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Bridge Controversy: Outrage Over Rubber-Stamping

The Lakeview Avenue bridge panel says New Canaan's First Selectman's office isn't cooperating.

Saying they're angry over controversial legal fees associated with the $1.6 million — money that First Selectman Jeb Walker has said "fell through the cracks" — New Canaan residents fired away at the Board of Selectman Thursday night during a meeting at Town Hall.

“That’s a crack along the lines of the Grand Canyon,” resident Frederick Chang said during the fourth meeting of the .

The meeting marked the latest installment in a controversy that emerged six weeks ago, when Town Council members were by a $617,000 judgment against the town, handed down by the American Arbitration Association in a dispute about the bridge.

The American Arbitration Association handed down its decision Feb. 25, ordering the town to pay Loureiro Contractors, Inc. $597,086, plus arbitration and administrative fees that will cost the town an additional $102,756.25, according to arbitration documents. In addition, the town has accrued close to $1 million in related costs, including approximately $800,000 in legal fees, town officials have said.

On Thursday, residents expressed anger over the alleged rubber-stamping of such fees by the town treasurer, V. Donald Hersam, Jr.

“I’m shocked to hear that the Treasurer, a paid and elected official, uses a rubber stamp as his signature,” Chang said. “Someone who runs for a position like that should be ready to spend more time and attention to these things. If they can’t do that, than they shouldn’t run for the position.”

Town resident Roger Williams agreed.

“The idea that an elected official is using a stamp is [inconceivable] to me,” Williams said.

At several points throughout the evening, Town Council Secretary and subcommittee chair Kit Devereaux told the public and selectmen that the bridge panel had been formed to "learn the historical facts in order to come to the truth [of what happened]."

Subcommittee members questioned Walker's handling of the process.

“Even though there were things that did not go well during this process, it is the same process we have used in other arbitration situations,” Walker said.

Walker said he felt that it was necessary to follow the usual process because he felt it was in the best interest of New Canaan taxpayers. He said that it wasn’t necessary to make changes to the procedures that he was accustomed to. Part of the steps in his process included offering contractors settlements and arbitration.

“They turned that down,” Walker said. “Do I think there are things we can do differently in the future? I absolutely do.”

The selectmen told subcommittee members that they had begun their own investigation into the case. During that investigation, the board came up with suggestions to avoid future “missteps,” Walker said.

“If this does become a learning opportunity, if we understand there are intangible decisions made and that, as I tell my children, there are no alternate reality machines, we can move forward with a better understanding of the legal process,” Selectman Sally Hines said.

Devereaux said she perceived a lack of assistance from Walker.

"I would like to express my disappointment that the Selectmen's Office has declined to help the Subcommittee in its fact-finding responsibilities,"she said."It is imperative that the Town Council, and by its appointment, the Subcommittee, understand all of the facts that surrounded this situation," she added. "It is possible that new ordinances will result from these meetings, and that makes it particularly important that we understand the circumstances."

Walker said the board has had "a number of discussions in the departments involved."

"In fairness to my two colleagues on the Board of Selectman, they received their information along the way," Walker said.

Hines and Walker said that when the BOS entered the process of litigation with the contractors, it had no choice but to move forward with proceedings.

“To pull out of anything at that point in time would have caused us to lose the money we had already invested, as well as leave us with the contactors’ claims,” Walker said.

Walker said that the result of the arbitration was somewhat favorable to the town and its residents, and that when there is a legal proceeding against the town, all town bodies should be involved in the decision on whether or not to move forward.

“I don’t think any of [the BOS members] could have made intelligent judgements,” he added.

Subcommittee members responded well to Walker’s recommendation for new billing guidelines and a billing limit.

“My recommendation is that we change that process in town now,” Walker said.

Town Council and subcommittee member Thomas O’Dea asked when Walker began personally receiving the legal bills.

“From what I can tell, you didn’t get these legal bills that range from September 2005 to the present, until September 2010," O'Dea said.

Walker responded: “I’ve gotten a summary sheet on a monthly basis."

The BOS had been handing bills over to Mike Pastore, according to Selectman Rob Mallozzi. Regardless of who received the summary, Walker said he felt that the bills accurately reflected the contractors’ fees.

“When there is information available to everybody, it’s like the kid in the pool who drowns when there are forty people around,” Town Council and subcommittee member Beth Jones said. “Everybody assumes everyone else will take responsibility."


