New Canaan Town Council explains, discusses pension vote
In a meeting that lasted nearly four hours, the Town Council on Sept. 19 discussed the Jeb Walker and Sally Hines pension issue and the flaws in procedure and information that many members said were the causes of their votes.
The meeting offered those who voted in favor of the pension amendments a chance for a public mea culpa. All but Kenneth Campbell explained why they now would have voted against them.
Council Chairman Mark DeWaele led the discussion, saying that he supported the amendment in part due to the fact that since officials are elected to two-year terms, they would have to serve for three terms, working six years to meet the five years of service required for the pension to vest.
He felt that the vesting period should be aligned with the term structure at four years. He also said the Board of Finance's unanimous approval of the amendment played a role in his decision.
He underscored the point that he generally does not view pensions with favor.
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"If I had to do it over again, with more information that I have gleaned, I would probably vote against it," he said.
At the July 18 meeting, the council passed by a vote of 6-4 an amendment to the town's pension plan, decreasing the number of years of service needed for an elected official to be vested under the plan from five years to four. The amendment was retroactive to Jan. 1, 2011, and in effect only applied to Walker and Hines.
Council member Penny Young echoed DeWaele's sentiments and said she had been in touch with other small towns to see how they handle pensions. She expressed her belief that a lesson had been learned. "I think we're now seeing that these things don't just come free."
Councilman Tom O'Dea highlighted the concept of "detrimental reliance" in his explanation of his vote, saying he felt that Walker and Hines may have included their pension packages when planning their retirements, and that it would have been wrong to change their amounts. He noted that since both Walker and Hines have offered to return the money, that justification of the vote "goes out the window." O'Dea said he would not have voted in favor of the amendment now.
Walker has said publicly that he will repay the town the $5,140 he has been overpaid since leaving office. Hines is not yet of retirement age and so has not received any town pension money.
Council member Tucker Murphy said she had relied on the Board of Finance's decision when she cast her vote.
"My decision was based solely on the information that the Board of Finance had voted for it unanimously," she said.
Vice Chairman Steve Karl said he made the right vote given the information, but knowing what he does now, he also would change his vote.
"Nobody is proud of the vote that was taken," he said, noting that the council, which met 56 times last year, votes on many issues over the course of a year. "On average, we've done a pretty good job of getting it right."
"Some of us got it right," interjected Councilman John Emert, who voted against the amendment at the original vote in July.
"Yeah, you're right John," conceded Karl, who explained that council members have spent a lot of time trying to understand and correct their mistake.
"Having watched that (July 18) meeting three times, and I think five times in my sleep," Karl began, before changing gears, "that vote happened in that particular moment. We've put in hours and days during our summer trying to figure out what we could have done differently."
Councilman Roger Williams said he remained against the amendment, as he had been when he was the primary voice of dissent in the July 18 meeting. "I voted against it and I probably still would today," he said.
Emert explained why his was the correct vote at the time. "It was the wrong thing to do. I hate to say it, but it smelled of cronyism," he said.
Council member Christine Hussey, who will receive a pension because her husband served in the New Canaan Fire Department, sat in the audience during the meeting, as she had abstained from the original vote.
When members of the public were allowed to speak, their comments ranged from outrage to appreciation.
Resident George McEvoy told the council that it had broken trust with the town by passing the pension amendment. He said he has spoken to more than 100 residents and none were happy with the pension vote.
"People have said (the vote was), `Obscene, objectionable, totally inappropriate, sets a terrible precedent.' How could you be so out of touch with the voters?"
Resident Derek Brune said he appreciates how hard the council members work, and hoped the Board of Finance is going through the same process of trying to understand how it voted unanimously in favor of the amendment.
"I don't think any other government works this hard. I think a mistake has been made, but I think we have to keep this whole thing in perspective," he said.
The validity of the July 18 Town Council vote is uncertain because of the questions subsequently raised about procedure.
When asked for an opinion, Town Counsel Chris Jarboe said in an August letter to DeWaele and First Selectman Robert Mallozzi that the uncertain validity was not because the council should have had a presentation by an actuary explaining the costs before the vote was taken to amend the pension plan.
At the Wednesday meeting, Jarboe said that while he maintains that belief, he does not have expertise in pension matters and suggested the town find a legal opinion elsewhere. According to Williams, the town is doing that and hopes to have a firm within the week.
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