Published March 30. 2014 4:00AM
North Stonington - When the votes were tallied the night of Nov. 5, incumbent First Selectman Nicholas H. Mullane II and his challenger, Robert Testa, who secured a selectman seat alongside him, promised to put their differences aside for the good of the town.
That commitment has worn thin over the course of this year's selectmen meetings, coming to a head the night of March 11 when the discussion of one agenda item devolved into a yelling match that Mullane later called "out of control."
Now, multiple regular attendees of these meetings - several of whom would not speak on the record - say they are witnessing an unusual level of dysfunction on their governing board.
The source of that evening's 45-minute discussion was a weeks-long, fraught debate over who owned and what became of a tank of heating oil.
Though the North Stonington Volunteer Fire Company made the switch to natural gas several years ago, one tank remained on firehouse property in January. The oil, apparently contracted for removal by Richard E. White & Sons, was revealed at the Feb. 4 selectmen meeting to have been taken by Stephen Holliday - who works for White and holds the dual title of the town's highway foreman and public works director - to his own home.
The following week, Mullane and Testa argued at length over the ownership and hypothetical hazards of the oil. Testa contended the town should have overseen what he believes was taxpayer property. Mullane said it was a matter between the fire company and a private contractor.
At the next meeting, Mullane read aloud a letter from Robert Avena, one of the town's attorneys, that echoed many of his earlier statements, concluding the matter was not a legal issue the town should become involved in.
Avena also called the use of a town employee as a subcontractor "ethically problematic" and "not an ideal situation," and suggested the town follow up with Holliday to ensure the oil is properly handled.
And on March 11, when the selectmen came to their second-to-last old business agenda item, Mullane reported to the board that an independent contractor, Service Station Environmental, had disposed of the oil, and the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection had found no violations with its handling.
He then called for comments or questions from his fellow selectmen.
They rehashed a timeline of events.
And then Testa began questioning Richard White, who sat in the audience that evening. When Mullane tried to interject, Testa rebuffed him, telling him he would not allow him to "protect his friends."
"You're badgering the guy," Mullane told him, shortly after accusing Testa of "conducting an inquisition." White later called it harassment.
"I'm not badgering the guy," Testa said, his voice rising. "I'm talking to him like a man."
Later, Mark Perkins Jr., chairman of the Fire/EMS Committee, asked to comment.
"I'm not sure if you realize this," he said, addressing Testa. "Re-election's 18 months away. So stop your goddamn politicking now, and just get over it."
At an apparent stalemate, Mullane asked Selectman Mark Donahue, who had been mostly silent, if he had any wisdom.
"It doesn't seem like we're making headway on this," Donahue said, and suggested waiting for the written report from DEEP before continuing. Donahue declined to comment for this story.
But the conversation didn't appear to wind down until Mullane - who had told Testa several times to stop, that he was out of order, and tried to cut him off by saying, "The end" - said they had turned the issue into a "prize mess," telling Testa he had "exaggerated everything."
"Were things done wrong? Absolutely," Mullane said. "Was any of it intentional? I don't think so."
Shortly thereafter, the audience began to pitch in.
"For the sake of the audience, can we move on?" said Town Planner Juliet Leeming. "This is not very professional to be scolding each other."
Leeming's remark appeared to spur more murmurs among the crowd, until Bill Ricker, chairman of the Conservation Commission and a one-time selectman, stood up.
"As a member of this town, I am asking my Board of Selectmen to move on to town government issues," he said.
Finally, they did.
Meetings grow longer
In his third time challenging Mullane for his long-held first selectman seat - Mullane cemented his 15th term in the top spot last November - Testa ran on a platform of bucking the status quo.
They have different terms for perhaps one of their few pieces of common ground - Testa has accused Mullane of "stonewalling"; Mullane has called Testa's conduct a "filibuster."
But they can level on this: One of them is obstructing the business of running the town.
Ricker, who served as a selectman for one term with Mullane and former Selectman Sean Murphy, said the tone among both the selectmen and residents has changed "considerably" in recent months.
"It's changed because of the belief that if you dig deep enough, you're going to find dirt," he said. "I'm afraid there are some in town who constantly are doing the digging rather than finding the solutions to problems."
Murphy, who served as selectman alongside Mullane for six years until last fall and, before that, as a member of the Board of Education with Testa, said he never participated in a meeting as palpably tense as on the night of March 11.
"I never experienced that kind of an atmosphere when I served on the Board of Selectmen," he said.
He did experience it while serving on the Board of Education, he said, where he said members experienced "similar problems" - a lack of cooperation, issues escalating into public fights without a solution.
Testa is the common thread, he said.
"It's not a matter of the subjects that come up in meetings," he said. "It's a matter of how individuals conduct themselves ... and the amount of respect or disrespect between board members."
Murphy said he has witnessed tension for years between Mullane and Testa and their differing leadership styles, even before they served on the same board. The difference now, he said, is that Testa has an opportunity to try to change some of the things he doesn't like.
Some of the issues Testa has raised are justified, he said. And during the six years Murphy worked with Mullane, he disagreed with "a lot" of Mullane's actions.
In this case, however, Murphy said they are spending too much time on an "obvious miscommunication" - one that has turned into an attack.
Mullane shoulders some amount of responsibility for that night.
"I'm embarrassed of my own performance," he said.
But Testa's tenacity is disruptive and "self-serving," he said.
"He tried to exploit it, and he just plain is wrong," he said. "He just used it as an opportunity to get on the soapbox again."
Mullane has served as the town's first selectman almost continuously since 1983. Meetings used to last a couple of hours, he said, perhaps another half-hour if the board was dealing with a "heavy subject."
In the past few months, meetings, which begin at 7 p.m., have frequently gone past 10, even 11:30 p.m.
The board is behind, and that's Testa's plan, Mullane said - to "fragment the thing," making the board look "uncoordinated" and "unsystematic."
"He's accomplished that," he said.
As a result, Mullane said he will change the way he runs meetings. Though the agendas are bookended with two opportunities for public comments and questions, it has long been an informal policy to include taxpayers in relevant discussions.
Mullane said he will be curbing those conversations.
"We cannot be as liberal, and we cannot be so friendly with the audience," he said.
"We have a budget we have to prepare. We have a $30 or $40 million school project. We have stone walls to fix, dams to fix, and we're wasting our time on this (crap)."
'This is dirty'
Testa agrees there are better ways for the board to spend its time. But getting this sidetracked, he said, is not his doing. It's Mullane, he said, who is trying to "distract from the real issues."
Testa said Mullane has been less than forthcoming about the oil matter. Testa said he believes multiple people acted inappropriately in an intentional way, leading all of them to lose credibility. During the March 11 meeting, Testa accused Mullane of going out of his way to get Avena to write his letter.
Testa said multiple people have contacted him to express their concern about the issue, which Testa said has "torn this town apart" and "created collateral damage."
"The sentiment in our town is overwhelming that this is dirty," he said.
But ultimately, it's not about the oil, and Testa said he is not trying to drag it out, but rather highlight a "pattern of conduct."
"All that stuff is bad. It looks bad. It's an issue," he said. "But what it's really about is the public's trust and confidence in all of us. It's about the honesty and integrity of everyone involved."
The amount of time taken, he said, is the fault of Mullane. And if the issue is not resolved soon, Testa said it could have consequences for May's budget referendum.
"If the people don't trust in what you're doing, they're going to let you know it," he said.
The limelight on the issue won't matter, he said, as long as it is properly addressed. Letting it go would look worse.
"I'm not the evil guy," he said. "I just want the truth."