(Editor's Note: The name of the Town Treasurer was added to this article. It was omitted from the original version and Kit Devereoux's quote was corrected.)

John Sheffield July 01, 2011 at 11:08 PM
It should also be pointed out that quote was made earlier in the evening after the reading of everyone's written prepared remarks. Ultimately, the committee asked many questions and in fact exhausted all their questions, followed by questions from other Town Council members and ultimately from the public in attendance. the selectmen and town administrated answered all questions asked of them. I thought it was a very good meeting with many positive ideas coming out of it.
John Sheffield July 02, 2011 at 03:07 AM
It should also be pointed out that quote was made earlier in the evening after the reading of everyone's written prepared remarks. Ultimately, the committee asked many questions and in fact exhausted all their questions, followed by questions from other Town Council members and ultimately from the public in attendance. The selectmen and town administrator answered all questions asked of them. I thought it was a very good meeting with many positive ideas coming out of it. It started at 7:30p and went past 10p so there was nearly 3 hours of "cooperation". I believe the author's subtitle of the article to be misleading.
Roger Williams July 02, 2011 at 03:47 PM
I agree with Mr. Sheffield that as a whole the meeting was productive and positive between the Board of Selectmen and this Town Council Subcommittee. However, three things came out of this meeting that warrant further consideration. First is the Board of Finance and their involvement in both approving the legal bills and approving transfers of funds from other accounts to pay these fees. We need to hear from the Board of Finance, yet there was no decision by the Subcommittee to ask the Board of Finance to appear before it so that the citizens of New Canaan can receive the answers from that government body. The reason given why the BofF would not be asked to appear was related to vacation schedules in July and August. We also need to hear from the Town Council member who was present at the Sept 2010 Board of Finance executive session where the town's arbitration counsel gave a full update as to the state of the arbitration and the fast escalating legal bills (which at that time had exceeded $700,000). If the Subcommitte is serious about improving the process (which I believe they are) they need to ask questions of all who were involved. Thank you.
SCC July 03, 2011 at 01:54 PM
Roger: The sub committee did hear from the Board of Finance, in the persons of both Jeb Walker (Chairman of BoF) and Neil Budnick. And there was no involvement of the Board of Finance in approving the legal bills. The minutes of the Board of Selectmen meetings make it very plain that, in accord with its responsibility, the Board of Selectmen approved the legal bills. BTW, my recollection of the meeting was that the question before the subcommittee was not whether the Board of Finance should appear at all, but rather whether the whole committee should appear, or simply a representative in the person of Mr. Budnick. The point was made that, given summer vacation schedules, it would be very difficult to find a date on which all members, plus members of the subcommittee, would be available. The marginal value of requiring all BoF members to be present has to be weighed against the delay in the work of the subcommittee that would be inevitable should such a requirement be effected.
Casual Fridays July 03, 2011 at 02:05 PM
Paul Giusti and Tucker Murphy were present at the BOF Executive Session in September 2010 related to the arbitration proceedings. Voters have been asking who knew what and when in relation to the litigation costs and award. Neither Giusti nor Murphy has come forward to discuss their involvement in the oversight of the litigation and the payment of the award. Failure to discuss these matters is inconsistent with the call by both candidates for full transparency.
John Sheffield July 03, 2011 at 03:20 PM
As I said in the meeting, the subcommittee must ask that all members of the board of finance attend. If certain members cannot make it due to schedules well then so be it but the meeting should be scheduled at the earliest possible time. It is clear from the videos and minutes of board of finance meetings that they played a role in this timeline of events and actions. Just having one person--Mr Budnick--is not sufficient. Others on the board of finance spoke during the meetings and therefore have a view and insight which must be explored.
heavens sake July 03, 2011 at 04:04 PM
Who is in charge of day-to-day relationship with law firm? Who selects law firm for Town and for what duration? Is it a general representation or by issue, such as bridge arbitration? Anything written on understanding between Town and law firm detailing bases for billing time, expenses etc. ? This is more about who approved individual monthly bills or who attended sub-committee meetings. Finally, are there any disclosures ?
Roger Williams July 05, 2011 at 12:14 PM
I only respond to those who use their real names on these postings.
Toddy Turrentine July 05, 2011 at 12:23 PM
Good for you, Roger. I agree completely.
