Monday, April 30, 2007
On April 23, 2007, after reviewing the Board of Finance minutes, I delivered to Mr. Swinkoski's office a more detailed list of what I wanted to put up on the Internet to enable town residents to better understand the budget they will soon have to vote for or against.
Today I received a letter from Mr. Swinkoski in which he says that it will require a significant effort to get me these documents, and that he will advise me of the cost of copying them by the end of next week, that is, by Friday, May 5, so that I can decide how to proceed. On May 14 is the Annual Budget Town Meeting, so what he is saying is that the town will at most have a few days of access to any of the requested documents in order to prepare speeches and questions for the Town Meeting.
In my original letter, I emphasized that I wanted documents in electronic form (faxed or emailed), so that they are more easily put on-line and so that they are more readable (and searchable). The finance department, unlike much of the town government, is heavily computerized. I am sure that much of what I requested is in electronic form and could be sent to me immediately, without much effort, without copying charges, via email. But then the people of this town would have all sorts of budget information at their disposal, including - amazement of all amazements - the budget as amended after the budget hearing, that is, the budget we are going to be asked to discuss and vote on.
I realize that Board of Finance member Michael Freda will call it "incendiary" of me, but is it really too much to expect that the citizens of North Haven have at their disposal the budget they are going to vote on, and that I not be charged for putting it online? Is it too much to expect that my request for documents in electronic form, to share with the people of this town in time for them to be useful, should be respected and complied with, without complaints about the effort and cost of copying?
I will deliver this to Mr. Swinkoski first thing tomorrow morning. I don't have his email address, of course, but he can be reached via 239-5321, the Town Hall general number (no direct lines). Let him know that you'd like him to act now and act electronically, in the best interests of town residents.
Saturday, April 28, 2007
Whether these charges are true or not, we ought to take this opportunity to make some needed changes in how our town government does business. First, we must take a strong stand against the alleged abuses by severing our relationship with these employees. Although none of the three individuals has been convicted of any crimes, there is ample evidence to suggest that they acted unethically and abused the public trust. Therefore, the town should take steps immediately to terminate their employment, and stop paying them as soon as the town’s legal responsibilities allow.
Second, we need to hire an independent, forensic auditor to thoroughly investigate the full scope of the abuses. A forensic auditor would examine the town’s past and present financial practices, systems and procedures; the auditor would uncover how long mismanagement has been going on and recommend ways to fix the problems. It is important to remember that had it not been for the brave individuals who blew the whistle on the Ierardis, we would still not know about any alleged misconduct. To date, some town officials have resisted hiring a forensic auditor. I hope that they will reconsider.
Finally, we need to install, as soon as possible, a process by which whistle blowers who know of wrong doing, can come forward without fear of retribution. It is clear from the affidavits that numerous town workers knew, or strongly suspected, that other town employees were stealing taxpayers’ money. I recommend revamping our ethics board by expanding it to include several new members of the public and requiring it to consider anonymous complaints.
I have written to Mr. Kopetz to inform him of my ideas, and to express my hope that we will be able to work together to investigate the scope of the scandal, and to set in place safeguards to ensure that taxpayers’ money is managed properly. I am looking forward to his reply.
Selectwoman Janet McCarty
Friday, April 27, 2007
Some background. Last week’s North Haven Citizen ran a letter by Republican Board of Finance member Michael J. Freda attacking Janet McCarty essentially for not making clear why she opposed the budget. At the same time I wrote a North Haven Post column, which is also up on this blog, entitled "We Deserve an Honest Budget," in which I argued that the Board of Finance had presented us with a dishonest budget once again, because it once again severely cuts capital expenditures; underfunds energy costs, repair and maintenance, and overtime; underestimates revenue; and accepts the cost of no-bid contracts when it could have insisted on less expensive competitively bid contracts.
In this week’s North Haven Citizen, I respond to Freda’s letter and he responds to mine in both the Post and the Citizen.
Let’s start with his response to my letter. I will include his attack on Janet McCarty and my response to that letter in a separate blog entry.
Read my blog entry, and then read his response below, with my responses inserted into it. I have also bolded Mr. Freda’s name-calling. His letter is in a different font from my comments, and is indented.
Freda’s April 27 Letter to the EditorMr. Freda makes no effort to try to understand my logic.
I continue to be concerned with the level of distorted views that are being presented to each of you regarding this year's budget.
I would like to comment on an article that I read last week by Mr. Robert Wechsler entitled "Residents Deserve an Honest Budget." I had to read this article twice in an effort to make sense out of the unbelievably absurd nature of his comments.
Ladies and gentlemen, lets try to understand his logic.
Mr. Wechsler writes that the Board of Finance "employs games and ruses" and tells you that for 2007-08 budget, the Board has cut back our first selectman's request for capital expenses from $4.5 million to $600 thousand, for appearance purposes, so we can then fund raises for all of the selectmen and department heads. Very interesting logic from Mr. Wechsler considering that we have cut back $3.9M in capital requests to help keep your taxes from going up any further. To then suggest that we did this to fund raises, which total less than $30,000, for all selectmen and department heads defies any type of logical thinking at all.I did not make this cause-and-effect connection between the capital expenditures cut and raises. Freda is inserting this false logic and then criticizing me for it. But it was wrong of me to juxtapose these unrelated, but both dishonest acts on the part of the Board of Finance. What I believe is that it should be the First Selectman who asks for raises for his department heads, since he is their boss.
