KILLINGWORTH — Eileen Blewett has been a member of the Region 17 Board of Education since she was elected in 2017. She has also been Killingworth’s only Republican selectman since she was elected to the Board of Selectman in 2019.
Blewett earned the votes for both seats in 2019, and this year she is running again for re-election to both seats – hoping to keep her seat on the Board of Education and join a presumptive Republican First Selectwoman in a 2-1 majority on the Board of Selectmen.
But this time, if she wins both elections, say Blewett can only be seated for one, according to a recent opinion from Town Attorney David Tycz that holding both seats is a violation of the town charter.
The Killingworth Republican Town Committee has disputed that legal advice, and has promised to challenge it in court. Blewett told CT Examiner that, while she respected Tycz, his opinion was just that – an opinion, not a settled fact of the law.
RTC Vice Chair Laura Lefkoe said she believed the situation was a political move meant to keep Democrats in the majority on the Board of Selectmen despite not running a candidate for First Selectman.
“It’s been intimated that Eileen is a power-hungry person. I have to tell you, Eileen is one of the most selfless people this town will ever know,” Lefkoe said. “She was asked by the Republican Town Committee two years ago to run for Board of Selectmen. She was asked to do it, and she stepped up and did it.”
Democrats say the legal opinion was simply the result of Town Clerk Dawn Mooney asking Tycz a follow-up question about an earlier opinion he gave the town, and that there was no political agenda behind it. Mooney is currently running for reelection as a Democrat with cross endorsement of the Republican party.
Democratic Town Committee Chair Annie Stirna said she believes having one person serve on both the Board of Selectmen and Board of Education is a conflict of interest because the regional school budget makes up such a large portion of what Killingworth residents pay in property taxes.
“I’m not sure that I could reconcile being in both, where you’re working on the Board of Selectmen to save money for the town and put together the best budget you can, and then you’re on the board of ed as chair of the Finance Committee, wanting to get as much money as you can for the board from the town,” Stirna said.
While that issue appears to be headed to the courts for a resolution, the conflicting legal opinions have embroiled the Board of Selectmen, which had a tense moment during their Tuesday night meeting before moving into a closed executive session to discuss the matter with Tycz.
Reached Monday morning, First Selectman Cathy Iino said only that the closed discussion was related to the composition of the Board of Selectmen.
Before going into executive session at the Tuesday meeting, Selectmen Lou Annino said that he agreed with Tycz’s opinion, and said having the same person serve on both the Board of Selectmen and Board of Education didn’t pass the “sniff test” and was a clear conflict of interest.
But Amino appeared conflicted over whether the board should adjourn into closed session, and took a long pause before finally agreeing to move their discussion behind closed doors.
“Given that we’re at an impasse, I think that this board can no longer do the business of the people as long as we are in this position of questionable authority,” Annino said before the executive session. “And so, I suggest we be prepared to take no further action until this gets taken care of.”
An opinion from Town Attorney David Tycz written on Sept. 9 advised that, while there was nothing preventing Blewett from running for both the Board of Selectmen and Board of Education, Tycz wrote that his reading of the town charter was that she could not hold both positions at the same time.
Section 6 of the charter states that: “No member of the Board of Selectmen shall, during his/her term in office, hold or be appointed to any other office, board, commission or position of employment in the government of Killingworth, except as may be specifically provided for in other sections of this Charter.”
Tycz said being a member of the Region 17 School District Board of Education – shared by Killingworth and Haddam – is an official position where Blewett acts as a “conduit” for the “municipal control” of Killingworth on the regional school board.
Tycz cited a 1980 Connecticut Supreme Court case where Cheshire challenged James McKenney’s right to hold a town council seat while also working as a teacher in the town’s public school system. The court ruled that, as an employee of the school district, McKenney was an employee of the town, and so holding a seat of the town council was in violation of the Cheshire town charter.
“If employment by the school board as a teacher was deemed a government position in the McKenney case, it is only reasonable that a court would find that membership on a school board itself would be within the town government,” Tycz wrote.
David Cutillo, the attorney for the Killingworth Republican Town Committee, responded with his own opinion on Sept. 28, arguing that Blewett could hold both seats, as the Board of Education is not a town position.