SCC July 05, 2011 at 01:35 PM
Roger: Respond or not as you like, for whatever reason you want, as you like. But of course you know that the truth value of what I say does not rest upon what my name is. Besides which, if I gave you a name, how could you possibly know if the name I gave you is a real one or not? Disregarding the contents of a post simply because the name on it does not conform to some arbitrary desire is illogical.
John Sheffield July 05, 2011 at 01:49 PM
Goes to credibility and accountability. If you can't follow the simple rules of this website, then how can anyone believe what you write? All members of BoF should be invited on a date certain, and then respond if they intend to make that meeting or not. Simple as that. The Chair of the subcommittee should be equally displeased that the BoF, as an entity (not just one individual), is not even being asked to assist the subcommittee in its fact finding responsibilities. BTW, there is a separate discussion on whether an individual should be allowed on both Town Council and BoFinance. I think not. Further exemplifies the cozy nature of the current roster of those involved in our town government. New membership is needed, across the board.
John Sheffield July 05, 2011 at 02:04 PM
Goes to credibility and accountability. If you can't follow the simple rules of this website, then how can anyone believe what you write? All members of BoF should be invited on a date certain, and then respond if they intend to make that meeting or not. Simple as that. The Chair of the subcommittee should be equally displeased that the BoF, as an entity (not just one individual), is not even being asked to assist the subcommittee in its fact finding responsibilities. BTW, there is a separate discussion on whether an individual should be allowed on both Town Council and BoFinance. I think not. Further exemplifies the cozy nature of the current roster of those involved in our town government. New membership is needed, across the board.
Roy A. Abramowitz July 05, 2011 at 02:36 PM
I agree with Roger Williams. Any committee that is serious in doing a forensic examination of the chain of events and causation of this debacle and wasting of taxpayer funds and resources must realize that it is imperative to question everyone on every committee. Why give passes to some and question others. During municipal election the process gives questions as to a "political agenda" since a member of the Board of Finance is running for first selectman and incumbants on the Town Council are seeking re-election and being supported by Town Council members involved in the debacle, Lets not have the sub committees work also fall through the cracks.
John Sheffield July 05, 2011 at 02:38 PM
(reposting 3rd time as Reply post does not seem to work this morning) @SCC: Goes to credibility and accountability. If you can't follow the simple rules of this website, then how can anyone believe what you write? All members of BoF should be invited on a date certain, and then respond if they intend to make that meeting or not. Simple as that. The Chair of the subcommittee should be equally displeased that the BoF, as an entity (not just one individual), is not even being asked to assist the subcommittee in its fact finding responsibilities. BTW, there is a separate discussion on whether an individual should be allowed on both Town Council and BoFinance. I think not. Further exemplifies the cozy nature of the current roster of those involved in our town government. New membership is needed, across the board.
SCC July 05, 2011 at 02:54 PM
John: Regarding credibility, you are simply incorrect. The credibility of my posts rests upon the content of those posts, and whether or not those contents conform to the truth, not on who I am or even whether I follow the Patch directive to post under my own name. I am not asking anyone to take my word for anything, and I am not posting things that either cannot be confirmed independently of what I say, or do not follow as a logical consequence of my arguments. To question my posts simply because of the name at the top is nothing more than an ad hominem. It is telling that so many of you find such an ad hominem your chosen recourse against what I say. As for accountability, Patch management knows exactly who I am (indeed I have had extensive e-mail conversations with Patch management over this very issue), and so I am "accountable" for my posts to the only people that matter. If they decide that I am somehow abusing the commenting privilege, they can pull the plug on me at any time. They have not yet done so. I am not, and need not be, "accountable" to you or any other poster.
SCC July 05, 2011 at 03:12 PM
John: From the town website... Town Council members: Kenneth Campbell , Kit Devereaux, Mark DeWaele, John Emert, Paul Foley, Robert Hamill, Christine Hussey, Elizabeth Jones, Stephen Karl, Tucker Murphy , Tom O'Dea , Penny Young Board of Finance Members: C. Daniel Ward, Susan LaPerla, Mary Davis Cody, Robert Spangler, Neil Budnick, Jeb Walker (Chairman), Paul Giusti, Todd Lavieri, Charles Van Vleet, Christine Wagner (Alternate), John Silvestri (Alternate) I don't know whether it is permissable for the same person to serve both on the Town Council and the Board of Finance, but since there is no such person currently serving on both, it is a bit of a mystery how this could possibly "exemplify" anything.
