I thank New Canaan’s Board of Ethics for their serious consideration of a complaint I filed the day before Election Day in 2021 about a campaign letter written by our First Selectman. I’m especially grateful to the Board for not losing sight of the main concern, which I underscored in my private interview but seemed to get lost amidst the public chatter. The point is not (and never was) Mr. Moynihan, his position or party, that election, or an elected official’s First Amendment rights. The big picture is the precedent this letter could have established for others acting in the future.
Both the letter’s appearance and contents were confusing. If you weren’t familiar with New Canaan politics, with political campaigns, with this election; if you were someone reading this in haste while holding your car keys and an armful of other mail, you might easily glance at the letterhead and assume that this letter conveys the authority of the First Selectman’s office.
I was surprised to read in Mr. Moynihan’s supplemental response dated December 4th, 2021, that “No reasonable person would confuse the political communication at the center of this matter with an Official Town Communication.” Honestly, I don’t see how any reasonable person would not see how someone might confuse this–especially someone who is not a political insider. Having worked on nonpartisan voter education for years, I know that even for our town of highly educated and civically engaged citizens, elections are not at all straightforward.
The letterhead at the top states only the First Selectman’s name on one line, his office on another, and “Town of New Canaan” on a third. It doesn’t offer such graphic clues or headers as, “A personal message from . . .”, or other differentiating device. Its appearance looks sober, official, very different from the colorful campaign mail clogging our mailboxes, with pictures, endorsements, and slogans; different from letters to the editor; different from the communications we receive sent from personal or campaign email addresses and social media accounts. Everyone knows these are part of campaigning; we expect elected officials to campaign vigorously for the candidates they support.
This letter, however, looked and felt different, “off” in a way that was difficult to articulate, and admittedly, to pin down in code or law. Yes, the letter listed the RTC’s Treasurer in tiny type at the bottom, if you read that far and bothered to read the fine print. Of course, elected officials may use their titles when they endorse candidates. Lawyers could endlessly argue that this piece of correspondence followed the letter of the law, and maybe they’re right. What I do know is that I was not alone among people of both parties in feeling that it undermined the spirit of the law.
The implications for the future were serious. From the moment the letter was sent Mr. Moynihan’s role in this was past, but left unchecked that precedent meant another elected official of either party could likewise convey the authority of their office to share their personal views with voters about an upcoming election, or even about an issue being deliberated in town about our schools, a building project, or what have you. The door was wide open.
I raised this concern in my interview, and while I did so during my tenure as President of the League of Women Voters of New Canaan, the League did not know of my complaint prior to filing, and once news broke in the press, our bipartisan board intentionally remained neutral and has stayed silent thereafter. I mention my membership with the League only to say that my commitment to nonpartisan voter education and civic engagement are sincere and longstanding, and that in my experience, election procedures are not easily understood by the general public. I filed this complaint as a private citizen who puts little stock in political parties, and great stock in political office. Elected officials have a heavier lift.
This is the first time I’ve seen a letter like this in New Canaan, and my fear was that without clearer guidelines, it definitely wouldn’t be the last. I turned to the Ethics Board because this seemed like an ethical matter, one that concerned a particular incident in New Canaan that felt inappropriate and that I hoped we wouldn’t see repeated by other elected officials here. It’s a fuzzy line, but I believe this letter crossed it. Now, that line has been made clearer, and we should resolve to hold it.
When I lodged my concern over what is essentially the writing of a personal letter that looks official, my clearly stated intention was future prevention. What I couldn’t foresee was the proportion of the response, its distractions and digressions, my character and motives maligned, the public retaliation toward Selectman Kathleen Corbett, whom I consulted only to clarify the rules governing majority-minority party representation in New Canaan. Moving on, I hope this experience won’t discourage others who “see something” from “saying something.” Building a better way forward is ongoing work, and I am grateful that the Ethics Board has devoted itself to that.