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Councilwoman Finds 'Incredible Mess' with Contracts

Mayor's chief of staff calls councilwoman's approach politically-minded.

Editor's note: Documents cited in article are included in photo gallery as PDFs.

Councilwoman Stephanie Philips (D-2) would like some answers.

At a Town Council meeting four months ago, Philips read off a list of questions about town contracts and an apparent lack of transparency.

At last week's Council meeting, she shared the answers she received during meetings with Town Attorney Tim Bishop and Director of Human Resources Ron Ing.

"I spoke about the mistakes in the contracts, a possible violation of the pension plan, lack of review by town attorneys, and future financial commitments without Town Council approval," Philips said in an email. "This [is] an incredible mess that was done without any transparency."

Philips said she's still waiting for information regarding a question about Deputy Police Chief Joe McNeil's contract as it relates to his pension and a provision that did not seek Town Council approval.

McNeil topped the town's wage earners in 2011 with a gross income just under $300,000. The swollen figure was due to a settlement which, according to Philips, was frozen into pension calculations.

"The administration still needs to unravel how they are going to handle McNeil receiving his pension benefits immediately if he leaves Stratford's employment before the 25th year," Philips said.

McNeil is eligible for early retirement benefits thanks to a special provision discussed via email by Stratford Police Union President Carlos Castro. In an email to HR Director Ron Ing, Castro writes, "Stratford Police Union Local 407 has no objections to any provision which allows the retirement benefit to be paid prior to the twenty fifth (25th) year of service."

Philips argued that this provision should have gone through the town's pension board, or at the very least, the Town Council. McNeil is in his 19th year of service, Philips said.

"The police chief is not a political appointee," former town attorney and current Democratic Town Committee Chairman Richard Buturla said at last week's Council meeting. Buturla, who served as Stratford's town attorney from 1995 to 2009, said it was against pension policy to approve the special provision for McNeil.

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Another concern pursued by Philips involved multi-year contracts for town employees. The Councilwoman said none of the town attorneys were consulted or asked to preview the contracts of Mayor John A. Harkins's senior staff. Philips also said that she learned not all contracts are reviewed by town attorneys, and hopes that can change.

"The mayor does not have authority to give out these contracts without Town Council approval," Philips said.

Philips is also seeking answers regarding a $7,500 "un-vouchered" expense account included within the mayor's W-2 for 2011. Her question: By not specifically tying advances from this account to direct expense reimbursement, has the town violated the Connecticut constitutional provision forbidding an increase in an elected official's compensation during his term of office?

Marc Dillon, the mayor's chief of staff, said the administration will answer all of the Councilwoman's questions in due time.

"My suspicion is no matter what she gets she'll interpret in a way that politicizes," said Dillon, who added that Buturla’s appearance at last week's meeting seemed like "a bit of gamesmanship" on behalf of Democrats.

He said the administration has taken extra steps to answer Philips's questions and the mayor prides himself on being transparent.

"It's unfortunate after three years of progress in town Democrats want to go back to days of fear and smear politics," Dillon said.

