Denied Petition Over Track In Hartford Leads To Lawsuit, But Still No Town Meeting Vote

Feb 23, 2018

At least a generation of runners has gone through the track program at Hartford High School since the community first started talking about building an official track. But despite a petition signed by hundreds of voters, there will be no track talk on the town meeting ballot this year.

"We’ve wanted a track for a long time," says state Rep. Kevin Christie. "There was talk going on even before I started coaching in the '80s – early '80s – you know, about how do we put one in."

Christie is better known as "Coach." He used to coach Hartford’s track and football teams, and now he chairs the school board.

The school board has refused to take up the issue of the track this town meeting, despite receiving a petition on the matter signed by about 600 Hartford voters. And that action is being challenged in court by one of the petitioners, named F.X. Flinn.

Flinn says it’s a violation of his First Amendment right to petition his government.

"I don’t have any kids. I’ve never had kids. You know, I don’t have any skin in the game as far as being a participant in track activities go," Flinn explains. "This is all about the right to petition in the context of a town meeting form of government."

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of the people to petition the government. F.X. Flinn says he believes the Hartford School Board has infringed upon that right.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

The petition in question calls for $50,000 from the school district to fund an ad hoc committee to design a track and field facility.

But Christie says the school board unanimously denied putting the measure on the town meeting warning, at the advice of its lawyer. He says the board does not have the legal authority to turn part of its budget over to a committee outside the purview of the board.

"We’re willing to support … a request from our community to move forward on a project," says Christie. "But, you know, we need to do it the right way. … It’s not like, 'It’s my way or the highway' type of thing. There is a right way."

But Flinn and the group behind the petition say the board could have worked with them to make the petitioners’ voices heard.

"We're willing to support ... a request from our community to move forward on a project. But, you know, we need to do it the right way." — Rep. Kevin "Coach" Christie, Hartford School Board chair

Sheila Hastie, president of the Friends of Hartford Track, says the school board was needlessly secretive.

"They went into executive session behind closed doors, talked with their lawyer," Hastie says. "They came out and essentially said, ‘We acknowledge getting enough signatures for this to be placed on the ballot, but due to legality issues, we regretfully will not be able to do it.' Done."

But it wasn’t over in Flinn’s mind. Although he’s not a lawyer, he decided to file a lawsuit and attempt to have the court order the track question be put on the ballot. With just days to go before town meeting filing deadlines, Flinn requested a preliminary injunction from the court.

The preliminary injunction was denied, meaning there will be no vote about the track at town meeting. But, the case is still pending.

Windsor Superior Court Judge Robert P. Gerety, Jr. stated in his decision that Flinn would not "suffer substantial irreparable harm if the request for preliminary injunction is denied." However the judge did not comment on the merits of the case.

"The school board should have bent over backward to find a way to put this on the ballot and not have delivered a message to the residents of town that they really don't respect the power of petition." — F.X. Flinn, Hartford resident

Flinn says petitioning is especially important in Hartford, because there isn’t discussion of the issues on the floor of town meeting. He says practically every question is decided in the voting booth.

"In Hartford, the only way that the citizens have any opportunity to determine what’s being voted on is by petition," he explains. "There’s no opportunity to stand up at town meeting and say, ‘I move to modify the main motion to increase the amount of money in the budget by $50,000.'"

Flinn says that’s why he feels the school board should have made some allowances, even if the petition wasn’t perfect.

"The school board should have bent over backward to find a way to put this on the ballot and not have delivered a message to the residents of town that they really don’t respect the power of petition," he says.

Windsor Superior Court has yet to consider a motion filed by the school board to have the case dismissed.