In the lead up to a November 2022 referendum vote in East Windsor for a $5 million renovation of Scout Hall, town leaders may have violated Connecticut’s election laws by sending out mailers and robocalls encouraging residents to vote in favor of the project, according to a complaint filed with the State Elections Enforcement Commission (SEEC).
“This project is a transformative way of providing municipal services to our seniors, our youth, and disadvantaged people in our community. For the cost, this is a very good deal. However, it will be up to the voters in East Windsor to decide whether to move forward with this project,” wrote First Selectman Jason Bowsza in the fall 2022 edition of the Five Village Voice newsletter. “I strongly urge voters in East Windsor to support this project.”
Similarly, in an October 2022 robocall, Bowsza’s recorded message reiterated the points made in the Five Village Voice. “The town and the committee share a commitment to offering quality of life opportunities for youth, seniors and socially disadvantaged people in our community and this project will go a long way toward meeting those shared goals,” Bowsza said in the recording. “Please remember to cast your vote for this project on November 8.”
Under Connecticut state statute, no municipal funds may be used to sway a resident’s vote in a referendum: “No expenditure of state or municipal funds shall be made to influence any person to vote for approval or disapproval of any such proposal or question or to otherwise influence or aid the success or defeat of any such referendum.”
There are exceptions to the law, however. A public official, when asked by a third-party like a newspaper or website, can give their opinion on whether such a referendum measure should be passed, provided that the publication was not distributed using municipal funds unless specifically requested by an individual.
During a hearing before the Freedom of Information Commission on whether the town provided all documents related to expenses for the Scout Hall project, Bowsza indicated that while East Windsor does not publish or pay for the Five Village Voice, it does pay for postage for the publication to be mailed to every residence in town under an arrangement with The Chronicle.
Bowsza was unable to give an exact amount of the money spent for the postage in the mailers because the town does not track the cost of individual mailings and purchases postage in bulk.
Similarly, Bowsza indicated that he had voiced recordings for two robocalls to town residents leading up to the November referendum but did not know the exact cost of those robocalls as the town has an annual contract with the company and does not pay for the calls on a per-call basis. He indicated the robocalls were established during COVID to get timely information to residents.
“There is no cost for individual phone calls, it’s a per year cost,” Bowsza said under questioning by attorney Keith Yagaloff, who represented town resident Lynn Stanley in her complaint to the FOIC. Yagaloff and Stanley are running for first selectman and selectman respectively in the upcoming municipal elections as non-affiliated, petitioning candidates.
The town expenditures between the postage cost for the Five Village Voice and the robocalls, however, are the subject of a complaint that Yagaloff made to the SEEC – something that was alluded to several times during the FOIC hearing when Yagaloff pressed Bowsza on whether he advocated for the Scout Hall project in those notices to the community.
According to the December 2022 SEEC complaint, Yagaloff alleges Bowsza violated Connecticut’s general statutes.
“He and his subordinates prepared, printed and mailed to the public materials that advocated for the approval of the question,” Yagaloff wrote in the complaint. The complaint continues, alleging Bowsza “used the Community Notification System to send several recorded messages advocating for and urging the voters to approve the question. The Community Notification System is paid for by the town, and the calls are paid for by the town.”
In an email to CII, First Selectman Bowsza indicated it would not be appropriate to comment on either the SEEC investigation or the FOIC hearing as both are currently pending. Under statute, the SEEC can levy a fine up to double the amount of the improperly spent municipal funds or one thousand dollars, whichever is greater.
The November referendum ultimately failed by a twenty-vote margin. However, a second referendum was held in April, which passed with a wide majority of voters approving the project at a lower price tag of $4.7 million, supported by federal grant money and American Rescue Plan funds.
The renovation has been controversial, with Bowsza revealing through the FOIC hearing that he did not have a written estimate for the $5 million figure he cited to convert Scout Hall into an expanded community and senior center. Rather, he had a verbal estimate from the architect.
Likewise, there did not appear to be any written estimate for the $4.7 million project price until Noreen Farmer, a Democrat Board of Education member, posted an estimate written in January of 2023 by Chuck Terlizzi of TCR Northeast Construction on social media. Farmer, however, promptly removed the post.
The Town of East Windsor is currently accepting bids on the project.