Mr. Wechsler also writes that there is an "intentional underfunding of budget items" such as energy costs, repairs and maintenance. I also find this very interesting because Mr. Wechsler apparently knows what our town energy costs are going to be at year end despite the ever rising energy costs that all of us are faced with.Here’s an example of what I meant by energy cost underfunding. These are the budget numbers for Sanitation gas and oil. Energy costs are underfunded in many more areas, including fire, transfer station, streets & roads, parks, senior center, and police:
2003-4 Actual - $20K; 2004-5 Budgeted - $11K;
2004-5 Actual - $28K; 2005-6 Budgeted - $11K;
2005-6 Actual - $35K; 2006-7 Budgeted - $11K;
2006-7 Est. - $36K; 2007-8 Budget Request - $11K
Yes, gas and oil prices have gone up, from $20K back in 2003-4 to $36K this past year. But has the Board of Finance’s budgeting recognized this – not predicted, but recognized what we all know has happened? No, it still budgets the same tiny figure of $11,000. No one needs a crystal ball to see that this is not an honest guess.
As far as repairs and maintenance being "intentionally underfunded," it appears that Mr. Wechsler also knows when a boiler at the middle school is going to break down or when a roof is going to start leaking at one of the other schools. I guess that Mr. Wechsler also knows when a police officer is going out on disability which leads to increased overtime. I offer you the above assessment because I can offer no other explanation to his convoluted thought process when he states that we are "intentionally underfunding" these line items.The basis for my criticism of the Board of Finance’s underfunding of energy costs, repairs and maintenance, and overtime is not based on a crystal ball in my possession, but the fact that year in and year out the Board of Finance underfunds these items (I say this in my blog entry, although Freda ignores this important fact). I have been criticizing this practice for years, as have many others, none of whom has yet been called "unbelievably absurd" for doing so. Here are some numbers to back up my argument, with respect to maintenance costs and Freda’s choice of overtime, police overtime (I would follow Freda on school maintenance, too, but I said nothing in my letter about the education budget, nor have I ever written or spoken about the education budget).
Sanitation Maintenance of Equipment
2003-4 Actual - $44K; 2004-5 Budgeted - $23K;
2004-5 Actual - $44.5K; 2005-6 Budgeted - $23K;
2005-6 Actual - $78K; 2006-7 Budgeted - $23K;
2006-7 Est. - $80K; 2007-8 Budget Request - $23K
Yes, the maintenance costs vary greatly year to year: from a low of $44K to a high of $80K last year. But the amount budgeted never varies, even as the actual costs have nearly doubled. The underfunding has become a more serious problem, not something to be proud of. There is also underfunding of maintenance in such areas as central facilities/buildings, fire/buildings, water pollution control/sewers, streets & roads/equipment.
2003-4 Actual - $371K; 2004-5 Budgeted - $335K;
2004-5 Actual - $515K; 2005-6 Budgeted - $325K;
2005-6 Actual - $471K; 2006-7 Budgeted - $325K;
2006-7 Est. - $485K; 2007-8 Budget Request - $325K
Police overtime does vary year to year, from an actual cost of only $371 back in 2003-4 to as high as $515K the following year. But the Board of Finance’s figure has been at least 50% lower than actual costs three years in a row. It’s not about a single officer on disability, but an ongoing pattern of underfunding. The Republicans used to say that the reason for this was to keep overtime down, that if the Board of Finance put in a higher figure, the police department would take advantage of it. But the lower figure hasn’t had any effect. It’s a policy that doesn’t work, except to make the budget look lower than it should.
Overtime is underfunded in such other areas as streets & roads, maintenance, assessor's office, and sanitation. Overtime has been well funded in community services, where it was allegedly taken illegally.
Mr. Wechsler also states that we intentionally underestimate revenue collections.
Let's take a look at the real facts. We currently plug in a collection rate of 97.5 percent for taxes being collected in North Haven. Mr. Wechsler apparently thinks that we are purposely assigning a low rate to underestimate revenue.
In the past seven years, North Haven has averaged a tax collection rate of 97.21 percent. Go back another three years, lets now use a 10-year period of tax collections, and North Haven has averaged 97 percent of all taxes being collected. This compares to the 97.5 percent that we forecast. This is certainly not "underestimating" revenue collection. It seems to me that Mr. Wechsler has no idea of these facts. The problem here is that people with political agendas tend to ignore some key facts because all they care about is their own political game plan.
Mr. Freda, I take my facts from director of finance Mr. Palmeri. Here’s what he said the last three years, quoted from the Board of Finance minutes:
Minutes of the April 6, 2005 Board of Finance meeting: "Mr. Palmeri ... stated that tax collections were at 98.6%."
Minutes of the April 5, 2006 Board of Finance meeting: "Mr. Palmeri ... stated that tax collections were at 99.6%."
