Updated, 1 p.m.: More information, correction.
NORWALK, Conn. — The Norwalk Democratic Committee voted unanimously (with one abstention) to censure Mike Barbis, calling for his resignation from their body and from the Board of Education.
“An email from him that was recently released is one of many that shows a lack of civility and a lack of racial sensitivity that is incompatible with service as a member of an elected body like the Board of Education. Members of the Board of Education are elected officials who hold the public trust and are required to set an example for the children of Norwalk who attend the public schools. Uncivil, profane, and racially insensitive emails breach that trust and set the worst example possible,” the resolution states.
This followed a reportedly unanimous vote by District E members to censure Barbis, both on Monday evening.
It’s not legally possible to remove Barbis from the Board of Education, DTC Chairman Ed Camacho and DTC Vice Chairwoman Eloisa Melendez explained to DTC members; the ensuing conversation examined the roots of the offensive email.
“We have finally come to a boiling point,” District B Democrat Darlene Young said. BoE member Barbara Meyer-Mitchell mentioned a “vendetta culture” and “pending litigation.”
Barbis was not available for comment late Monday and did not answer an email sent just before midnight.
Barbis received a DTC endorsement to run for reelection; he ran unopposed, winning a third four-year term. Board of Education members will be sworn in Tuesday evening and new officers elected.
The email that has prompted this censure was sent in June – before the DTC endorsement – and reportedly seen by Mayor Harry Rilling, Chief of Staff Laoise King, Camacho and Melendez. It was sent to NAACP President Brenda Penn-Williams three days before the election. Anonymously, she said.
“The email was forwarded to other people at the time it was received. I have no idea who those people forwarded it to or who those people might have forwarded it to,” King said on Nov. 3.
Rilling recently told NAACP members that he didn’t make the email public in June because he was trying to arrange a conversation between Barbis and Penn-Williams, to calm tensions. “Hindsight is 2020. If I had to do it over again, probably would have released it back then, knowing what was happening now,” he said.
He tried to get a Democrat to challenge Barbis but “he has a District E stronghold and in Rowayton he is going to get a lot of votes. There’s nothing we can do about it,” Rilling said.
NancyOnNorwalk did not attend Monday’s DTC meeting but left a recorder in the room.
Judge of Probate Doug Stern abstained. It would be against the judicial code of ethics for him to vote to censure Barbis, Camacho said.
‘The ball is in his court’
Barbis, in his June 5 email inspired by the resistance to the Board of Education’s plan to demolish the “Concord Street school,” called South Norwalk Democrats a***** and suggested a news headline of “Blacks F*** Latinos.”
He has apologized, said it was sent “out of complete frustration,” and, over the weekend, promised to “seek help and do the work I need to do to ensure that my anger and frustration is handled in a more professional and reasonable way.”
The DTC’s censure language was an amended version of the one passed by District E. DTC Recording Secretary Colin Hosten moved to have the entire DTC censure Barbis.
“The purpose is to publicly, I guess, denounce the email and that language, that perspective, that point of view, that sentiment, but beyond that, there’s nothing we can legally do to get him to step down from the ‘Board of Ed’ or the DTC,” Camacho said.
He asked Meyer-Mitchell to explain the Board of Education’s civility code.
“This email certainly violated that and was executed after we signed it, however the code of conduct has no teeth, we can’t act on it,” she said. “So essentially it is upon the individual, as it was for Jack Chiaramonte in 2014, to come to the realization that perhaps it is more divisive for that person to be active on the board, to continue to create controversy.”
“The ball is in his in his court. But the bottom line is that we want to make the message clear on our position,” Melendez said.
‘It’s a monster now’
This all goes back to the Norwalk Public Schools Facilities Feasibility Study, Young said, referring to the beginning steps of the Board of Education’s effort to build new schools and renovate existing ones, back in 2015-16.
“I think District B would not be doing what it needed to do for the people we serve if we did not ask questions,” she continued. “… I can be confident and sure in knowing that there are other things that have been said. We’ve only asked questions and we’ve been vilified. We’ve been called obstructionists, against education, all of these things and not a lot of folks from the district have spoken out against those sorts of things. And no one has even come to us ask us what our real opinion was, what our positions were.”
She continued, “I mean, you might have heard our representative, Travis Simms, have a position that didn’t mean that that was everybody. We are not a monolith.” They had a state expert down and asked about options and “those are questions that I think that if this were a project that was slated in any other district, their residents would be asking the same questions.”