Cutillo noted that the town charter defines “board” as all boards, commissions and committees “established by town ordinance or by [the town] Charter and having an administrative or executive function in the town.” Because the school district was formed by state statute and a multi-town referendum, it doesn’t fit the definition, he wrote.
Cutillo also disputed that the Cheshire v. McKenney case applied, as Blewett is a volunteer member of the school board, and not a teacher or any other employee of the school district.
The cover letter to Cutillo’s opinion, signed by Cutillo and RTC Chair Karen Vecchitto, called for the town to rescind Tycz’s opinion, and said the committee was “prepared to go forward with legal action against all responsible parties both in their professional capacities and personally.”
Tycz did not rescind his opinion, and confirmed that he believed it stood up to Cutillo’s rebuttal in another letter to the Republican Town Committee. The conflicting opinions led to a tense moment at the Killingworth Board of Selectmen meeting on Monday as the board debated whether to go into executive session to discuss another opinion Tycz wrote on Tuesday, which Iino called “privileged attorney-client” communications.
Citing “legal issues pending,” Blewett asked to bring her own attorney, Andy O’Neill into the executive session. Iino and Tycz said that would not be appropriate because Tycz was going to be discussing information with the Board of Selectmen as his clients.
Charter revision false start leads to legal questions
Both sides agree the conflict began with the town’s Charter Revision Commission, as Blewett questioned this July whether there were more town officials on that board than allowed by state statute.
Tycz gave a legal opinion that the commission did, in fact, have too many town officials, and the commission was dissolved. After receiving that memo on Aug. 7, Iino said Town Clerk Dawn Mooney asked Tycz for an opinion on whether one person could hold seats on both the Board of Selectmen and Board of Education. Tycz returned with a memo answering that question on Sept. 9 – finding that they could not.
Laura Lefkoe, vice chair of the Killingworth Republican Town Committee, told CT Examiner she believes Tycz’s opinion came out of the Charter revision controversy, but she believes it was politically motivated.
Lefkoe said the town had a “bee in their bonnet” that Blewett’s questioning ended that iteration of the charter review commission, which had been exploring a possible expansion of the Board of Selectmen to five members – including up to four members of one party.
“They didn’t need to get the original legal opinion [about the Charter Revision Commission]. There were five, at least, town officials on that committee, and they could only have two per state statute. All they had to do was look at the statute,” Lefkoe said. “All we wanted to do was get fair representation of Republicans on the committee.”
Lefkoe said she believed the town Democrats were trying to make sure they kept a two-seat majority on the Board of Selectmen. The Democratic Town Committee did not put forward a candidate to replace Iino – Stirna said there was no one willing to fill her shoes at this point, but they expect there will be for the next election in two years. That leaves Republican Candidate Nancy Gorski as Iino’s presumptive replacement.
“They never challenged this for two years,” Lefkoe said. “They didn’t challenge it in the last election, and now when they no longer have a candidate for first selectman, the Democrats have made an issue out of it.”
Town Clerk Dawn Mooney said she asked for the opinion from Tycz because his opinion that there were too many town officials on the Charter Revision Commission referenced a member of the Board of Education. Mooney said she emailed Tycz to clarify whether he meant a school board member was a town official, and Tycz said he had not researched that specifically.
“So I asked him to research it, because it’s my job,” Mooney said. “So the second legal opinion came about as a result of the first.”
Mooney said nobody raised any complaints when Blewett first ran for Board of Selectmen, and there was no reason to think it was an issue then. She said her job isn’t to investigate or raise complaints herself, but to react when something is presented to her – like it was in this case.
Stirna said the Democratic Town Committee was not involved at all in asking for either of the legal opinions from Tycz.
Lefkoe said the Republican Town Committee is in the process of challenging Tycz’s opinion, adding that it would be “unwise to discuss pending litigation further.”
As of Wednesday morning, First Selectwoman Cathy Iino said she had not been notified about any challenges having been filed, and nothing appeared on a search of Connecticut court records. An attorney representing the Republicans could not be reached before publication.