Minutes of the March 14, 2007 Board of Finance meeting (not updated in the April minutes, but surely higher): "Mr. Palmeri referred to these reports, stating that tax collections at the end of February were at 98.9%."
That’s a three-year average of 99%. That’s a good bit higher than the 97.5% forecast by the Board of Finance. What key facts did I ignore, Mr. Freda? How far back do I have to go in history to not be pushing a political agenda? Your Board of Finance did not make its minutes available to the public (in the library or online) until I put them up (from 2005 on) on the northhaveninfo.org website, so I only went back as far as I had access to the information.
In addition, if revenues haven't been underestimated the last few years, where have the huge surpluses come from? From the state, which everyone says gives us too little money?
Let me cut through all of his nonsensical claims and accusations and tell you exactly how I view his article. His article is the most irresponsible piece of sensationalistic propaganda that I have ever seen on any level. There is one thing that I do agree with Mr. Wechsler on and that is the games and ruses must stop. His political games and ruses.What is my political agenda? It’s interesting that Freda mentions it again and again, but never identifies it. I am an Independent with absolutely no support from the Democratic Town Committee. Among the people I consider allies are right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats. What brings us together is that we all want the town government to open up, we want everyone to have a voice, we want transparency, respect, professionalism, and ethics in this town.
He should apologize to each and every one of you for taking his supercharged political agenda and inserting it into this year's budget process. His dizzying display of dubious claims, combined with his total inability to offer constructive solutions, concerns me a great deal. I find it unbelievably ironic that a man who presents himself as a director of City Ethics would write an article of such an irresponsible nature.
Unfortunately, a political agenda will sometimes lead to a distortion of the facts for personal or partisan party political gain.
And me, I want to change the form of government so that our town is run by a trained, professional, nonpartisan town manager. Someone like our School Superintendent.
Is that nonsensical, sensationalistic, propagandistic? No, it’s a reasonable, good government position, and has been for a hundred years. I won’t apologize for it. And I won’t ask Mr. Freda to apologize for questioning my professional and political ethics, or for ignoring the many "constructive solutions" I have proposed.
What is the personal or partisan party political gain I am seeking? I have absolutely nothing personal or financial to gain from anything I’ve said. I am not a member of any party and, in fact, I helped get a Republican mayor elected in the New Jersey town where I lived before moving here fourteen years ago. The only office I have run for, as an Independent without any partisan support, is Town Meeting moderator, for the principal purpose of allowing town residents to ask town officials questions. Since we got a moderator who allows this, I have not run again.
No, Mr. Freda, you can’t get me on the partisan politics accusation, and it’s clear from my responses above that I have not said anything irresponsible. You can disagree with me. I welcome open debate. But you do not. When Board of Finance member Michael Hallahan suggested it, you did not support discussion of the most serious financial problem in our town: no-bid contracts. The Register keeps writing editorials about it, the Post has written about it, too. These are not irresponsible newspapers. And it is not irresponsible for me to demand that the Board of Finance consider the issue.
It is worth noting that nowhere in Freda's letter does he mention no-bid contracts. I would call that the most irresponsible omission I’ve ever seen, but then I would sound like Freda. He is not an honest debater, and he has approved what is not an honest budget.
The other reason that might tie into why he wrote this article could revolve around the actual analogy that he referenced when he referred to the first selectman and the board as "Charley Brown" and "Lucy." Mr. Wechsler seems to have become a caricature of the very analogy that he has presented to each of you. He has now become the "Charley Brown" of his own analogy. The question now is: "Who is the real Lucy?"
Ah, a veiled comment for a change. If I read this correctly, it is a reference to that Mata Hari of North Haven, Janet McCarty. For the record, let me tell you that I disagree with McCarty more than with everyone else in this town put together. That's because she talks to me, she seeks my advice, she asks for my opinion. I never tell her what she wants to hear, and she never tells me what to do. To suggest otherwise, based on absolutely no evidence at all, is ... well, we won't go to that whatever-I-say-bounces-off-me childish place.
Mr. Freda, I invite you to respond either in a comment or, if you would like to have blogging rights in this blog, send me an email and I will send you an invitation (that’s the way Google does it).
Yet another mix of willful incompetence (not questioning the work of an auditor whose poor work had been all over the newspapers; I feel incompetent myself for not realizing the connection) and propaganda. Our director of finance, first selectman, and board of finance should have done something to protect our town from an auditor whose work was so questionable.
The other important thing that this editorial points out is that Kopetz should have suggested a forensic auditor. The appointment of a forensic auditor should not have turned into what appears to be a political act, that is, the Democratic Town Committee proposing it, as well as many individuals on their own.
Of course, the editorial could not say what I can say, what we all know: Kopetz left the decision to have a forensic audit to the Republican-dominated Board of Finance subcommittee, because he knew how it would come out, and could stand above the fray. But he did not anticipate so much opposition so quickly.
Things have changed, Mr. Kopetz. You can't play these games anymore.
Click on the editorial below to see it at full size.
Thursday, April 26, 2007
This is a personal thing, that is, about the personality of our particular first selectman. But it also has to do with our form of government. If you go to the North Haven Board of Education website, you’ll find a staff directory that has everyone’s e-mail addresses: teachers, principals, administrators, even the Superintendent of Schools, Sara-Jane Querfeld.
