Treasurer candidates debate at LWV Forum
The League of Women Voters held a candidates' forum at Town Hall Monday night, headlined by the only contested race this season: town treasurer.
The debate, which featured Republican incumbent V. Donald Hersam, publisher of the New Canaan Advertiser, and Democrat Kathleen Corbet, former S&P president, focused on whether the role of town treasurer needed to be revamped.
More interest has been focused on the position since 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 believes 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."
Beyond Lakeview Avenue, both candidates disagreed about the current role town treasurer should play in government based on the town code and state statues. Hersam said he believes the status quo allows additional government bodies to do their job efficiently and without interference.
"The role as described through the town charter and the listings by the council as to the duties are very, very limited," he said. "There is not one large section. It just says that there shall be a treasurer. I have learned in my business life and in the boards that I had served that when you see talent, you let talent do the job without interfering. And I am referring more specifically to Gary Conrad [the town's chief financial officer] and his excellent staff. So I am not about to try and change the way this town is being run."
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Corbet, on the other hand, believes the town charter does not limit the role and cites examples in neighboring towns of Fairfield County that have more active treasurers.
"The town website specifically states that the mission of the town treasurer is a position mandated by state statute and is responsible for the overseeing of expenditures, again working with the chief financial officer, and also serving as a ex-officio of the pension fund."
Hersam explained that the oversight of the expenses and finances is already taken care of by the different bodies in government but stressed the role of treasurer, as it stands now, does not have very much authority.
"The second set of eyes generally reside with, as I mentioned, the Board of Finance, the Board of Selectmen and the Council. I agree that the second set of eyes reviewing those things may be helpful, but the Town Treasurer in this town, by virtue of the town code and the charter of the town of New Canaan does not provide for interfering. [As town treasurer] I have no management qualifications that apply nor do I have any authority," Hersam said. "I'd prefer to act on the rules that this community has established with the role of town treasurer. The town code captures all of those responsibilities. We are talking about changes that are very interesting and potentially very valuable. It could go through having an assistant to the chief financial officer as a town treasurer or it could to an appointed town treasurer presiding in the chief financial official."
As she stated before, Corbet did not believe the town charter limited the role at all and how important it actually is to have additional independent oversight from someone not part of the Finance Department, Town Council or other government bodies.
"The charter is also very defined in that we're not limited specifically by the charter but the fact that we also have the powers granted to the towns by the general statutes, the Connecticut State Statutes," Corbet said. "One of the benefits in having an elected Town Treasurer is having an independent role. That second set of eyes does not have to be in the same department of the Finance Department."
In further comments to the New Canaan News, Corbet elaborated on why she believes an active treasurer is so crucial for town.
"The key issues that folks in New Canaan are thinking about are fiscal responsibility, ensuring that some of the things that have recently occurred with respect to Lakeview Avenue Bridge, legal bills, etcetera, are things that don't happen in the future," Corbet said. "I think the case that I made for an active town treasurer role seeks to address those issues that the voters care about."
She explained that doing more in the position would not require a charter change at all because general statutes allow municipalities to do more with the role than defined in by the town.
"The role of town treasurer does not require a charter change. It is clearly defined in the charter as an elected officer and it is very similar to the roles that are being performed by active town treasurers in Darien, Ridgefield, Wilton and Redding as well. And they have not changed their charters," she said. "So the real bottom line is having that second set of eyes in terms of every check that is signed by the treasurer. There needs to be a second set of eyes that ensures that those checks conform to what was expected by the Board of Finance, Town Council and the Board of Selectmen and the finalized budget."
In further comments to the New Canaan News, Hersam said he believes the charter supersedes the state statues.
"The state mandates a treasurer, that is accurate," Hersam said. "It doesn't, however, mandate the duties of the treasurer and I have had several legal minds look into this. When you have a charter in town, the charter supersedes the state statutes."
In addition, Hersam stressed how he is not for any drastic changes in the role of treasurer citing a smooth process already in place to have three or four signatures on checks through department heads and the finance officials.
"From the time I've been treasurer, it's been an honor to respond to anything asked of me. My name on the checks is to signify an act of the town. I am not for any major change of the office as constituted," Hersam said. "Yes the town has grown, but they have provided stronger oversight with the chief financial officer and his staff. Gary Conrad provides the Board of Selectmen with the expenses and they forward them to Board of Finance if necessary and then they even go to the Town Council for any further or unusual expense."
Corbet, on the other hand, said that while the town bodies look at balances and budget sheets, they do not actually oversee the "actual disbursement of those checks."
"They set the budget. They look at whether the amounts in totality are either under or over the budget but they are not looking at the individual expenditures," Corbet said. "That is the role of town treasurer."
Corbet, who was president of the ratings agency Standard & Poor's for three years, received some criticism from a TIME magazine list profiling 25 people responsible for the financial crisis. The blurb said her leadership role with the company that gave Aaa ratings to many corporations that eventually failed lead to more problems. However, the blurb also said "Corbet ran the largest agency, Standard & Poor's, during much of this decade." She actually ran the agency from 2004-2007.
"I chose not to dispute it. It was kind of a teachable moment for my kids that lots of people will say lots of things that are inaccurate and you just have to let it go and move on and not be upset about it," Corbet said.