RMA October 18, 2012 at 01:47 PM
Thank god I moved out of Stratford, YIKES!
STFDGUY October 18, 2012 at 02:18 PM
@RMA - My house will be on the market soon as well. I really can't deal with this town much more. People making $300K - while the town looks like crap. I just hope I can find a sucker to buy my house. Sad.
RMK October 18, 2012 at 02:44 PM
I don't understand. How is it politically motivated to ask that town officials show transparency in such matters, especially where very large pension contracts are concerned? How is it McNeil's special provision wasn't passed through the pension board? Instead of making this into the usual fallback gamesmanship of claiming "politicizing" on relevant concerns, let's hope the Mayor's office does the right thing and CLARIFY what is going on.
Beetle Bailey October 18, 2012 at 03:11 PM
In response to some of the remarks. A lot of you complainers about pensions, saleries, etc. were working in jobs that paid well during the "good times". No one wanted a police or fire job because they paid no where near what everyone was making. Now the roles are reversed and through negotiations, with people you put into office, cops and fire are making very good money you bitch. Get over it or run for office to fix what you see are problems. Secondly. when it comes to back room deals when has Stratford ever been transparent? Why do you think the cases against the three cops was settled after so many resources were wasted. Cops getting back pay, ranks being restored and the police contract being settled quickly after that. New hires sold down the river by the union. No backroom deal there!
Mike October 18, 2012 at 03:14 PM
This is business as usual in Stratford. That someone should look into this is a historical first. We need more elected officials willing to cry "foul" when this sort of thing goes on. Now what we need is to clear out all the corrupt brreaucrats that rule over the people of this town.
RMK October 18, 2012 at 03:18 PM
To be honest, I'm all for pensions and unions. But isn't there a questionable history of leaking info about an police dept. applicant and politicizing THAT situation that circles around this particular person in question who now serves as at a high level in the PD AND stands to make a great deal of dollars upon leaving his position? Sounds like all that's being asked for is that much-needed transparency would be nice....and pension board approval even nicer.
STFDGUY October 18, 2012 at 04:21 PM
Bettle - "A lot of you complainers about pensions, saleries, etc. were working in jobs that paid well during the "good times". No one wanted a police or fire job because they paid no where near what everyone was making." Tell me about the good old times where people in Stratford were making $300K at their jobs. They way I see it, is that yes people choose to try to make more money, but how is that town employees (such as police) have not had to scale back like the rest of us. What you are saying that since no one wanted to be a cop - the cops deserve to have that high salary. The logic does not make sense to me.
Chris Stevens October 18, 2012 at 05:01 PM
Another back door deal for one of the good ole boys, break the law, get arrested, take AR to get out of it, (because we know a jury trial would have produced a guilty verdict) then get the Union to back Harkins, get our (your) job back, sell the Union out to get promoted to DC, then make a "special" deal to get your pension "early" so you can collect a huge pension on the backs of the tax payers.....good job! Thank you councilman Phillips for finally bringing the truth and honesty out! Keep up the good work! Time to clean house over at 900 Longbrook! Enough already! And we thought Miron was bad!
RMK October 18, 2012 at 05:31 PM
Stfdguy -- public workers in the past made less than those in private industry and pensions helped towards retirement. Today, those workers make a reasonable living wage - often a bit higher - but the truth is, because of unions they are not seeing their retirements disappear like most of us who are at the mercy of private corporations who will dump an employee before they are fully vested in the blink of an eye, just to save their own bottom line. Union contracts for public employees SHOULD be adjusted so that the workers are at least paid pensions based on a percentage of salary only or through defined contribution, and we generally see that now in all public departments here in town except the Fire Dept. in Stratford. To allow the big guns behind anti-union sentiment to direct your ire towards public workers and their unions is simply stupid. Instead of allowing unions for private and public industry to be buried by big monied interests (usually attributable to Republican ideology), we should be reinforcing unions at work and negotiating in good faith with our employers, rather than being at the total mercy of heartless corporate stakeholders. Think of this: who do the taxpayers pay most of their dollars to in this town? Public workers? Or, the highest paid non-union guys sitting in the BOE's highest positions, FD OT, and the town attorneys?
Know what's going on October 18, 2012 at 07:00 PM