Why is Querfeld’s e-mail address public while her equivalent chief executive officer, Kopetz, won’t give his out when asked? Because she is a trained, professional, nonpartisan administrator who lives in the 21st century and understands the importance of openness and communication with town residents. Kopetz is not trained, not a professional administrator, as partisan as they come, and lives in the 20th century, even though he’s exactly the same age as I am.
That is what we get with a form of government established in the 17th century for villages. What I want for this town is a form of government like North Haven’s schools (and like every other school system in the state, and the great majority of towns in the country). A Kopetz would be totally out of place in a council-town manager government, except perhaps as a weak mayor (the official term for the position, not a description of Kopetz) who attends store openings and leads parades.
Mr. Kopetz is currently working on a directive concerning transparency in North Haven government, something the Kopetz administration has offered little of (a secret email address is only a small example), and which I and many others have been demanding for years.
Is there anyone in North Haven who has special expertise and experience with local government transparency? Oh, yeah, me. Yeah, I’m the one asking for all the board minutes and agendas to put up on northhaveninfo.org for town residents to read, and not having a whole lot of luck. I’m the one whose work involves municipal ethics, which includes government transparency.
Have I been consulted? You bet I haven’t. An ethics code? Oh no, better to have our town attorney take a course on municipal ethics, as Kopetz announced in his latest weekly column. That’s all we need. What help to the town could Wechsler be?
On the other side of the town, organizationally speaking, it's another world. I had some problems with the board of education minutes and related matters, and guess what? I’m meeting with Ms. Querfeld next week (I didn’t ask for the meeting; it was offered). That’s what professionals do. They don’t say, I don’t like this guy, this guy has criticized me, so even though he has some good ideas and free expertise he can lend, I don’t want to meet with him. They say, Let’s hear what he has to say, he might have good ideas for making the board of education more transparent.
We have two forms of government in North Haven. One works for the town, the other works against the town. One is a public servant, the other a public master. Simple statements like these are rarely true, but I think this one is an exception.
If you would like to tell Mr. Kopetz what you think of his withholding his e-mail address, you can e-mail him indirectly, via Bill Bennett, who is the town's information specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally I thought this was just another case of the politician's double negative. Peterson may never have indicated he was opposed to a forensic audit, I thought, but he has made it clear that he is not in favor. And in the original form of this blog entry, I looked into what he said in his response to my letter requesting the hiring of a forensic auditor.
But my analysis of his subtle wordmanship is now meaningless, since I learned from reading a transcript of the April 5 Board of Finance meeting, about setting up the auditor subcommittee, that Mr. Peterson has in fact opposed hiring a forensic auditor. Nothing subtle in the following exchange:
Michael Peterson: “One of the things that we would like is a, as Kevin just said, is to have a subcommittee put together that would include Mike Freda and Tim. ... this is the time when we normally would appoint the auditor for this year. So rather than do that we’ll do a RFP to, look at other auditing fir...you know, to come up with a spec...to look at other auditing firms, as to what we want them to do in addition to the audit. You know, perhaps some review of procedural policies and how they’ve been administered and that type of thing. So, if you [the two Democrats on the Board of Finance] want to caucus, we’ll adjourn for 15 minutes to allow you to go over what you’ve just gotten." ...
Janet McCarty: “I have a question, are you looking at forensic auditors?”
Michael Peterson: No!
No, Peterson did not even want to have forensic auditors considered by the audit subcommittee, which is why they were not provided with a list of forensic auditors. Peterson's letter to the editor is as dishonest as the budget he and his colleagues have presented to the town. Peterson owes this town yet another apology, but don't hold your breath. He still seems to think he can get away with saying and doing (and not doing) anything.
There is, however, another, actually more serious issue that arises in Peterson's letter. Peterson seems to have changed his tune, but this is merely another smokescreen, one of the North Haven Republicans' specialties, along with defamation.
His solution has one principal goal: to put off the forensic auditor's report until after the November election. How? By having it be done by the new annual auditor and appear in the annual audit report at the end of the year. No revelations until the election is over -- what more could the people responsible for what happened want?
In addition to the timing, there is a conflict having the same firm that becomes North Haven's annual auditor do a forensic audit. The firm that wins the North Haven contract is not going to have a strong incentive to make its new employer look bad, which is the goal of a forensic audit. A forensic audit must be separate from an annual audit.
Peterson and Kopetz (who supported the same thing in his latest weekly column) know this, but the Republicans' reelection is more important to them than getting to the bottom of what happened and moving forward to gain the public trust. They want what happened to stay under wraps until after the election. This cannot be allowed, not for the Democrats, but for the town.
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Friends of the Library President Phyllis M. Kaercher, whom I do not know, wrote a letter dear to my heart. She argues that the town meeting form of government is not the pure democracy people think it is. It allows the rule of the few -- majority selectmen, finance director, and department heads -- over the rest. To successfully win against these people at town meetings, you have to pack the house the way the fire fighters did at the last town meeting. Ms. Kaercher calls for charter revision as the remedy. Amen.