John Sheffield July 05, 2011 at 03:31 PM
Scott: Neil Budnick is serving on the Town Council Subcommittee for the Bridge Arbitration, which is the subject of this article.
SCC July 05, 2011 at 03:59 PM
John: Ah. So to be clear, you think that a Town Council subcommittee ought not be allowed to make use of an advisor if that advisor sits on another town Board? Or is it just the Board of Finance that should be disallowed from acting as an advisor to a TC subcommittee? Or is it any government organization whatsoever? If, for example, a Town Council subcommittee was working on, say, something to do with the fire department, and it invited the Fire Commissioner to sit as an advisor to the committee, would that be an example of the "cozy nature of the current roster of those involved in our town government"?
Roy A. Abramowitz July 05, 2011 at 08:55 PM
SCC: Your analogy is faulted. We are not questioning whether a subcommittee should use an advisor sitting on another town board. The issue is that the actions of the Board of Finance are copulative with that of the First Selectman and the Town Council that approved a budget with inaccurate and incomplete information. We are seeking information on who knew what and when. The public does not want another charade. We must interview all B of F members and TC members to determine who knew about this fiasco and gave support without transparency. Truthful conclusions will never be reached if some of the players are given a pass while others are not. In fact I believe that we should have appointed an independent committee to investigate the events not members of the TC and B of F who are known to vote together. To answer your question of course the Fire Commissioner should be invited as an advisor to a committee addressing fire dept issues. His knowledge is invaluable. However if wrong - doing was being inestigated the advisor should be questioned but not sit on the investigatory subcommittee. And lets make it clear that neither the Fire Commissioner nor the Fire Department did anything wrong . Using a vacation excuse in such an important matter is unacceptable. Thank you
SCC July 06, 2011 at 01:43 AM
Roy: "We are not questioning whether a subcommittee should use an advisor sitting on another town board." It is not at all clear just what John was questioning.  Hence my questions to him.  I await his answers.   "The public does not want another charade. " As I said to you some time ago, you should not conflate your own wants with that of "the public".  You speak for Roy Abramowitz, not "the public". Indeed, to the extent that the phrase "the public" has any meaning at all, the TC and Board of Selectmen, being elected bodies, have a much greater claim on speaking for "the public" than does Roy Abramowitz who, from what I can tell, hasn't been elected to anything by anybody. As for "another charade", what was the first one? You have a very nasty habit of assuming and insinuating malicious motives to others.  Charade? Wrong-doing?  With the sole exception of Jeb Walker, these people you are talking about are all volunteers, donating their time and energy to the town.  Each and every one of them deserves the respect which assumes that even if mistakes were made, they were made honestly and with no ill-intent.   "Using a vacation excuse in such an important matter is unacceptable. " What are you talking about?  No one has used "a vacation excuse".  The point was simply made, by the subcommittee chairman, that due to summer vacation schedules it may prove difficult to find a date on which all members of the BoF would be able to attend.  
Elmcrest July 06, 2011 at 02:20 AM
Huh? The "vacation excuse" is completely real -- by merely assuming no one would be around to be questioned, they have made it so. Why not actually ask everyone and welcome those who can make it? I don't know if Roy Abramowitz will get elected or not, but he might, and I'm pretty sure he speaks, and does so more courageously, for more New Canaan voters than anonymous posters/poseurs on Patch like "SCC" or myself!
John Sheffield July 06, 2011 at 02:23 AM
Scott, it's quite simple really. It may be good govt for a body to invite someone from another body to lend some expertise and advice. The fire dept contract negotiation is a good example of where it would have been helpful to have someone who knows about the FD. By contrast, it does not seem to be govt to include on an INVESTIGATIVE subcommittee someone from another body which may have had something to do with the issue/process being investigated. In short, a BoF member should not, in my opinion, be on the subcommittee but rather the BoF as an entity should be on the questions/"witness" list. As the facts have already shown, by way of the BoF minutes, prior "testimony" of Tim Fisher, Jeb Walker, Mike Pastore and others the BoF had some role and/or knowledge of the issue at hand. To address your pending reply I'm sure, no it is not great that the Town Council itself is investigating an issue in which it may have had a role, but it has already established some credibility in asking Dr DeWaele not to be an official member and to appear on the question/"witness" list, and by the subcommittee's professional handling of the task to date. It may have been better to have had an independent third party do an investigation but that may have come at additional cost and time. I am very confident in Ms Devereaux and the subcommittee. I have asked that it invite all members of BoF to attend a meeting as "witnesses" as soon as possible.
