Police union moves to oust councilman
The Stratford police union this week leveled misconduct charges against Councilman Alvin O'Neal (D-2), who earlier this year accused a police officer of misconduct and brutality. The union also asked the Town Council to remove O'Neal from office.
The inflammatory charges, just days before a scheduled protest rally against alleged unfair treatment of minorities by police, may further strain relations between the town's police officers and African-American residents in the South End.
One of the officers who presented the union's complaint against O'Neal Monday evening, Ulysses Munoz, is a member of a new police unit in the South End that was formed with the hope that it would restore residents' confidence in the police.
The union representatives also said O'Neal was involved in a road rage incident on May 1 in which he allegedly intimidated and verbally abused an elderly resident, John Tabak, 84, of Flora Drive. Tabak reported it to police last week.
O'Neal said the new charge is a slanderous fabrication. "They are doing everything in their power to discredit me," he said.
Town Council Chairman James Feehan (R-9) refused to allow any discussion of the matter, referring it to Town Attorney Richard Buturla because of a question over whether the council has the authority to take any action against O'Neal.
The police union cited several sections of the Town Charter prohibiting council members from interfering with administrative officials in their official duties, and authorizing the council to remove a member from office for a violation.
However, those sections do not appear in the new charter voters adopted in the 2003 election, which rewrote the sections related to the Town Council to accommodate the powers of the newly created office of mayor.
Feehan also cautioned the other council members not to make any statements on the matter, to avoid the appearance of bias in case the complaint does come before them for a decision.
O'Neal was arrested on charges of interfering with a police officer and breach of peace on March 21 in a tense, racially charged incident at the corner of Woodend Road and Main Street, when he intervened while Police Cpl. David Gugliotti was attempting to arrest a teenage girl. Gugliotti is white, O'Neal and the girl are black.
O'Neal made a citizen complaint against Gugliotti, claiming the officer punched him and the girl and cursed at him. However, a police department internal affairs investigation ruled that conflicting eyewitness accounts of the incident provided insufficient evidence to support O'Neal's complaint.
Munoz and Police Officer Carlos Castro, both members of the police union's executive board, charged that O'Neal "grossly and repeatedly violated the town charter" by interfering with Gugliotti's arrest.
Regarding the road rage allegation, Munoz, Castro and Police Officer Shawn Farmer, the union president, said they did not know why Tabak waited more than two months to report O'Neal's alleged outburst.
Tabak told police he stopped on Church Street, a narrow, one-way lane in Stratford Center, waiting for another motorist to back into a parking space. He said a driver in a vehicle behind him began blaring his horn impatiently, angrily insisting he move.
Tabak said when he proceeded to the stop light at Main Street, the driver, whom he identified as O'Neal, got out, approached his vehicle in a manner Tabak described as menacing, and shouted repeatedly, "Do you know who I am?" at the elderly man. Tabak reported he was frightened and locked his car doors.
Reached by phone Tuesday, Tabak said he didn't decide to report the incident until he read news reports about O'Neal's plans for the rally at Town Hall.
Tabak told the Star he is angry with the police union for using his report for political purposes. He said he only intended to give police information to use in O'Neal's trial on the interfering charge, and now that he was used as a pawn he would never file a report again.
In response to O'Neal's counter-accusation that Tabak's charge is false, Farmer replied, "Based on his previous statements and actions, this is just what we'd expect from him."
The three police officers scoffed that they had better things to do than invent false charges against O'Neal.
However, the officers now have to field problems of their own. Earlier on Monday, Police Chief Michael Imbro reprimanded an unidentified officer on the order of visibly angry Mayor James R. Miron for harassing Marcia Mitchell-Davis, the mother of the girl O'Neal defended on March 21.
According to O'Neal - and confirmed by Miron - the police officer appeared Monday morning at Mitchell-Davis' Caribbean Delights restaurant at Woodend and Main and ordered her to remove sandwich signs from the sidewalk.