Former chair of the Democratic Town Committee Bernard McLoughlin wrote about what has to be done to restore public trust. His answers are: conduct a forensic audit, give the elected town treasurer more responsibility for financial oversight, hire a consultant to recommend a new administrative structure, including an independent human resources administrator [until now HR was run by finance director Vincent Palmeri], commit to total transparency and ethics in town government, and hold officials accountable. If we were to change our form of government and bring in an outside, nonpartisan town manager, that would deal with the financial oversight, administrative structure, and human resources issues. I hope Bernie will consider charter revision as one of his ways to restore public trust and create a more fair and efficient government.
Last but not least is Jim Leahy's letter, which he has given me permission to reprint here. It contains a lot of good ideas, especially his request for First Selectman Kopetz to resign from the Board of Finance. Having the chief executive officer as a member of the body that provides oversight over him and his department heads is a serious conflict of interest, which is why other towns do not allow it. But what is considered unacceptable elsewhere is accepted without question in North Haven. Well, things are being questioned now. Here's Leahy's letter to the editor.
It’s absolutely amazing to me that First Selectman Kevin Kopetz is finally discovering that an apparent widespread lack of fiscal and management accountability exists in North Haven. Only after three high ranking officials were arrested, did he insist upon competitive bids, tighter controls over expenditures and written justification for overtime. Were the First Selectman and members of the Board of Finance asleep at the switch?
The Board of Finance has to start accepting fiscal responsibility over the manner in which expenditures are made. In addition, First Selectman Kopetz should consider resigning from the BOF, eliminating an obvious conflict of interest.
The taxpayers of North Haven need to continue to question why the Board of Education refused to get competitive bids on the school bus contract for more than 20 years and then hold them accountable. After feeling pressure from the public, the BOE finally solicited bids for this school year. A new contractor was selected, presumably at a lower price than the incumbent. Have we been overpaying for 20 years?
According to an analysis done by a long time North Haven resident, the $75 million North Haven High School should have cost at least $10-15 million less than it did. While it is an outstanding facility, which I voted for, there are many areas where the Town added cost to the specifications without adding value. The lavish Theatre is a lot smaller than the Auditorium at the old high school. Money was wasted on design features of the Auditorium, which do not add to the quality of education. This is yet another situation where some Town officials had an apparent callous disregard for those who are paying the bills.
Superintendent of Schools Sara Querfeld, whom I believe to be a tremendous asset to the Town, told us at the Budget Meeting that the BOE had nothing to do with the lack of bids on the school maintenance contract. Ms. Querfeld claimed that the Board of Finance handled all of those negotiations, so she didn’t get involved. Few managers in industry would blindly accept a $350,000 charge to their budget and not ask if the costs were indeed fair and reasonable. Did anybody ever ask the obvious question….did the Town get competitive bids?
The taxpayers of North Haven should reject the proposed budget, because recent evidence indicates that the Town has virtually no effective controls as to how our money is spent. An independent auditor should be retained to do a forensic audit, examining all major expenditures made during the last five years, for evidence of competitive bidding and also to determine if we have adequate checks and balances on the use of public funds.
Monday, April 23, 2007
When I did, she could not tell me which boards and commissions file their agendas and minutes with the town clerk’s office (but see below, where I found part of the answer at the library). She said that she had nothing to do with agendas, that I had to go to each board and commission for them. This is a serious problem, because agendas need to be filed only 24 hours before a meeting, so they require quick action to get up on-line so that citizens can know whether they want to go to a particular meeting and have time to prepare for that meeting.
She said that she would have notices of special meetings (which only require 24 hours’ notice as well) and changes in times and locations of meetings placed in the library, but would not fax or email them to me. After I protested, she suggested that she might call me.
The only minutes she could give me were the Town Meeting minutes, in xerox form. I told her that since I am putting these minutes up as a public service to the town – effectively doing the town’s work – I should not be charged for copying (the charge is 50 cents a page). Ms. Payette told me that anyone could come in saying that they were acting in the public interest. As if town information websites were proliferating in North Haven. A serious problem.
She also said that all the other towns around charge $1 per page, as if that mattered. I said that in Hamden you can get most minutes at the library and pay only 15 cents. A man who happened to be in the office (and seemed to spend a lot of time in clerks' offices) named one town clerk's office that charged only 25 cents, and said that most towns charge 50 cents (which is, by the way, the legal limit). He then said, "On the shoreline..." Payette said, "They charge a dollar." "No," he said, "they charge 50 cents."
Then she went into the next office, and when she returned, she told me that she had to charge me, she had no choice. I asked her who could make the decision whether to charge me or not? She is, after all, the town clerk, and the xerox machine and files are in her charge. She stood firm, and I left in a huff.
I went to the library to look at which boards and commissions placed their minutes there. I discovered that the following boards and commissions file their minutes with the town clerk’s office (at least their minutes carry the clerk's office stamp): Cable Advisory Council (although nothing in library since 1996); Economic Development Council (although nothing in library since 2003); and Inland Wetlands Commission (up-to-date). But since few boards or commissions apparently send their minutes to the library, it’s hard to know how many more there are (Payette mentioned the Board of Ethics, but their latest minutes in the library were from 1996).
