New Canaan Town Council Encouraged to Talk Pension Vote Off Record

UPDATE 8-28-12: A copy of Jeb Walker’s letter to New Canaan officials telling them how he will payback the pension is attached at the end of the story.
UPDATE 8-30-12: Two days after Walker’s letter was published here the New Canaan Advertiser reports First Selectman Mallozzi now says it’s up to the town, not Walker, to determine how the money will be paid back. Mallozzi’s statement is timely given the outrage expressed on New Canaan Patch about Walker essentially asking the town for an interest free loan to take care of his overpaid pension problem.

Original Story
A few New Canaan Town Council members laid on the blame game over their vote granting ex-first selectman, Jeb Walker, special pension benefits at a public meeting hosted by the New Canaan Advertiser last Friday. A pension payment now under third party investigation for the shoddy methods used to get it done. The meeting was a showcase of elected officials in a cover-your-rear exchange even though an Advertiser editor had promised them whatever was said is off the record.

Questions are surfacing if New Canaan’s ex CFO, Gary Conrad, violated ERISA (pension plan laws) by paying Walker $944 since December 2011 while there was no legal vote changing pension vesting from 5 to 4 years. But residents at the public talk also expressed concern if the 6-4 Town Council vote was executed by a group of officials who aren’t paying attention to what they are voting on or it’s simply an example of cronyism.

The locally owned paper, New Canaan Advertiser, places print ads weekly inviting the public to come every Friday at 9 a.m. for coffee talks; where town council members, selectmen/women, and political party leaders (James O’Hora was there) attend with the expectation of answering questions from the public about local issues. What’s odd about these weekly meetings is the editors of the Advertiser told me they promise local officials all their comments are off the record. At last Friday’s meeting at least 30 minutes were used to talk about how the Walker pension vote went down, what the Board of Finance did or didn’t tell them, and whether any Council members were influenced to change their vote. Connecticut has open meeting laws for elected officials to make sure voting issues are public record. Robert Lutts, election rules expert for the State GOP, told me the only real time TC members have a private rights to discuss a vote is during an executive session meeting. Lutts, who reviewed the Friday coffee meetings for me said Town Council members should know if they are talking about voting those comments can be made public.

The Advertiser (owned by the Hersam family who are registered Republicans) should have reported that Republican Town Council member Tucker Murphy screamed at Friday’s meeting, like a worried sorority girl, about her vacation being ruined because residents called her vote for Walker cronyism and Council member (R) Penny Young told attendees it was a bipartisan vote where no extra influence was involved (except no Dems voted for Walker to get $944 a month for only 4 years of service). We also heard elected officials blame the Board of Finance for not giving them detailed information, like the fact only two people would benefit from the pension vesting year change of 5 to 4, while they described what they were about to vote on. You can clearly see from the July 18th meeting Town Council member Roger Williams was the only elected official who did his homework before the vote to educate his peers on the fact Walker had been getting paid a lot more than the plan legally provided for and he’d be the main beneficiary of the rule change.

Tom Odea, who is running for CT state assemblyman, told me he didn’t read the agenda till the night before even though they’d been given details of what would be up for a vote at least 5 days before the vote. Odea also told me he thinks he only needs a few hours to get up to speed on the facts and the meeting video shows him asking a lot of questions about the pension change before he voted for Walker to get more money. We also saw Ken Campbell in a spacecadet move change his vote which tipped it in favor of Walker because he claims he didn’t know “no really meant yes”. Kind of an absurd excuse for someone who also was asking a ton of questions about why Walker should get full pension benefits after only serving four years.

Roy Abramowitz who attended the meeting told me, “Some town council members might want to start reading what their voting on earlier than the night before and not depend on so called experts to tell them how to vote.” Tucker Murphy was another council member who admitted she read the agenda notes only the night before.

You can see a video of the drama about the Walker vote unfold starting 30 minutes into the July 18th Town Council meeting here. It’s an interesting view into how our local government operates and I encourage everyone in New Canaan to watch it. This is serious business — our tax dollars have been given away to one person with rubber stamp payments made by another person before a town council vote. Republican Council member Roger Williams said it doesn’t matter the amount we are paying Walker it’s the principle of what we award here that should be considered. An award with benefits for a finance savvy man who had to know while he was leaving the job the benefits wouldn’t be available because the pension fund didn’t perform over 125% since 2009 and he couldn’t fully vest till he served 5 years. Keep in mind this is the same man, Walker, who went hard on the local police union about asking for more money after the 09 pension fund devaluation. Yet magically when he’s out of office there is enough dough to help cover some of his bills from the Town Pension fund. Doesn’t Walker have money from his retirement at big four auditor Deloitte & Touche?