Miron said the signs violate the town's zoning regulations, but police officers normally do not enforce zoning rules.
"How does it look?" Miron asked.
It is the second time police were accused of harassing Mitchell-Davis. Shortly after the March 21 incident, while Gugliotti was on administrative leave pending the internal affairs investigation, Mitchell-Davis said she saw Gugliotti and another officer, Sean Martinez, drive past her restaurant with a video camera.
That allegation was dismissed, along with the other charges against Gugliotti. Imbro said Martinez was on patrol in another part of town when the alleged video drive-by took place.
Mitchell-Davis' daughter, now 15, faces charges in juvenile court of assaulting a police officer, assault in the third degree and breach of peace.
O'Neal was scheduled for a pre-trial court appearance in Bridgeport Monday, but his case was continued until next week.
Rally on Saturday
O'Neal appeared with Miron and an NAACP representative, Wayne Winston, last Thursday to announce that the rally will take place Saturday, July 15, to give town officials time to prepare for traffic and crowd control.
The rally, which will feature state NAACP President Scot X. Esdaile as a speaker, previously was scheduled for last Saturday.
O'Neal said the rally will focus on resolving the racial conflict, not on the alleged police brutality - Miron, in fact, announced he also will be a speaker - but that was before the police union raised the new controversy.
Miron has been supportive of the police and said in an interview last week that the officers feel they have been unfairly attacked in news media reports and under-appreciated.
But the mayor, normally even-tempered and cheerful, was visibly angry with the union officials Monday.
"It's offensive to me that the Stratford police union would take this action," he said before cutting reporters' questions short and storming away.
Miron noted that O'Neal has not been charged with a crime related to Tabak's allegation, and he should be presumed innocent if he were.
New charges by the Stratford police union against District 2 Councilman Alvin O'Neal and a demand that he be removed from office were referred to the town attorney this week along with the question of where some key sections of the Town Charter went.
The police union cited Sections 2.2.14, 2.2.15 and 2.1.4 in its complaint against O'Neal, which prohibit councilmen from interfering with town officials, including police officers, in their official duties, and authorizing the council to remove a violator from office.
Councilmen have no authority to order an administrative official to do something, but they might threaten a budget cut that eliminates the official's job, which is why the provision was there.
When the councilmen looked up the specific sections in their official Town Charter booklets, they weren't there.
That is only one of the questions that have landed in the lap of Town Attorney Richard Buturla, a former council chairman.
Buturla said beside the mystery of the missing charter sections, he must determine what powers the Town Council actually has.
The best explanation at this point is that the sections were inadvertently omitted when Section 2, defining the powers of the Town Council, were rewritten in the last charter revision, adopted by the voters in a referendum in the 2003 election.
Council Chairman James Feehan (R-9) said he would soon propose an ordinance to create a new Charter Revision Commission to address numerous technicalities and conflicts between the new powers of the mayor and the council.
A new Charter Revision Commission could reinstate the missing sections. It could also rewrite town history from 2005, when the campaign for the town's first mayor took place, although Feehan said that isn't his intention.
Buturla said the more pertinent question he must answer includes whether the new charter includes any prohibition against a councilman using his office to influence the conduct of a member of the administration in his duties.
He said the town's Ethics Code is too narrow in scope to apply in such a case.
Beyond the question of what the charter says, Buturla said he must determine if any state statutes apply and override the Town Charter.
Lastly, he said he must see if there is any legal case law that affects the situation.
O'Neal was arrested on March 21 for interfering with a police officer, Cpl. David Gugliotti, while he was arresting a teenage girl.
Following his arrest, O'Neal filed a citizen complaint alleging that Gugliotti had punched him and swore at him, and used unnecessary force while arresting the girl.
When a Police Department Internal Affairs investigation ruled there was insufficient evidence to support the complaint, police union leaders called for O'Neal's removal from the council, and on Monday they made formal charges against him.
©Stratford Star 2006