This is a sad town. The Town Meeting is not even mentioned on the town website, except for a reference to its founding back in the eighteenth century (under History). Neither calls for meetings, resolutions, nor minutes are placed on-line or in the library. Yes, the calls and resolutions are in the local newspapers, but those get thrown out. It’s important to have an ongoing record of them easily available for research, for example, to see patterns in how things are done. Now that we have the Internet, there's no reason not to use it. No, I take that back, there are many reasons, but none of them in the public interest.
My goal in doing what I am doing is to train North Haven’s town government to act transparently, to be open about everything it does. A town clerk should be the leader in seeking transparency, but here in North Haven, our town clerk is dragging her feet and making feeble excuses. Perhaps it is because she knows that the Democrats may not run anyone against her in November. Perhaps the solution is for someone to run. Or to have a clerk appointed by a nonpartisan town manager, the best long-term solution.
Friday, April 20, 2007
The meeting was not properly noticed, so that no reporters showed up.
The members were not prepared. The two Republican members, Timothy M. Doheny and Michael J. Freda, had not read the arrest warrant affidavits, which led to the decision to hire a new auditor, even though they were available on the northhaveninfo.org website. The long and complex auditor request for proposal sample was not provided to the members before the meeting, so this could not be discussed. And although the state’s list of acceptable annual auditors was supplied by acting finance director Edward Swinkoski, he did not provide a list of forensic auditors, although the selection of a forensic auditor, although opposed by Republicans, was one of the topics to be discussed.
On the positive side, about ten citizens, many of them new faces, came to the meeting, and nearly all of them spoke, asking excellent questions and making astute comments. This is a great sign for North Haven.
Michael Hallahan, the lone Democrat on the subcommittee, spoke powerfully about the need for a forensic auditor to help the town heal its wounds (see my notes on the meeting).
Back to the negatives: Doheny and Freda focused on the extra cost of a forensic auditor, guessing that it would not be worth the cost, that they wouldn’t find different information from a regular auditor, and that the town won’t get the money back and that, therefore, the town needs to be more concerned with controls that deal with the future, than with looking back at the past. As one of the audience members said, they seemed to want to sweep past crimes under the rug, and they clutched not only for brooms, but paintbrushes and toothbrushes, to do the work.
Both men argued from their business background. But a town is not a business, and especially a town meeting town. They do not seem aware that it is not about getting the money back, or the money at all. And it is not just about the Ierardis. It is about the damage to public trust caused by an administration where the fiscal manager, finance director Vincent Palmeri, believed it was wrong to question another department head, and where first selectman Kevin Kopetz felt that the right way to deal with wrongdoing is to ask the person accused and accept the answer. How much misconduct might a forensic auditor discover? With this sort of leadership, most likely a lot.
North Haven residents have a right to know what happened, and our elected and appointed officials have a duty to let us know, even if the investigation does harm to more friends and colleagues of theirs. Getting to the bottom of what happened is what a forensic auditor will do (at least with the proper direction), while a new annual auditor will focus on internal controls to prevent misconduct in the future.
What lessons have Doheny and Freda learned from what has happened? Have they realized that regaining the public trust is the first priority? Absolutely not. When I raised the issue of a conflict of interest involving the acting finance director’s involvement in selecting an auditor, and the type of auditor(s) to be selected, both in a letter a week before the meeting and at the meeting itself, the issue was totally ignored. The issue, in short, is that someone should not be involved in choosing, or affecting the choice of, a firm that will be auditing his work. That’s pretty clear, but Doheny tried to act as if I were saying that the finance department should not be allowed to work on the books.
Some good did come out of raising the conflict of interest issue: We learned that Mr. Swinkoski worked for North Haven’s outside auditor before coming inside to help work on the audit, something not even Janet McCarty was aware of. I do not know what the ethics are on this, but I am researching it now, and will report on it this week.
If you can, please come to the next two meetings of this subcommittee, on May 2 and 9, at 6:15 pm in Town Hall (although it may be moved to the Library so that handicapped people will be able to attend; check the website homepage for up-to-date info).
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
North Haveners need to get out of this same sort of funk. Apathy and resignation are not pretty to look at, and they are not only a response to years of ruses and intimidation, they are also an important cause. We are in a spiral of resignation, of a failure to attend town meetings, of failures of good people to run for office, of failures of both parties to take a strong ethical stand on any issue, of believing false attacks on good people, of acceptance that politicians are all bad, so it doesn't really matter.
It matters. There are people who took issue with Joseph Ierardi's ways, and not one of them was listened to by the people who run this town. In fact, these people elected Ierardi chair of the Republican Town Committee. There are those who questioned Vincent Palmeri's clever ruses, and not one of them was listened to. There are those who demanded competitive bidding, and they were told by First Selectman Kopetz that once every 16 years is enough. It's not enough, and Kopetz knew that perfectly well. But he thought he could get away with it, even after being attacked by the New Haven Register's editorial page. And he and his circle will get away with it if the people of North Haven are resigned to pay millions of extra dollars.