SCC July 06, 2011 at 02:48 AM
Elm: Unlike Roy, I don't profess to speak for anyone other than myself. And as part of "the public", I can assure you that Roy does not speak for me. If/when I pick someone to speak for me, it will be someone not quite so prone to malapropisms.
SCC July 06, 2011 at 02:58 AM
John: If the investigation assumes some kind of wrong doing and hence motivation to hide the truth, then it would not make sense to include persons being investigated as advisors to the committee. However, if the investigation accepts upfront that the relevant bodies were all acting in good faith, and the goal of the investigation is simply to establish what processes and practices went wrong and how they could be improved, as is the case with this investigation, then it makes perfect sense to seek the advice of representatives of relevant bodies.
SCC July 06, 2011 at 03:23 AM
Roy "FYI I was elected to the RTC and elected as the RTC's Treasurer. " Congrats.  Still, you do not speak for "the public" and you should really stop pretending to do so.   "Your 7\8ths crew are the ones that conflate their own wants as the publiuc needs and have told us such at RTC meetings claiming: "they know better than their constituents". " Who, exactly, said this, and in what context?  Please be specific. "My friend you are the one who conflates your own wants of keeping the status quo of inaccurate and uninformed decision making. " I suggest you look up the word "conflate".  Your use of it here makes no sense.   "Of spreading falsities and bad mouthing everyone who disagrees with you." Ah, the irony. Have you no sense of yourself at all?   In any event, I have no "backers". I'm not running for anything.  But I am curious about who you think my "backers" are, and how they have supposedly insinuated malicious motives to others.  And most curiously, how you have come to know who my "backers" are, and who my "TC favorites" are, given that you don't even know who I am.
Roger Williams July 06, 2011 at 04:53 PM
John Sheffield, You are spot on with the issue of potential conflicts. As Jeb testified last week, the Board of Finance were the ones that approved the payment of the legal bills from the Capital Non-Recurring Fund. And they were briefed at the Sept 2010 BofF meeting by Mr. Fisher on both the direction the arbitration was heading as well as the legal bills ($700,000 at the time and growing). And Tucker Murphy from the Town Council was present at this executive session at the invitation of the Board of Finance. And now Ms. Murphy and Mr. Budnick sit on the investigation Sub-Committee asking questions of others but not addressing what they knew and when they knew it (as well as it applies to the entire Board of Finance). I applaud Sally Hines and Rob Mallozzi for reaching out to the State Attorney General for guidance in the proper way for the town to find the needed answers to not only the legal bills, but also how the First Selectman, the head of Public Works and the CFO could pay the arbitration award of $650,000 without the proper appropriation by the Board of Finance and the Town Council. This action is potentially a violation of our Town Charter as well as the State General Statutes. But no questions are being raised on the accountability of these actions. The rest is just mis-management of our Public Works and legal budgets. Good to review so we can correct our mistakes in the future, but ignores the real issue and perhaps leaves that to the Attorney General.
nyyankees July 06, 2011 at 06:04 PM
What was Tucker Murphy doing in an executive session of the Board of Finance? At last week's subcommittee meeting, Tom O'Dea acted as if that was a perfectly normal way things are done in the Jeb Walker administration. Can any elected official just go into any committee's executive sessions, just because they are in attendance and interested? Or is in because she is a friend of many on the Board of Finance. So much for proper procedures!
yardbirdnc July 07, 2011 at 12:16 AM
Why has no one mentioned the name of the Town Treasurer (elected position)? Don Hersham, the owner of NC Advertiser. Why has he been "rubber stamping" invoices for many years that he has been TT??
SCC July 07, 2011 at 11:35 AM
Roger: According to the minutes of the September BoF meeting to which you refer, John Emert was an alternate member of the BoF, and was in attendence. He is now a TC member sitting on the investigation subcommittee. Why aren't you concerned about what he knew and when he knew it, too?
SCC July 07, 2011 at 12:06 PM
Roger/John: What is the significance of Board of Finance meeting of September 2010? Let us suppose for the sake of argument that during the executive session the BoF was fully apprised of the extent of the legal fees to date. What should the BoF have done that it did not do?

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