New Canaan News' top stories of 2011
IRENE TESTS TOWN'S EMERGENCY RESPONSES
Tropical Storm Irene was yet another weather disaster that struck New Canaan this year. Some residents were without power for nearly a week after the storm hit.
At one point, more than 80 percent of town was without power. The down power lines and hazardous road conditions even delayed the first day of school to after Labor Day.
The trees were the biggest issue. Office of Emergency Management officials said trees cause New Canaan more problems than other nearby towns.
"While this is a statewide event, New Canaan did suffer quite a lot. Many large cites that had very few trees, can be fixed without tree removal," OEM officials said.
"There were over 250 reported downed trees and wires in New Canaan that had to be dealt with before power could begin to be restored."
"It took a team of just over 100 town officials, employees and volunteers in the EOC to manage the challenges of Irene," OEM Director Mike Handler said. "Collectively, we executed our plans and developed creative solutions to various obstacles. New Canaan separates itself from others in two ways when it comes to emergency management. The first is the eagerness of all departments to work together as a team; and second, the ability to mobilize spontaneous volunteers and integrate them seamlessly into the process."
"The utility of our Facebook page has wildly exceeded my expectations but not for the reasons you might expect. When the idea was first brought to me I perceived the value in being able to push information out to residents who were without power, telephones, and Internet access," Handler said. "What I did not realize, which several of my colleagues must have, was that Facebook could be used for residents to push valuable information to the EOC. We were able to get instant reports of damage even when we could not gain access because of blocked roadways. Several of the homes with significant tree damage were discovered because of pictures that were posted. We would then dispatch officers to check on the well being of any occupants."
"It's been absolutely phenomenal," Selectman Rob Mallozzi said about the initiative. "It has gone way beyond our expectations. It's been an incredibly effective tool."
MALLOZZI SWORN IN AS FIRST SELECTMAN
After announcing his candidacy in late February and defeating Paul Giusti in the Republican Caucus July 19 by a vote of 1,313-907, Rob Mallozzi became the Republican candidate for First Selectman and eventually won an uncontested race in November.
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The contentious race, which included two debates and two early voting dates, had a record number of more than 2,200 Republicans hitting the polls July 19. While a frontrunner never emerged during the campaigns, Mallozzi said he was more comfortable during the last few days
"I will tell you that I felt extremely comfortable the last three or four days going into the election," Mallozzi said. "I was just getting a feeling from the way people were approaching me and kind of looking at the faces that had come to those first two voting events that I was in really good shape."
During the debates, Giusti and Mallozzi touched on many topics, but most of them had to do with fiscal responsibility.
Regarding debt and the budget process, the two candidates discussed the past and future. Giusti focused on changes brought about over the past few years which he believes has improved the process.
Additionally, Giusti discussed how those changes transformed the budget discussions into ongoing project rather than a once-a-year endeavor after learning from the example of the Board of Education.
While Mallozzi agreed with many of these adjustments, he still believes more partnership during the actual approval process, among other things, would be helpful.
"I think it would be nice to get the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Finance in the same room and here some of the budget presentations at the same time so we can ask and feed off of other people's ideas when we ask questions of the department managers," Mallozzi said.
When it came to the sensitive issue of collective bargaining agreements and unions, Mallozzi called it an issue "near and dear to (his) heart." He discussed how New Canaan is in the middle of arbitration with two public safety unions for the first time in the town's history.
"We need to rebuild relations with those folks. We'll have to jump start the whole process. But we must understand there is a new world out there," Mallozzi said. "We need to have a respectful dialogue with our unions and believe it or not, I'm very close to some of these folks, they recognize it also. This is a new world."
RECORD SNOWFALL IN JANUARY AND OCTOBER
It was a record year for snowfall this year, which actually began at the end of Dec. 2010. It was "snowmaggedon," as many called it, with New Canaan getting more than 50 inches of snow in the span one month.
The weather gave public works all it could handle and caused some financial issues.
"We have had seven snow events already this year," Public Works Director Mike Pastore told the Board of Selectmen Feb. 1 at a meeting requesting more funds. "We have over 50 inches of snow on the ground, well over the yearly average of 35 inches."
On top of all of that, more unexpected snowfall hit town at the end of October, right in the middle of Halloween season. The storm, which has now been dubbed Winter Storm Alfred, dumped several inches of snow all over Fairfield County.
But the snowfall was not as much of a concern as the power outages it caused. The heavy snow on trees still full of leaves and strong wind gusts as high as 40 miles per hour in some areas caused snow and trees to collide with power lines, leaving more than 800,000 Connecticut Light & Power and United Illuminating customers without power throughout the state, more than 100,000 more than the peak outages during Tropical Storm Irene. In New Canaan, up to 50 percent of homes lost power at one point.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who declared a state of emergency. It took days -- or more than a week for some -- before all power was finally restored.