Ain't it amazing that Harkins' flunkes (Dillon) always call "politics" when Harkins is asked serious questions about transparency (how can you be transparent behind a closed door?) If there is nothing to hide, why are we waiting for Harkins to "create" an answer? The fact is that Harkins has been playing this pension game since he was elected (it's not the only game he plays) You'll notice he can't play economic development. Come out of hiding Mayor Harkins. The entire Town of Stratford is waiting -- waiting to finally hear some truth from you. And don't have Dillon or Ing or anyone else come to the podium. It's time you talked.
earl October 18, 2012 at 09:06 PM
Rich Buturla is too funny. How come we never got a straight answer on the Justin Loschiavo hiring? Why was a special waiver created to hire and unfit person? What town attorney perpared it and who reviewed it and thought it was good? I watch the press confernce on it : http://www.townofstratford.com/content/1302/1944/18553.aspx no one ever mentions they had prior knowledge of his condition or that a waiver was prepared. This hiring was an incredible mess that still is in court costing the town money
Michael October 19, 2012 at 11:31 PM
Having been on vacation over this past week, I just saw the article in Stratford Patch regarding issues of financial disclosure and transparency and the questions raised by Councilwoman Stephanie Phillips regarding the Administrations handling of our taxpayers monies. Lets hear it for Stephanie. I have been looking into the practices, policies, and protocols in the Stratford Animal Control Office and its business relationships with Snowflake Kennels and Stratford Animal Rescue Society (STARS). As some of you know, I filed a complaint over 3 months ago with the Stratford Police Dept. on the double billing for the euthanasia of 15 cats, taken by Animal Control and euthanized by Snowflake Kennels in Sept. of 2011.When questioned over these past three months,Stratford P.D. has said the investigation was ongoing and had no comment. Some of these cats were given rabies shots, sedation shots, and then euthanized.The vet bill came to almost $3,000.00. 1 year rabies shots. Two invoices were sent by Animal Control,one in Nov. 2011, and one in Dec. 2011 to the Finance Dept. and both invoices were paid by Stratford taxpayers.
Michael October 19, 2012 at 11:32 PM
During the first week in Oct., I found evidence that Stars had adopted 39 dogs and cats from Animal Control from July 2011 thru May 2012 which they paid $50.00 for each animal and then took those animals to Snowflake kennels where they were altered, given various inoculations and vet care, and the bills were sent to the Town which totaled $5,625.00. According to Finance Dept. records, the Town paid those bills. By State policy, those bills were STARS responsibility,not the taxpayers of Stratford. On Oct. 11, I met with Chief Ridenhour, Deputy Chief McNeil, Capt. Proudfoot, Mark Dillon from the Mayors Office, and ACO Solviera. I was told at that time that I could question Ofc. Solvirea about both the above issues.Regarding the double billing, Ofc. Solviera said it was a " billing error ". Dpt. Chief McNeil said the Town had been reimbursed for the error and we could move on. I then asked Ofc. Solviera about the STARS bills that the Town had paid. She said that Stratford Animal Control has a special "Donation Account ", which she had set up, which she had used to pay the bills that belonged to STARS. Special Account? Who overseas this account? I then asked Mark Dillon if the Town employed a forensic accountant to keep track of all these types of deals that are costing the taxpayer thousands of dollars. He stated that the Town did not have such a position or person to fill it. Solvieras answers apparently satisfied Chief Ridenhour, as the meeting ended shortly after that.
Mike Reynolds October 20, 2012 at 12:27 AM
Something still smells and its not the animals.
stick lee October 21, 2012 at 02:10 PM
So....help me out here..Ms. Pieger who is arrested for mistermeaner animal cruelty gets a.r. , a $20,000 fine and an open ended "agreement" so the stfd. a.c. can harrass her at will.....COMPARED TO.. chief Mc Niel who was arrested on numerous Felony counts gets.....a.r. , $300,000 towards his pension, and made deputy chief at $95,000 a year. What ever happened to equal justice? I guess its Stfd 's version of make the punishment fit the crime.
Beetle Bailey October 23, 2012 at 12:17 AM
It's not rocket science. PD union backs Harkins. Harkins get elected Deal made where Farmer takes the fall for the Miron fiasco for all three and pleads guilty to a misdemeanor. Ranks are restored, back pay given. Al Wilcoxson picked for Chief. Turns it down, Ridenhour gets it even though he was destined back to the DC position. McNeil paid off for the deal and gets DC job. An appointed position by the mayor. Meanwhile McNeil stepped down as union president and accepts DC job. Union contract settled with some new hires getting the short end of the pension stick. May not have happened in this order but this IS what happened.

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