“I think moving forward as a party, we have to speak up sooner and not allow this to go on,” Young said. “Because it’s my understanding that it just doesn’t happen in this arena. It happens at the schools. It happens with young people. It happens all the time. And as long as we allow it to grow … it’s a monster now, and now we’re trying to tame the monster. And you can’t, it’s very difficult. We have no teeth.”
Penn-Williams said Barbis sent the angry email the same night there had been a “great meeting” at the South Norwalk library, about the Concord Street school, which is on Chestnut Street and is currently the home of Columbus Magnet School.
“You all know that Mike Barbis does not like me. You all know, I don’t like him,” she said. “OK, so, I’m walking out the meeting …. He runs up to me and he kisses me on my cheek… I kept walking.”
“That’s frustration? I’m sorry, that was not frustration,” she said. “It’s frustration now that he was caught and whomever sent me that email, thank you.”
Barbis’ Facilities Committee didn’t have meetings for months, and then came out with a plan for new schools, Bruce Morris observed.
“Then we started having our own meetings to communicate to people what was happening, so they can make good choices,” he said. “All we were asking was to have a venue where our choices and options could be vetted. Instead we had a process to get a plan rammed through between October and December 2016.”
Then-BoE Chairman Mike Lyons in 2016 said that there had been numerous public outreach meetings, including two in South Norwalk.
Barbis, Lyons and “a bunch of them have gotten away with it too long,” Morris said. “… Many of us … were stigmatized in the media. We came to these meetings to at least let our party know, here’s what’s going on. And no one came out loud to say, this is wrong.”
Penn-Williams asserted that Barbis “called the police on me… I had to go to the police station and make a statement because he, they just fabricated a whole bunch of lies. Mike needs to go. He really does.”
‘Culture of retaliation’
“I don’t feel comfortable speaking to some of the charges of racism, both because of our civility code and due to pending litigation,” Meyer-Mitchell volunteered. “I represent our children and have to protect (Norwalk Public Schools). However, I do want to speak to something Darlene Young alluded to, which is the culture of retaliation and vendetta, which has damaged our community. I experienced that to a very large extent. But I’ve never experienced that in my entire professional career.”
Meyer-Mitchell declined after the meeting to explain what she meant by “pending litigation.” Barbis has snapped at her in many BoE meetings.
The DTC has a lot of work to do “to bring people back together, because I know what the impact on me and my family was of during that,” Meyer-Mitchell said. “And I can only imagine people who have been enduring it for five years, 10 years, 20 years… we have to change the culture.”
Roll call vote
Rilling did not comment during the discussion but called for a roll call vote. Voting in favor were:
- Nicol Ayers
- Dickson DeMarsh
- David Heuvelman
- Laoise King
- Eloisa Melendez
- Elsa Peterson Obuchowski
- Kadeem Roberts
- Darius Williams
- Ron Banks (by proxy)
- Sherelle Harris
- J.J. Byron (by proxy)
- Jody Proct
- Mike Mushak
- Sonia Oliver
- Sharon Stewart
- Martha Dumas
- Travis Simms (by proxy)
- John Kydes
- Pam Parkington (by proxy)
- Stephanie Thomas
- Sam Pride
- Brenda Penn-Williams
- Kay Anderson
- Greg Burnett
- Patricia Marshock
- Barbara Meyer-Mitchell
- Dominique Johnson (by proxy)
- Lynne Moore
- Joe Tamburri
- Deb D’Arinzo
- Tina Duryea
- Colin Hosten
- Esther Murillo
- Lucia Rilling (by proxy)
- Patricia Tinto
Mayor Harry Rilling cast his wife’s vote. Anderson is Board of Education member Bruce Kimmel’s wife. Harris was just reelected to the Board of Education after a two-year hiatus.
“I have to abstain,” Stern said.
“Nobody voted against it,” Hosten said.
The DTC is a 55-member body; 36 votes were cast.
‘Don’t appoint him to anything’
After the meeting, Morris suggested that whoever is elected BoE Chairman on Tuesday shouldn’t appoint Barbis to any Committees.
“Maybe you can’t ask for his resignation, but you can certainly disable his influence,” he said.
Kimmel appears likely to be elected Board of Education Chairman for the upcoming year. Asked about this by email, he responded, “Committee assignments will be finalized after tomorrow night’s organizational meeting.” On Tuesday, he wrote, “I hope to finalize all committee assignments by the end of this week or early next week, at the latest.”
This story was amended at 10:30 a.m. to show additional information from Colin Hosten: DTC members who voted by proxy. That includes Travis Simms, who wasn’t in the original list. At 1 p.m. it was changed to show that Ed Camacho did not second the vote, as he is not a DTC member.