As a result of all the downed power lines and trees, New Canaan schools were canceled at the time.
$650K BRIDGE ARBITRATION EMBROILED IN CONTROVERSY
Most of town government was caught off guard this year when they discovered a $650,000 arbitration award was paid in full without the necessary consult of the major town bodies. It spawned a monthlong investigation into the practices of legal issues in town as well as communication. A Town Council subcommittee was formed to look at all the hiccups and suggest recommendations to prevent this from happening in the future.
"This subcommittee was formed by the Town Council to examine the issues surrounding the Lakeview Bridge arbitration. We intend to discover all of the important facts that relate to this matter. This could get tedious as we go through all of the details. But in the end, the thoroughness of this (process) is the only way that we will resolve all of our questions and do so in a way that we can all understand," Lakeview Avenue Bridge Litigation Subcommittee member Kit Devereaux said at the first meeting June 1.
The internal communication issues stem from the fact that the arbitration award against the town was paid in full March 27 without the knowledge of the Town Council.
First Selectman Jeb Walker and Director of Public Works Michael Pastore took responsibility for what was described as a "breakdown in communication" after the payment was made.
The matter stems from a conflict between the town and Loureiro Contractors, Inc., concerning the Lakeview Avenue Bridge construction in 2008.
The town went into arbitration after withholding $250,000 from the contractors and claiming the firm was delaying the construction project. According to documents, Loureiro Contractors claims the work was delayed due to unforeseen complications with underground utilities, overhead wires and flooding.
At a Town Council meeting in May, Walker and Pastore shared responsibility, though Walker ultimately put the onus on himself as first selectman.
"I have to accept responsibility for that," Pastore said when asked why town officials weren't made aware of the decision at the end of February.
"I authorized the payment. When the decision came down, right or wrong, it was basically treated as a contract payment that was due under the contract."
Walker also took responsibility for the lack of communication.
"I accept full responsibility for anything that happens in town, irrespective of the situation, irrespective of what the consequences might be. Full responsibility lies with me," Walker said.
"I am the chief executive of the town and whatever failure of communications there was. I take full responsibility for. It was not Mr. Pastore's fault. It was not Mr. Conrad's fault. It's not our town attorney's fault. I take full responsibility."
In addition to Walker and Pastore, the subcommittee spoke to the Board of Selectmen, Attorney Tim Fisher, Town Attorney Chris Jarboe, Town Treasurer Donald V. Hersam, Town CFO Gary Conrad, Scott Bassett of McGladrey and Pullen, the town's auditors, Town Administrator Tom Staddler, and Town Council Chairman Dr. Mark DeWaele and member Paul Foley.
After completing all the interviews and research, the Lakeview Avenue Bridge Arbitration Subcommittee unveiled its draft report of recommendations Oct. 26. The report, which is available on the town website, outlines several suggestions on how New Canaan can avoid the missteps that occurred earlier this year in relation to the arbitration settlement that sent more than $600,000 to Lourerio Contractors Inc.
In its final recommendation, the report highlights the controversy that surrounded the settlement.
"The incident of the Lakeview Avenue Bridge Arbitration incurred the disapproval of New Canaan residents at a level not seen in recent decades," the report states. "It was an example of what can happen when systems that had been historically adequate, could not keep pace with current circumstances."
Some of the most significant recommendations include establishing a Public Works commission, a review of the duties for the position of town treasurer, giving Town Council additional authority to approve all funds transferred to the capital and nonrecurring fund, having the Board of Selectmen look at checks over a certain dollar amount and establishing a temporary committee "charged with the responsibility of facilitating the implementation of the recommendations contained in this report, where feasible."
MAIN STREET SIDEWALKS FINALLY APPROVED
After years of debate and discussion, the issue of sidewalks was finally put to rest this year. In an 8-2 vote, the Town Council recommended to Public Works that the project move forward with sidewalks on the west side Oct. 19, nearly six months after the issue was put to a referendum.
"This has been a real learning experience," Council member and current Selectman Beth Jones said. "I think the west side makes more sense. I'd made the decision prior to this that I would go with the east side if it was substantially less expensive, and that was going to be how I made the decision and it's not, so I say west."
The project will break ground March 15 and handled by A&J Construction, as outlined in a $1.03 million contract. The money will come from a $4 million bond that was put to a referendum in April.
In a 1,781-1,541 vote at the April 27 referendum, residents approved using a $4 million road paving bond to potentially build new sidewalks.
In order for the referendum to pass, 15 percent of the electorate, or 1,850 voters, had to vote "yes" and also have the majority.
The divisive issue stemmed from the proposal to install new sidewalks on Main Street using bonded funds. The New Canaan Citizens for Responsible Spending wanted the entire $4 million to be used for road paving, not installing new sidewalks. Since a final approval has not been made on sidewalks, the CRS decided to put the whole bond, the source of funding for the initiative, to a referendum.
