The State Elections Enforcement Commission today postponed acting on a controversial plan to appoint a recently defeated politician, former Mayor Sebastian N. Giuliano of Middletown, as the new executive director and general counsel of the elections oversight agency.
“At this time the commission is not ready to move forward with this appointment,” said Stephen F. Cashman, the panel’s chairman. “We’ll have no further comment with respect to the proceedings until such time we are prepared to move forward.”
Their intention announced last week to name Giuliano prompted criticism from key lawmakers and a complaint alleging that Giuliano tried to discourage Wesleyan students from voting last fall when he was seeking re-election as mayor of Middletown.
It was unclear today if Giuliano’s appointment was permanently scuttled. Giuliano was not present at the meeting, and Cashman made clear that the five commissioners had no intention of expanding on his terse remarks.
Acting as a search committee, the entire commission had decided in private to appoint Giuliano last week. It was apparent this morning they had met again in private to postpone what last week was planned to be a unanimous appointment.
Rep. Russell Morin, D-Wethersfield, and Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, told the State Elections Enforcement Commission by letter Friday that Giuliano does not meet the basic qualification required of commissioners: that he be at least three years removed from partisan politics.
Their objections were significant: As co-chairs of the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee, they have oversight over elections laws, and they were the agency’s defenders last year against maneuvering to strip the commission of auditors, cripping its ability to audit legislative campaigns.
Today, Morin said he was encouraged by the postponement of an appointment that he described as politically clumsy.
“I hope that this is the commission stating that they are going to rethink their decision and they’ll just recognize it will cause a problem,” Morin said. “It will not be beneficial for the commission to make this hire.”
Giuliano, a Republican, served three terms as Middletown’s mayor through 2011. He lost his bid for a fourth term in November, defeated by Democrat Dan Drew. The commission announced Thursday that it planned to name Giuliano to the executive director’s post today, its first meeting of 2012.
No law barred the appointment of a recently active politician as director, even though Giuliano could not serve as a commissioner. But Slossberg said in her letter that the commission ignored a clear and sensible guideline.
“Individual SEEC commissioners must be removed from partisan politics for three full years before they are eligible to serve; I think the same standard should be applied to the agency’s staff positions as well,” she said in her letter.
Giuliano was one of two former mayors in the pool of four finalists. He faced competition from a Democrat, who is more than three years removed from elective office and was backed by a top official of Common Cause, the advocacy group often seen as an ally of the commission at the state Capitol.
The Democrat has confirmed he was a finalist, speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize his current job. One other finalist was the chief operating officer of a municipality. The fourth had no government experience.
The controversy comes at a difficult time for the commission. Its budget was cut last year, along with the other watchdog agencies.
There were efforts to further cut its auditing staff, a move that would have effectively neutered the commission, which often is in conflict with lawmakers as it enforces election laws. In this environment, Morin said, the appointment of Giuliano was naive.
“I’m not so sure they sensed it was really that big a deal until we complained about it,” Morin said. “I don’t want to beat these people up. I respect the work the commission does. I believe in the program and overall I believe they do a good job. I want to see them remain independent. This issue would have really alienated them with an awful lot of people.”
The commissioners, who are appointed by the governor and legislative leaders of both parties, are not without political experience.
Cashman, a lawyer who now lives in Windsor, is a former counsel to the House Republican caucus and served on the Newington Town Council and Republican town committee in the 1980s. He was appointed in 2000 by Robert Ward, then the House minority leader.
Richard C. Bozzuto of Watertown is a former Republican state Senate leader. He was appointed in 2007 by Louis DeLuca, then the Senate Republican leader.
Joan B. Jenkins of New Haven was appointed in 2003 by Kevin B. Sullivan, a Democrat who was then the Senate president pro tem. She is the former director of labor relations for New Haven and also has served on the state ethics commission.
Patricia Stankevicius of Wolcott was appointed in 2009 by Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell. The only political involvement listed on her agency bio is serving on the local planning and zoning commission as an independent alternate.
Anthony J. Castagno of North Stonington was appointed in 2010 by House Speaker Christopher Donovan, D-Meriden. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Connecticut who ran for state Senate as a Democrat in 1990, losing to Republican Edward Munster.