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Lawyers Hail Metro Center Ruling

The following is a statement from Fairfield attorneys George R. Bisacca and Edward J. Kunin, who represent a group known as Concerned Citizens in their suit challenging First Selectman Ken Flatto's removal of a conservation official in the Metro Center construction project. This week, a Bridgeport judge ruled in favor of the group, saying Flatto's actions were illegal based on both the town's charter and state law. For more information, see TheDailyFairfield's article on the ruling.

We are elated with the decision of Judge Arnold, but we are not surprised. It was perfectly clear from day one that the action of First Selectman Flatto in removing the town's Conservation Director, Thomas Steinke, from his duty of general supervision on the train station project was in direct defiance of the Town Charter and obviously illegal. The Charter clearly and unambiguously requires that any consultant or wetlands compliance officer appointed to perform the duties of the Conservation Commission or the town Inland Wetlands Agency must be subject to the general supervision of the conservation director. Given the complexity of environmental problems, this requirement is essential to protect the town's interests.

Under Connecticut law, the requirements of the Town Charter for such appointments must be strictly followed. Failure to do so renders the appointment illegal. Mr. Flatto has therefore violated the laws of both the town and the state.

As important as this decision is to protect the town's interests in the proper supervision over the serious environmental issues to be addressed in the completion of the train station project, it is much more important on another level that far exceeds those issues.

The history of this case is a classic example of political power being abused by those in authority. Rarely is the public made aware of just how far such abuses are carried. Just witness the following history.

The first abuse was that of Mr. Flatto in removing Mr. Steinke from his Charter-given authority of general supervision over consultants and the wetlands compliance officer. Not only was this action an illegal abuse of his authority, it was an indefensible smear on the integrity of a dedicated town official. So also was Flatto's repeated denigration of the plaintiffs as politically motivated, silly people whose complaints had no basis in law, a position with which the judge disagreed.

Flatto's clear violation of the law was then defended by his personally appointed Town Attorney, Richard Saxl, despite the fact it was Flatto's position that had no basis in the law. Saxl also echoed Flatto's repeated denigrations of the plaintiffs, even characterizing their attorney as "wrong, wrong, wrong" in his view of the law.

Next, the Conservation Commission was then called upon to pass on Flatto's illegal action. The clear illegality of Flatto's action was brought to the attention of the commission. Nevertheless, a majority of the commission, all appointed by Flatto, voted to ratify his action, the basis of which, according to Flatto, was the repeated complaints of the developer, Blackrock Realty, against Mr. Steinke's application of town regulations. Incredibly, this majority decided to remove Steinke from his general supervision authority without any evidence before it since Blackrock never appeared before the commission to voice its complaints.

Faced with these obstacles, the plaintiffs appealed to the Fairfield Ethics Commission, a supposedly impartial body set up to review complaints concerning the abuse of governmental powers. The Ethics Commission went to the unusual length of hiring an outside attorney, at substantial public expense, to represent it in its review of the plaintiffs' complaints. Despite the fact that the plaintiffs raised issues of possible Charter violations by Flatto and Saxl, the decision of the commission exonerating Flatto never addressed those issues. If that wasn't bad enough, their written decision actually went so far as to alter documentary evidence produced by the plaintiffs and even to mischaracterize the language of the Charter, all to suit its own purposes.

Undaunted by these obstacles, the plaintiffs were forced to go to court to enforce the law of the town and the state, where they were finally vindicated by the court's decision in their favor.

For the plaintiffs then, the real importance of this case is that it disproves the old adage that "You can't fight city hall." Yes you can! But you need stamina to expose wrong-doing where you see it. It's your town and your interests that are at stake.

The result of this shoddy history of governmental abuse is that the town has been deprived of the proper supervision of environmental issues relating to the train station project. There can be no excuse for Mr. Flatto to persist in the illegal conduct described in the court's decision. The train station project must be completed as soon as possible, but it must be completed correctly and in compliance with town regulations. The town must be protected by removing all obstacles to the exercise of the conservation director's Charter-given authority of general supervision over all personnel charged with performing the duties of the Conservation Commission and the town Inland Wetlands Agency.

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