North Haven residents must make noise, sound off, and come out as candidates and voters to show the officials of this town that they can't get away with it anymore. If not, they'll get what they accept, and perhaps what they deserve, as well.
Monday, April 16, 2007
April 10, 2007
Michael O. Peterson
Chair, Board of Finance
Dear Mr. Peterson:
Please make sure that neither the Comptroller nor the First Selectman speak with any member of the special auditor subcommittee, or with any auditor candidate, regarding selection of an auditor or the auditor’s duties. Both men have been interviewed as part of the investigation, and both of them may be implicated in the alleged conspiracy, since both were apparently aware of events that led to the arrests and did nothing about them. Both have their reputations and careers to think about it and, therefore, have a conflict with the public interest in providing the town with the most complete picture of what happened. There is also the appearance of impropriety to consider.
Further, since the meetings of the auditor subcommittee will not be concerned with the events that occurred, but only with the selection of an auditor, I believe these meetings must, by law, be public and properly noticed pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act. If there is disagreement with this, I ask that you and I ask the FOI Commission for the appropriate procedure and what, under the circumstances, would be required to allow the holding of an executive session.
If either the Comptroller or First Selectman does speak with any member of the auditor subcommittee about the selection of an auditor or the duties of the auditor, or if the subcommittee meets in an executive session not approved by the FOI Commission, I will do everything in my power to have the job of selecting and overseeing the special auditor taken from the Board of Finance and handled by an independent individual or body.
Finally, I ask that a forensic auditor rather than a regular auditor be hired, considering the recent arrests and the involvement of some of our town’s most senior officials.
cc: Michael T. Hallahan, Michael J. Freda, Timothy M. Doheny, Kevin R. Kopetz, Edward Swinkoski, Janet McCarty
Here is the letter I received in response:
April 14, 2007
Dear Mr. Wechsler
The purpose of this correspondence is to replv to your letter dated April 10, 2007 regarding the North Haven Board of Finance and the selection of independent accountants to perform the audit of the Town of North Haven for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2007. As vou noted the Board of Finance has established a bi-partisan subcommittee "The Subcommittee", comprised of Messer's Doheny, Freda and Hallahan, for the explicit purpose of preparing a Request for Proposal "RFP" for the fiscal year end 2007 audit and a review of the financial internal controls and "Best Practices" of all Town Departments and Agencies, as well as a list of potential independent accounting firms to solicit proposals from. Once proposals are submitted, The Subcommittee will interview potential candidates and make its recommendation of the top choices to the Board of Finance. The Board of Finance will then make the final selection. The independent accounting firm selected to perform the audit and review will decide to whom they need to communicate with in order to perform the required services.
The Subcommittee's meetings will beheld in compliance with the applicable Sections of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act.
CC: Kevin J. Kopetz, Timothy M. Doheny, Michael J. Freda, Michael T. Hallahan, Janet McCarty, Edward Swinkoski
Note that Mr. Peterson's letter ignores most of what I say in my letter. It says nothing about communications between the Subcommittee members and the Comptroller (Mr. Swinkoski) and First Selectman Kopetz, and its only reference to these two men's communications with the auditor refers to communications involved in the auditor's performance of services, which I did not mention at all. Most important, Mr. Peterson says nothing about the appearance of impropriety involved in the sort of communications I mentioned in my letter.
Mr. Peterson also does not say whether the Subcommittee meetings will be open or not. Since I suggest that, if we disagree, we ask the Freedom of Information Commission for advice, his saying that the Subcommittee will follow the law is not responsive, because I do not know its interpretation of the law. I do know that the Board of Finance has held closed subcommittee meetings in the past.
Finally, Mr. Peterson ignores my request for a forensic auditor rather than an ordinary auditor.
The most important omission is of my concerns about an ethical problem with the Comptroller and First Selectman being involved in the selection of an auditor, under the circumstances of alleged wrongdoing and their possible awareness of the wrongdoing and failure to act. (I want to make it clear here that the ethical problem is not about any wrongdoing they might have done, but rather about their positions, that is, the fact that the auditor will be hired to check into the accounts of the Finance Department (which the Comptroller now heads) and of the administration as a whole, which the First Selectman heads.)
Every time I have mentioned any possible ethics problem in North Haven, town officials have ignored it and done nothing about it, despite the fact that municipal ethics is what I do (check out my municipal ethics blog). I have no problem with people disagreeing with me - that's what discussion is for - but when an elected official simply ignores someone who lives in town and works in the field of municipal ethics, what does that say? Is it accidental that two of my past ethical concerns involved Joseph Ierardi and Vincent Palmeri, two of the three town officials who have been arrested? Or that an ethics complaint concerning Mr. and Mrs. Ierardi, filed by someone else, was dismissed?
The first Subcommittee meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, April 18 at 6:00 p.m, at Town Hall Conference Room #1. I will be there to make sure it is open to the public. Please come if you can. We can make a difference.
Sunday, April 15, 2007
Giving selectpersons a number makes it appear that the First Selectman's running mate is more important than the opposing party's first selectman candidate. There is nothing in the Town Charter that gives a number to any but the First Selectman. The First Selectman is the chief executive officer of the town government. The other two selectpersons are equal in every way. The opposing party's selectperson should be referred to either as, simply, Selectwoman McCarty or as Democratic Selectwoman McCarty.
