Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Windsor Town Council directs Town Attorney to draft language to support removal of Robert Fromer

At the end of a three-night, 14 hour public hearing, last night the Windsor Town Council voted to request that the town attorney draft findings of fact to support the position that Robert Fromer be removed for cause from his volunteer position on the Windsor Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission. The town attorney's findings of fact will be presented to the Town Council, for its vote at a Town Council meeting on Monday, October 4th at 6:30 pm.

This may be only the second instance of a wetlands commission member being removed by a municipal legislative body in the state. The removal of Barbara Obeda by the Brookfield Board of Selectmen was overturned by the Connecticut Supreme Court in 1980 in Obeda v. Board of Selectmen, 180 Conn. 521 (1980).

On Monday and Tuesday nights the Windsor Town Council resumed public hearings. As noted in an earlier post, the public hearing is being conducted as an adversarial proceeding with the Windsor Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission presenting the case for Mr. Fromer's removal. On Monday night, the chairwoman, Linnea Gilbert, and member Willa Nemetz, testified again, concluding the presentation of agency members. The testimony covered the tsunami of e-mail correspondence that Mr. Fromer generated to staff and the agency, the condescending tone of the e-mails and his similar decorum at agency meetings.

The environmental planner, Cyd Groff, described her harrowing work environment in which she received 611 e-mails from Mr. Fromer since he has been a commission member (in comparison to between 3 and 46 e-mails from other members during the same time period). In addition, Mr. Fromer began a course of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in December 2009 for a 5 month period (ending in late April 2010) in which he filed 34 requests. These requests were similar in nature. Every few days he requested all documents that Ms. Groff created or received during a 1 or 2 day time period. Since June 2010 he has filed another 15 FOIA requests. When asked by a Town Council member on Tuesday night whether his removal from the wetlands commission would cause him to stop filing FOIA requests, Mr. Fromer answered no. To Ms. Groff's characterization that e-mails written in 26 font with numerous exclamation marks in bright colors accusing her of ignorance were insulting, harassing and demeaning, Mr. Fromer subsequently testified that he deals in the world of facts and was putting forth factual information.

The town manager testified on Tuesday night. He become involved in meetings about Mr. Fromer's conduct after contact from the agency chairwoman and the environmental planner. Mr. Fromer's attorney established on cross-examination of the town manager that the Town of Windsor has not taken any steps to object to or oppose the FOIA requests to date.

With the town manager's testimony, the wetlands agency completed its presentation.

Mr. Fromer testified in opposition to the Town Council's resolution to remove him for cause. He began by answering a few pointed questions by his attorney: did he financially benefit from being on the commission and the like. Then he took off with an expansive answer that presaged his (what seemed like) 20-minute stream of consciousness monologue. He asserted that he was appointed as a "citizen attorney general" to the wetlands agency. He then began quoting from a 1974 Connecticut Supreme Court case that used the term "private attorney general" in the context of the Connecticut Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), not the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Act. Having co-authored a book on the Environmental Protection Act (Volume 15 of the Connecticut Practice Series by West), I recognized the quotation but couldn't fathom why he was reaching into CEPA to bolster his municipal appointment. He dove in headfirst and didn't resurface until quoting a United States Supreme Court case from the 1970s which was quoted in CEPA caselaw.

His attorney asked if he is a zealot. His answer quoted from the Wikipedia entry for "zealot," looking back to the historic sect of zealots, then forward to the reading of a portion of the Environmental Protection Act, then back to Aristotle with at least two references to Harry S. Truman thrown in, a number of worn-out phrases for good measures ("what separates us from beasts"), composting toilets, excerpts from the legislative finding in the wetlands act (C.G.S. section 22a-36), statutory excerpts regarding feasible and prudent alternatives, Darcy's law, the state Supreme Court agreeing with him in Gardiner v. Conservation Commission, 222 Conn. 98 (1992), the staff's lack of knowledge of the law an insult. I believe he said the environmental planner had trouble with deductive reasoning. Maybe not. It was hard to follow.

Did I miss something? Without a topic sentence, I just couldn't get my bearings of where he was going.

Buried somewhere in that testimony was a statement about pesticides. I certainly do think that the application of pesticides to wetlands or watercourses is a regulated activity. Did he say that? I'm not sure.

He enumerated his characterization of legal errors voiced by the town attorney. He seemed fatigued by having to instruct the environmental planner "over and over again" about the law. He was insistent that the planner was not bringing matters for agent (the environmental planner) approval to the wetlands commission first. I couldn't make sense of that. I checked the statute this morning, C.G.S. section 22a-42a(c)(2). Once the agency has delegated such matters to the agent, there is no first review by the agency. What was his point?

