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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Testimonial tussle

As published in the Record Journal Sunday January 24, 2010

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Wallingford Republicans are holding a $40-a-ticket testimonial dinner for Mayor Bill Dickinson on February 6.

Some 200 tickets have been sold to date, yielding $8,000. The money will cover the cost of dinner and anything left over, accord­ing to Republican town Councilor Craig Fishbein, will go to the Wallingford Foundation for the Arts. None will go to Dickinson, who, in his characteristic way, has said he is a “reluc­tant participant.”

This is all well and good, but there happens to be a state law, General Statutes sec. 9-609(b). It defines a “testimonial” as being “an affair held in honor of an in­dividual who holds . . . an office subject to this chap­ter.” Then the section adds [with some significance given Dickinson’s “reluc­tance”] “No testimonial af­fair shall be held without the consent of such per­son.”

The section then forbids testimonials for anyone during the term of his or her office, except to raise funds as defined in the rest of the chapter.

What is a testimonial din­ner, anyway? It may mean merely a dinner at which tribute is paid to someone. More likely, especially in sports, it’s a fund-raiser. Hence, in the chapter of state law applying to elec­tion campaigns and ex­penses, it comes as no big surprise to find testimonial dinners regulated.

On the other hand, if no funds are to be given to Mayor Dickinson but will go instead to the Arts Foun­dation, a bona fide charity, is there any reason for a prohibition? There would seem not to be.

But there is a statute. The law is the law. Democratic Town Chairman Vincent Avallone, an attorney, has sent a letter to his counter­part, Republican Chairman Robert Prentice, referenc­ing the law in question. He has also been in touch with the State Elections Enforce­ment Commission, but has not filed any complaint.

Councilor Fishbein, who is also an attorney, has said he doesn’t think the dinner constitutes a violation of the law any more than a birthday party would. A birthday party could actu­ally be more of an issue since it results in gifts which are not condoned under the ethics rules.

So it boils down to con­flicting legal views of the situation, and that’s why our society has attorneys. Most laws and rules are ca­pable of multiple interpre­tations, and it is tough to be sure all the time. Perhaps the SEEC will be asked to rule, perhaps not.

One cannot live in the shadows of possible viola­tions, and one can only ad­mire Chairman Prentice’s approach: “You know what? We’ll go through with it be­cause what are they going to do to us, fine us?”


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