The notice of intent for collecting signatures for the referendum was initially brought forth on March 10. The CRS gathered more than 627 signatures, 5 percent of the voting population, to put bring the issue to a referendum.
Since the referendum failed, the bond, as originally put together by the Board of Finance, stays in place. The $4 million will be available for both road repair and sidewalks, pending Town Council approval for the sidewalks after the engineering study is completed over the course of the next few weeks.
The New Canaan Families for Safe Streets and Sidewalks, the organization supporting sidewalks and the "No" votes, were very pleased with the outcome.
"We are thrilled and grateful to the voters of New Canaan for the clear message they have sent the Town Council that safety matters and that decisions about roads and pedestrian safety need to be made by our elected representatives after due consideration of all the facts, not by election-style referendums," the statement said. "We hope that going forward we can treat each other with respect, even when we disagree fundamentally. Regardless of where we live in town, as New Canaanites, we are all neighbors."
The sidewalk proposal has been in place for some time. In 2007, Public Works did a safety survey with South School parents. In that survey, Assistant Director of Public Works Tiger Mann said, 85 percent of respondents noted high-speed vehicles, 85 percent noted a high volume of traffic, 58 percent noted sidewalk deficiencies and 70 percent said that if there were new continuous sidewalks then they would most likely allow their children walk to school.
"The number one concern they came up with was a lack of continuous sidewalks in their area," Mann explained.
"If we think we will build it, they will come, they are already there," Katherine Ong, co-president of the South Elementary School PTC, said about usage at the public hearing on March 3. "We are on Main Street and we are asking and pleading that you please continue the sidewalks down Main Street so that we have a safe community for our children to walk to school and for us to continue a healthy environment."
TREASURER'S RACE TAKES CENTER STAGE
In a rare election season where all eyes were on the treasurer's race, incumbent V. Donald Hersam, who has held the position for more than 40 years, came out on top. He defeated Democrat Kathleen Corbet, who sought more changes to the role of treasurer, 1,478 to 1,431.
"It was a very formidable race. I am an unskilled campaigner. I've generally never asked to run, I've always been asked to run and that was always fun. This was a lot different. It took a little bit of a toll on everyone I think," Hersam said. "I do have to congratulate the Democrats and Kathleen's campaign people for a very strong formidable race. I believe that many of the questions that were raised in the campaign may have a future role in the considerations as we move forward. I'm not sure which way it will go, but I was asked what I thought for the future. Did I anticipate a change? I said no at this moment but I am certainly willing to work with the new leadership and see where we go."
Despite losing, Corbet was happy with the race she ran, the people she met and the issues she brought to light.
"It was very close but it's been a great campaign. I tip my hat to Mr. Hersam and I remain a great admirer of his," Corbet said. "I was glad to race on issues concerning fiscal responsibility that were brought to light throughout the campaign. It was a lot fund and I got to know the best of New Canaan. I think all of New Canaan is a winner tonight."
It was a long road for both candidates when the role of treasurer came under scrutiny during the recent Lakeview Avenue bridge arbitration controversy. The matter stems from a conflict between the town and Loureiro Contractors concerning the Lakeview Avenue Bridge construction in 2008. The town went into arbitration after withholding $250,000 from the contractors and claiming the firm was delaying the construction project. According to documents, Loureiro Contractors claim the work was delayed due to unforeseen complications with underground utilities, overhead wires and flooding. After more than a year of arbitration, Loureiro Contractors were awarded $650,000 by arbitrators.
Town Council members were shocked to learn the arbitrator made the decision Feb. 25 and the award was paid in full March 27 without their knowledge. First Selectman Jeb Walker and Director of Public Works Michael Pastore took responsibility for what was described as a "breakdown in communication" after the payment was made.
The role of town treasurer came under fire because it was revealed the checks in town are given a "facsimile," signature by the town treasurer.
Corbet has said the role should be given a more active approach than it has in the past to prevent such situations.
"The role of town treasurer has really been defined by tradition rather than by statute or town charter. Importantly, the Lakeview Avenue Bridge arbitration, or frankly any bill or expense of that size over $600,000, would have been a red flag to anybody, (such as) an active town treasurer, taking a look at that large of an expense," Corbet said.
Hersam said the issue with Lakeview had more to do with disagreement between certain bodies of government than the role of the town treasurer in authorizing the checks.
"Those monies had to be paid, otherwise penalties would accrue very quickly. It was done. What people haven't realized is there was a bond resolution put before the Board of Finance and passed by the Board of Finance. Town Council refused to pass that," Hersam said. "The monies had to be added to the budget to cover that shortfall. There is where the problem was. It was between the governing bodies not discussing what the circumstance was regarding the arbitration."