The New Canaan Town Council will soon be interviewing Republican candidates to fill the seat vacated by Tom O'Dea, who was elected to serve as state representative for the 125th District in the November election.
During Wednesday's meeting held at the New Canaan Nature Center, Town Council members selected Jan. 3 as the date to interview three candidates who have been put forth by the Republican Town Committee to fill O'Dea's seat.
Under the town charter, the 12-member Council can appoint an elector to fill a vacant seat until the next special or general election.
However some council members questioned whether the elector must be a Republican, or if the seat is in fact open to candidates from all political parties.
Chairman Mark DeWaele said when he consulted town's attorney Ira Bloom about the process, he was told "that it is up the the Council to elect a new member... and that the member must be a Republican."
He said Bloom explained that although there is no requirement under the town charter that specifically states the elector must be of the same party, it is covered in a section of the Connecticut General Statutes regarding majority representation, which in general requires that a town's ruling party be represented by a two thirds majority on all boards and commissions.
Town Council member John Emert said he too had reviewed the section of the statute Bloom was referring to, "and there's nothing that says there must be eight Republicans on the town council."
"So I would submit, with all due respect to Mr. Bloom, that this section [of the statutes] is silent as to whether the elector must be a Republican, Democrat, Independent or member of any party for that matter...," Emert said, adding that, furthermore, the statute doesn't require the Council to fill the seat.
Emert questioned the validity of Bloom's interpretation of the law that the Council should elect a replacement member based on party. He asserted that the Council should be electing members based on their qualifications.
Member Roger Williams pointed out that as of about 3 p.m. Wednesday, Tom O'Dea was still a member of the Council. He said he had checked with the town clerk's office and learned that O'Dea "has not yet resigned."
DeWaele said he had been informed by O'Dea that he no longer intends to serve and will resign, even though he could legally continue to serve as both a state representative and town councilman.
Williams said he too had discussed the matter with Bloom, who told him that the elector should be a Republican, since voters elected a Republican to the chair originally.
Still, Williams said he would like to see the Council "keep the field open... so as to consider as many qualified candidates as possible..."
Town Council member Kenneth Campbell said he agreed with Bloom's interpretation that "the ruling party is the voters... and if the voters elected a Republican to that seat, I do believe we need to respect that..."
DeWaele said he would go back to Bloom and get further clarification — and if needed would even go to an outside expert.
"With the budget coming up and all the duties we have, we need that 12th person," DeWaele said.
Town Council member Penny Young said she wants to interview each of the candidates separately. She said when the Council interviewed candidates for the Board of Finance a few months ago, "it felt kind of uncomfortable" to have all of them sitting on the same room.
"I think the people who are being deposed should be able answer questions without the other candidates being able to hear their answers — or be influenced by other answers," Young said, adding that after the candidates are interviewed, she wants the council to go into executive session to discuss the candidates, before coming out to vote.
Taking the opposite stance, Town Council member and secretary Kit Devereaux said in her opinion the candidates would feel more comfortable being interviewed together as opposed to individually "in front of 12 people." Further, she said, "I wish we didn't have to go into executive session at all."
Town Council Vice Chairman Stephen Karl said the legislative body "should move as quickly as possible [on electing a replacement] since the budget process is approaching." He said regardless of the party affiliation question, the Council should proceed with interviewing the three candidates the RTC has put forward, out of respect to their desire and willingness to serve.
"I don't think we can afford to drag this on and on," Karl said.
"I think the only real sticking point here is the party affiliation is an issue," DeWaele said. He agreed that the Town Council should strive to have "the largest pool of people we can possibly get to draw on... but on the other hand I have a hard time going against the town attorney, with regard to whether this has to be Republican."
"Whether you are Republican, Democrat, Independent or Green Party, we want everyone in this town to serve," DeWaele said. "But I don't want to throw out a broad request and get people sending in their resumes who really want to do this — and then have to say, 'sorry, there is a requirement... that you have to be a Republican.'"
Once the question about party affiliation is clarified, DeWaele said the Council could then place advertisements and start actively soliciting additional candidates for the position.
"I hope this isn't something we need to bring to the Supreme Court," DeWaele mused, adding that he would be calling Bloom to get further clarification on Thursday.