A FOIA request shows Walker sent an unsigned letter, via email, to the Town saying he’ll payback the overpaid pension dollars by not accepting the $373 a month pension he was suppose to be paid before the vote for his service as First Selectman. Now that would take about 23 months to payback ($8496/$373) so shouldn’t he be charged interest for what is basically a two-year loan? If New Canaan residents don’t pay their property tax on time they pay a penalty — so why shouldn’t Walker be forced to pay interest if he’s not going to pay it all back right away?

What’s equally troubling is a town paper would encourage public meetings and keep the info off the record. At last Friday’s coffee talk I saw three Town Council members speak and Selectwoman Beth Jones. Some might think you need a majority (or quorum) present to make the meeting public but that’s just not true. Mark Caramanica, attorney for the Reporters Freedom of the Press Committee told me, “There is some legal authority under Connecticut law holding that a quorum is not required under the State open meeting law in order for a ‘public’ meeting to occur under the law.”

Lutts also adds it’s a matter of free speech for anyone as a resident or as a reporter to be able to repeat what you hear elected officials say about issues they vote on.

I’d encourage New Canaan residents to attend one of these coffee talks and if you are ever denied attendance or bullied into not repeating what you heard then let me know. Selective meetings on public issues are not good governance. I’d also encourage all local reporters to attend the Friday coffee talks so there isn’t a funnel of information going to one newspaper – who has a history of being selective about what they print. Lutts told me, “If the Advertiser wants off record conversations with elected officials they should send private invites for meetings at the office. But they didn’t do that.” Just because the paper made a donation for the room or bought the coffee doesn’t give them the right to control the conversation.

Penny Young announced at the end of the meeting she thinks her comments should be off the record and acted confused on why more than one reporter was at the meeting. After the meeting she wouldn’t answer my emails on why she thinks it’s ok to hold private talks in a public meeting about a vote, while all the Democrats at the meeting, like Beth Jones or Kit Devereaux, had no problem getting back to me with on-record thoughts.

Maybe at the next Friday’s coffee meeting someone will figure out where Town Treasure Hersam’s check signing rubber stamp is and encourage the Town Council to vote to get rid of it. We don’t need a third-party investigation to figure out how sloppy that kind of corporate governance is.

Exhibit One: Click here for Roy Abramowitz Letter to the Editor-”Interest Free Loan?” Sent to the New Canaan Advertiser this week.

Exhibit Two: Jeb Walker Letter to New Canaan asking to payback overalloted pension with no-interest.

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Comments

  1. So glad your back Teri. I saw you on TV in LA last month exposing the eminent domain government shakedown of Wall Street in California. This is small time compared to that but we appreciate the call out to get rid of Hersam’s rubber stamp. Do you think Conrad should be investigated by the local or state police? Everything Walker did while in office needs an investigation.

  2. Teri, these meetings have been around for years. People go, they speak, they listen and then the word goes around. So, the comments are off the record but aren’t really private. There must be leakage and everybody has to know that. What the Advertiser is doing is a good thing overall.
    How do the citizens get a criminal investigation going?
    Thanks for your investigation.

    • The fact the meetings have happen for years doesn’t make it right. No editor of a paper should ever place an ad for a meeting with the public and then promise off record. It places the town officals in violation of open meeting laws because elected officals are expected to explain how and why they voted – with open transparent communication to all. Not whoever shows up at meeting when most people are working.
      To get a criminal investigation going I’d start with David Cohen the asst. States Attorney in Stamford.

    • Teri Buhl says:

      Juan – The concept of the Advertiser’s meetings with readers is great but it should never be off the record if hosted by the local paper. Two media lawyers and a few jouranlism professors I reviewed the meetings with were taken back by what the Hersam paper was doing. I’d expect this part of the story shows up in media reports for what not to do.

  3. I love your style Teri. Great Work!

  4. Teri,

    Thank goodness you’re back. I was getting worried.

    Your .com site has been down with no redirects. Fortunately I googled you and found your .net site on twitter. I also sent a follow twit or whatever they’re called.

    Keep the pressure up. We support you in uncovering the bullshit shenanigans going on.

    • Teri Buhl says:

      I have been suffering multiple DDOS attacks which take the site down. I believe it is Mitch Vazquez – the New Canaan Trader I’ve been investigating this year but don’t have that confirmed yet. Someone is very afraid of my reporting to commit a felony like this trying to shut down my reporting.
      Reader donations via Paypal are really important right now – they can be sent via teribuhl@gmail.com

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