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Sunday, August 19, 2012

No more wood probes, Legion building may be rented

As published in the Record Journal Wednesday August 15, 2012

By Laurie Rich Salerno
Record-Journal staff
(203) 317-2235

WALLINGFORD — At its meeting Tuesday night the Town Council voted against further investigation into the alleged mishandling of town wood, and also decided to put the American Legion building out to bid for purchase or lease, this time requiring a 10 percent payment up front.

In an 8-1 vote, the council chose not to pursue an independent investigation into allegations that Public Works employees were selling woodcut from town parks. Only Democrat Nicholas Economopoulos voted to continue the investigation.

“This has been a root canal for me the last 6 to 7 months,” Councilor John Sullivan, a Democrat, said of the wood investigation.

The vote followed the first formal discussion by the council of a second investigative report prepared by Personnel Director Terence Sullivan at the council’s behest and released in late July. The 35-page report concluded that there was not enough evidence to prove that town employees were selling town wood. Terence Sullivan and Public Works Director Henry McCully fielded additional questions from the councilors during the meeting.

The initial investigation stemmed from an incident last January in which wood reportedly cut from damaged town trees following the October nor’easter was taken to the private lot of Public Works employee Randy Mangino. Acting on a tip that town trucks were taking loads to a private lot, Economopoulos asked the town to investigate the matter. In an initial report, the personnel director said the wood ended up on Mangino’s lot because McCully allowed him take it under a private contract Mangino held with the Water Department to haul clean fill and debris. McCully said he had misread Mangino’s contract, allowing him to take a town truck and haul logs, and the incident was called “an honest mistake.” But the council asked the personnel director in June to return to the matter with a second, more in depth investigation.

Most of the Republican councilors thought Sullivan’s second report was sufficient, and that the investigation could be closed.

“I felt that the report was consistent. Twenty-six people were interviewed, of the 26, 25 stories completely jibed. Unless those 25 gathered in some secret conspiracy meeting, I don’t see how those stories could come together,” said Councilor Thomas Laffin, a Republican.

They also felt the issue had been sufficiently dealt with earlier in the year when the council voted to restrict town employees from bidding on outside contracts with the town that were similar to their job descriptions or in their departments.

Councilors Craig Fishbein, a Republican, and Democrats Jason Zandri and John Sullivan said they felt the second report was flawed and they still had questions about the incident — but they thought that the town’s investigation needed to end.

John Sullivan voted against continuing the investigation, saying that he did not feel the wood was stolen, but that there were holes in the report and disappointing operational lapses in how Public Works handled the situation.

He said he was still disturbed by the fact that a Public Works employee used a town truck, likely on town time, to move wood from the town to his private lot, and did not suffer any sanctions for doing so. He also took issue with the statements that McCully and Mangino could consider logs “debris.”

“I think there’s a big difference between debris and logs,” John Sullivan said. “I define debris as dirt and twigs ...”

McCully said that the definition of debris was loose and, as an example, told councilors that a FEMA worker who came to assist the town following the October storm and measured piles of brush for the town was called a “Debris Specialist.”

Economopoulos took issue with the three different addresses that have been mentioned for Mangino’s dump site throughout the investigation. The first address was listed as 1171 S. Broad St. on his contract; in a January letter from McCully, the Public Works director said he went out to 1179 S. Broad St. with Mangino to look at the wood brought there; and then, in June, Mangino said the actual address was 1173 S. Broad St., that he’d made a mistake on the contract.

“I recognize the different addresses — but there’s no proof, there’s no evidence, and that’s what we need here,” Terence Sullivan said.

McCully said his error was due to the fact that many properties were accessed by one driveway.

Economopoulos took issue with what he felt were shifting stories.

“Everything I said to you has never wavered — and I don’t intend to waver — I know what happened and I believe what happened to this day,” Economopoulos said.

As for the American legion building, the vote to issue another request for proposal for the purchase or lease of the building also came on an 8-1 vote, with John Sullivan as the only “no” vote. He supported selling the building, but rejected the addition by Fishbein of an option to allow bidders to lease the structure.

Councilors supported Fishbein’s other recommendation, as well, which was to make bidders pay 10 percent of the purchase price up front, upon acceptance.

“I think when somebody’s got a little skin in the game, I think things will change,” Fishbein said.

Two bidders who had been approved to purchase the property dropped out in the last year, one just in July.