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.)