GIS impasse presses on

Easton Town Hall officesThe Board of Selectmen will not schedule a Town Meeting on a regional GIS mapping system on the advice of counsel.

The board will instead discuss holding an informational forum to inform residents about the purpose and uses of a GIS system when it meets tonight, Feb. 7, in Conference Room A at Town Hall.

The board received a petition to hold a Town Meeting on the GIS mapping system, signed by 61 voters, and held a special meeting Jan. 31 at Town Hall to take possible action.

In anticipation of the meeting, First Selectman Tom Herrmann requested an opinion from town counsel as to whether it was appropriate to schedule a town meeting on the matter.

“The petition does not present a proper purpose for a town meeting and accordingly it would be inappropriate for the Board of Selectmen to warn a town meeting …” the opinion, dated Jan. 25, from Ira Bloom and Gail Kelly of Berchem, Moses & Devlin stated.

Mr. Bloom stated that the maps are public records as determined by the Freedom of Information Act, and that the town clerk must comply with the act and provide access to the maps. Mr. Bloom also stated that the first selectman is the chief executive officer of the town and together with the Board of Selectmen has the statutory obligation to superintend the concerns of the town.

To date, Town Clerk Derek Buckley has not turned over the maps, which are stored along with other town records and land records in a computer system at the Senior Center that is a separate system from the Town Hall computer.

The selectmen said they would reassert their request to Mr. Buckley for map data transfer to allow the Greater Bridgeport Regional Council to proceed with preparing the maps in accordance with the selectmen’s decision on Dec. 6, 2012.

GIS objections

Mr. Buckley on Feb. 5 forwarded to The Courier a string of emails that he wrote to Mr. Herrmann, indicating a williness to meet with Mr. Herrmann but not with Scott Bidolli, executive director of the Greater Bridgeport Regional Council. In the latest one, he states: “Thanks for your memo of 1/31/2013.  I have taken a while to respond because I am somewhat surprised by it.

“As you will see below I offered to meet with you to resolve this and other outstanding issues  around 1/26/2013. You did not respond until I received your threatening memo on 1/31/2013.

“This issue, and others can all be resolved easily and in the best interest of the town by reasonable discussion. Please call me and set something up to address all outstanding issues.”

In the other emails, he states that “the Town Meeting decision directly affects the outcome and must be awaited” but that he would be willing to meet personally with Mr. Herrmann to discuss the matter.

If the data transfer is not under way by Feb. 7, the selectmen said at the special meeting, they would determine the next step to compel the town clerk to provide the data.

In a December letter to the selectmen Mr. Buckley said his duties as town clerk are defined by state statute, and his “reporting relationship” is to the secretary of the state and town voters. He stated that the statutory basis for the selectmen’s request was not clear nor was his statutory authority to comply.

Mr. Buckley listed six points about the mechanics of the GIS Map Project, including who would pay the cost of maintaining the GBRC’s database, what the benefit was to Easton, how much the GBRC would pay for the map inventory, and how Easton would replace lost revenue from copies, since his understanding was that the GBRC intended to provide free access.

Mr. Buckley also requested “an objective, independent, legal opinion of the statutory basis” for the request. “This will determine if I have a statutory basis for conforming.”

Mr. Herrmann contacted James F. Spallone, the deputy secretary of the state, about the issue, and Mr. Spallone replied in an email that his office “does not advise town clerks on the care and custody of land records, maps or vital statistics.”

Mr. Bloom stated in an opinion dated Jan. 17 that the maps are public records as determined by the Freedom of Information Act, and the town clerk must comply with the act and provide access to the maps. Mr. Bloom said that the first selectman is the chief executive officer of the town and together with the Board of Selectmen has the statuary obligation to superintend the concerns of the town.

Selectmen Robert Lessler told The Courier, “I am very excited about the prospect of having this GIS mapping capability available to town agencies.  I believe that highly sophisticated and improved maps developed using the latest technology and offering excellent precision will be a great benefit to our public works, public safety, and land use departments.  I’m confident that the benefits of this technology will ultimately include things we cannot even envision now.  And we could not afford this asset on our own.”

The petition

A total of 61 residents signed a petition, verified by Jim Bromer, assistant registrar of voters, to hold a town meeting to discuss the request from the Greater Bridgeport Regional Council for the Easton town clerk to provide digital copies of the town clerk maps as well as any local GIS data to the council as part of a regional GIS system.

The petition further asked for a yes-or-no vote on the following question: Should the Easton Town Clerk release town maps and local GIS data to the Greater Bridgeport Regional Council?

Sherry Harris, one of the signers of the petition, said after the meeting, “Interestingly, this is the second time that our BOS has declared a town meeting petition illegal. For citizens to dispute their decisions would, of course, require that they hire and pay for their own council.”

She wrote in a follow-up email, “At the urging of First Selectman Tom Herrmann, Easton joined the GBRC at the 2011 Annual Town Meeting. The minutes of this meeting are available on EastonEye.org. The press indicated that there were about 65 people at that meeting. Some of the citizens present strongly objected to joining this regional council without some public input and review. The motion passed, but the vote was so close that a hand count was required. In other words, less than 35-40 citizens made the decision for Easton to join the GBRC. Over 60 citizens signed the petition to Town Meeting that was denied this morning.”

Ms. Harris said she has a Freedom of Information complaint in process for the 2009-10 and 2010-11 Town of Easton legal bills and has been informed that the fee to get those invoices is $149.

“The 2011-12 Town of Easton legal bills were obtained by the Board of Finance and are on the Easton Eye,” Ms. Harris said. “After they were posted I got a number of inquiries about them. Since Town Hall does not provide these documents on our website for citizen review, and since our BOF does not regularly request and review them, I decided to get the two preceding years to post on EastonEye.org for the benefit of any interested citizen. Interestingly, this is the second time that our BOS has declared a town meeting petition illegal. For citizens to dispute their decisions would, of course, require that they hire and pay for their own council.

“So here is where we stand, our First Selectman is charging $149 for citizens to get access to the legal bills in hard copy only but advocates giving all of our maps — in digital format — to the Greater Bridgeport Regional Authority.”

Mr. Lessler said he was “dumbfounded” by those who have expressed opposition to the project.

“What is wrong with improved ability to define town and parcel boundaries or to quickly and accurately locate downed power lines or trees in an emergency?” he said. “Most of the concerns which have been publicly stated do not stand up to scrutiny.  The unstated concerns, which as I understand them, involve worries about loss of local control and the ‘evils’ of sustainable development.

“Indeed, one of the articles given to the board by a concerned citizen connect this type of mapping project to wild right wing conspiracy theories about United Nations domination, one world government and the elimination of private property rights. Very strange stuff.”

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