. Long-serving member Richard Bochinski put it most directly, although perhaps indelicately, saying he was more interested in the quality of the input than the quantity.
That didn’t go over well in some quarters.
However, Mr. Bochinski had a point. Many emails were thoughtful and fully expressed. But many were simple one-liners to the effect of either “I support the budgets as proposed” or “I support a 0% budget and 0% mill rate increase.” The former was a message apparently promoted by Democrats, the latter by Republicans. Rarely is the partisan divide so pronounced in town matters, except at election time, but tensions were high a year ago, as were fears of economic calamity.
Mr. Haythorn accuses First Selectman Spaulding, Selectwoman Samantha Nestor, Dr. Pesco, and others of somehow acting illegally by encouraging Democrats to urge Democratic members of the Board of Finance to approve the budgets they had proposed. For good measure, he throws in a private citizen, the First Selectman’s wife.
One person not pleased at all with the intra-party lobbying was Board of Finance chair Steve Ezzes. Mr. Ezzes wrote a blistering email rebuke to Dr. Spaulding, Ms. Nestor, and Dr. Pesco. His email also expressed disdain for social media posts by others that attacked Mr. Bochinski with more than a hint of ageism for his comment about ignoring emailed input.
That was the context of the message by Mr. Ezzes, not, as Mr. Haythorn often repurposes it, a condemnation of a budget process “that the BoF Chairperson himself has personally declared by his own voluntary admission to have been shameful and a new low.” Mr. Ezzes made no such “admission.” He led the approval process. He voted with the majority to pass the final proposals and keep the mill rate flat.
A broad, ever-widening range
Mr. and Ms. Haythorn are not the only ones who file FOIA demands for copies of correspondence and documents, but theirs appear unique in volume, frequency, and scope. A sampling of their filings:
A bit about FOIA
Technically, any request for records from a government agency — even a simple telephone call — is a Freedom of Information Act request. When an agency receives a formal, written request, officials are required to acknowledge it within four days and to respond promptly.
The Act does not define “promptly.” This is an acknowledgment that officials cannot drop all public business to search for and produce records, especially when the request involves a large number of documents.
Generally, all government documents are subject to public inspection. There are exceptions, the major ones being certain personnel matters, pending litigation, security, pending property transactions, and the contents of bids while bidding is open.
Correspondence relating to official business, even in private email accounts, is subject to disclosure, unless one of the exemptions applies.
When a citizen believes records have not been produced, or not in his or her opinion “promptly,” a complaint can be filed with the Freedom of Information Commission. The Commission often offers to mediate the dispute. Failing resolution that way, the matter is docketed for a hearing.
Several complaints by Mr. Haythorn have been docketed by the Commission. Hearings have not yet been scheduled. In the meantime, claims and insinuations that the Commission has compelled the Town to renew its search for records are false. However, the search for records from previous and recent demands continues. The likely prospect of more demands to come prompted the Selectmen to request more resources to fulfill them.
The Board of Education did itself no favors by choosing how members communicated serially to draft the statement eventually read in open session by Ms. Walker. There are ways to do so, all cumbersome, that adhere to open government regulations. The Board chose one that did not. Dr. Pesco issued a letter acknowledging so, with an apology to the community. You can view and download it here.