Which brings up gender. The female gender does not exist in our Town Charter, because it has not been touched in 26 years. So officially McCarty is Selectman McCarty. It would be ridiculous to have a charter revision commission set up only to deal with this, but this is one of many topics a charter revision commission should be set up to deal with. Respecting the Charter's omission of the female gender is to respect the administration's ongoing, irresponsible decision not to allow our town to take a look at its Charter.
I will refer to Janet McCarty as Selectwoman McCarty and to Bill Mitchell as Selectman Mitchell. Doing this both respects the Town Charter over people who demean the Democratic selectperson, and disrespects our administration's refusal to allow changes to the Town Charter that should long ago have been made.
Saturday, April 14, 2007
What do I mean by "games" and "ruses." Let’s start with one big item, "Capital." This is the money available to pay for equipment and other capital expenditures. Look at these numbers:
2004-5 Bd of Selectmen Budget Request (BoS) $4.9m / 2004-5 BoF Budget $.5m
2005-6 BoS $4m / 2005-6 BoF $.4m
2006-7 BoS $4.2m / 2006-7 BoF $.2m
2007-8 BoS $4.5m / 2007-8 BoF $.6m
Is the First Selectman Charlie Brown to the Board of Finance’s Lucy, having his request for capital expenditures pulled out from under him year after year? No, the trick’s on us. Mr. Kopetz knows his capital request won’t make it into the budget. His request simply allows the BoF (of which he is a full voting member) to look like it’s seriously cutting the Selectmen’s budget every year, when in fact it’s adding in unrequested (yet expected) raises for the First Selectman and his department heads, etc.
And then, usually in August, the Town Meeting is asked to pay for capital equipment that was taken out of the budget. This year, the BoF argued that it was all emergency purchases and couldn’t wait for the budget, even though the Fire Department had been asking for a new emergency vehicle for years.
And then there’s the intentional underfunding of budget items. Year after year, such budget items as energy costs, repair and maintenance, and overtime are significantly underbudgeted, so that the budget is lower than what will actually be spent.
To allow this, revenues from taxes are underestimated. This gives the Kopetz administration extra money in the till to distribute as it chooses, through budget transfers, without the approval of the Town Meeting. And the BoF goes along with this ruse.
How do they move around large amounts of money without our approval? The law says that Town Meeting approval is required for budget transfers of $20,000 or more (excluding those taken out of the contingency fund). Last year the BoF approved 37 transfers each in the amount of $19,999, totaling $739,963. This ruse alone took away the Town Meeting’s right to approve 61% of the total transfers.
But it was more complicated than this. For example, one budget item, garbage tipping fees, underfunded by $75,318, was divided as follows: $20,062 to be approved by the Town Meeting, $19,999 approved by the BoF, and $35,257 funded by the contingency fund. If you don’t follow, it’s because the BoF doesn’t want you to. You’re just a taxpayer, after all.
The games and ruses have to stop. The BoF has to hold a special meeting, apologize to the people of this town, and get down to work giving us an honest budget. It also needs to insist on the true competitive bidding of every contract over $1,000 (as required by the Charter), because we have paid millions of extra tax dollars for unbid contracts. Finally, it must make citizen questions and statements part of the meeting, so that they, and the BoF’s responses, are televised.
Not only is the town section of our government budget dishonest, but it is also much higher than Connecticut towns our size that are wealthier than North Haven, as I pointed out at the budget hearing. Until our BoF fulfills its fiduciary duties to us, we must step up to the plate and reject every dishonest budget it presents to us.
When our police chief spoke out at the last town meeting in favor of the more expensive emergency vehicle, something even the fire chief did not have the courage to do, his responsible act was downright revolutionary.
And it’s not just officials. Town employees come out and vote with town officials as a block not only for ordinances and appropriations, but also for such things as preventing town residents from asking town officials questions at town meetings.
Loyalty is important to hold families and other groups together. But it is not itself a virtue. It only enables one to be virtuous. It allows one to be fair, compassionate, honest and open with people. But only some people. It is an obstacle to being virtuous to people outside the group. To be loyal to one’s supervisors and fellow officials often requires one to be unfair, dishonest and deceptive, and closed to outsiders. And to our town government, we are the outsiders.
Loyalty is not good for democracy. In a democracy, government officials and employees are loyal to the people, not to each other. In addition, internal loyalty makes people feel they can get away with anything, because they have so many people willing to protect them. And it leads to the exclusion and intimidation of people who have a lot to offer this town.
What can we do? We need respected people in the community to openly criticize our town’s unethical environment and offer their services to form a government that is loyal to the people of North Haven. We need ethics education for every town employee and official. We need independent enforcement of better ethics laws, and complete transparency, so that all public information is available on the Internet.
And we need town residents to either come in large numbers to town meetings or vote to change our form of government to one led by a professionally trained town manager with no partisan or local loyalties.
(This appeared as my letter to the editor of the April 13, 2007 North Haven Advocate.)