But, his mistakes in law aren't the point. He was accused of creating a hostile environment for staff and the commission. His response: the chairwoman is narrow-minded and limited. He was not being insulting to staff; he was being factual.

Interspersed into his testimony were odd questions like: what are polyaromatic hydrocarbons? The answer led to a tangent on driveway sealants.

Could he work with others? His reply: if they listen to him, yes.

At the end of the evening the Town Council voted to request the town attorney to draft findings of fact to support Fromer's removal for cause. The Town may be done with this issue next Monday.

I'm not. Are we to believe that inland wetlands agencies do not have the authority to rein in members of the commission or members of the public who disrupt the process? Does an agency or a town have no option but removal of a commission member? Must an agency wait for a months or years until an attorney for one applicant and an engineer for another can testify that agency members didn't engage in reasonable consideration of the impact of the proposed conduct because they were fatigued/intimidated/disgusted with one agency member's conduct?

As I said, I'm not finished with this issue.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Windsor Town Council hearing to remove wetlands commissioner: to what end?

Robert Fromer is approximately halfway through serving his 4-year term on the Windsor Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commisison. Earlier this year the Windsor Town Council acted on a referral of the Agency to suspend him while proceeding on a resolution to remove him from his position.

On Wednesday, September 16th the Town Council began receiving testimony from the Windsor Inlands Wetlands Agency, represented by counsel, in its referral to the Town Council that member Robert Fromer be removed from its agency. I stepped into the Council chambers a minute before the proceeding began. The evening began with the town attorney, representing the Town Council, who offered legal opinions on a flurry of motions filed by Fromer. I immediately thought I had stepped into the courtroom of a trial on the complex litigation docket (where I have tried cases). Everything about the evening was legal and formal. With Mr. Fromer represented by counsel, there was serious money committed to this proceeding. Doubly so, for the town. The "trial notebook" of exhibits, agency and joint, was at least 3 inches thick. The counsel for both parties, the wetlands agency and Fromer, agreed on the rules of the proceeding, complete with opening statements.

Those statements led me to believe this would all be about Mr. Fromer and his behavior. In the opening statement we heard from the counsel for the Agency that Mr. Fromer's professed desire to be the most hated man in town was likely to be achieved, while Fromer's counsel offered members the opportunity to resign if they couldn't work with him.

While the testimony certainly supported the Agency's claim of Fromer's rudeness and his condescension towards applicants and members alike, it also provided a disturbing picture of how the Agency's response to Fromer seemed to affect its performance of its duties. In the first 4-1/2 hours the Agency, through counsel, presented two categories of witness: those presenting matters before the Agency and Agency members themselves. One attorney testified who represented a major business in town with complex remediation as part of its application. She explained how Fromer was fixated on the public notice for the hearing and his belief that it was defective. That was the sole issue addressed by the Agency in lengthy discussions. Once the discussion ceased on notice, the Agency voted to approve the application with no conditions imposed. The attorney was surprised and voluntarily returned to the agency staff and asked what conditions staff wanted.

A similar tale was told by an engineer who proposed a 2-lot subdivision. As he testified to the Town Council, his presentation was sidetracked and entirely consumed by seemingly irrelevant topics outside the jurisdiction of the Agency. Instead of discussing sedimentation and erosion, this engineer found himself discussing under what conditions the public health code, not the wetlands act, allowed composting toilets. The application was not thoroughly considered, in his opinion. That night the application was approved.

These representatives spoke of the Agency as "held hostage" or "rendered ineffective" by Mr. Fromer and that its proceedings were "peculiar."

Six members of the eight-member commission, including the chair and vice-chair, testified about Mr. Fromer's behavior. Collectively and individually they found his behavior rude, condescending, obstructionist. They described their meetings as chaotic, embarrassing, frustrating. Fromer alienated other members by filing complaints with the Freedom of Information Commission in which the members' actions were the subject. Some members testified about feeling intimidated by Fromer.

Five of the six testified that if Mr. Fromer is permitted to remain on the commission, they will resign. One member said she would consider resigning.

Why did the commission give short shrift to the wetlands concerns once Fromer ceased monopolizing meetings? Were they so frustrated, fatigued, afraid that it would unleash Fromer again? They didn't say.

I grew concerned over the course of the evening of what this proceeding was revealing. Assuming for a moment that the Town Council ultimately believes everything that was presented in the first 4 hours of the hearing, please note Mr. Fromer has not yet begun his defense -- the agency members have painted a vivid picture of dysfunction. Is there nothing short of an expensive mini-trial to assure that the wetlands agency resumes functional conduct in carrying out its duties?

The trajectory of this proceeding is either that the Town Council will vote to remove Mr. Fromer with likely court appeals to follow or Mr. Fromer will be reinstated and a quorum of the members will resign. Each outcome is costly on a number of levels.

The proceeding continues on September 27th.