Montville tackles nonprofit concerns

Montville - Town officials are exploring ways to align their relationship with nonprofits that receive budget appropriations with the Town Charter.

Section 710 of the charter forbids the town from making contributions of more than $1,000 to organizations or private corporations "unless the Town is represented on its board by one or more members nominated thereto by the Town Council."

Members of the town Finance Committee decided at a meeting last week that Finance Director Theresa Hart and committee Chairwoman and Town Councilor Laura Tanner would reach out to nonprofits without council-appointed board members and ask them to recommend a current board member for the town to appoint.

Council Chairman Joseph Jaskiewicz, who sits on the committee, said Monday that he interprets Section 710 as requiring the council to simply appoint a person to each nonprofit's board, not as specifically requiring that a town councilor be appointed.

The 2015 town budget includes appropriations for 10 nonprofit organizations, and seven of those organizations are slated to receive more than $1,000. Of those seven, two have council-appointed board members and at least two do not. The situation is unclear for the remaining three organizations receiving more than $1,000.

"We want to make sure that all these organizations, that if they do need someone appointed to them, that they have that," Hart said on the phone last week.

According to Section 708, all payments that violate the charter are to be deemed illegal and those authorizing or receiving the payments are responsible for paying them back.

The section also states that town officials and employees who make such payments knowingly shall be removed.

Jaskiewicz said after the meeting last week that he was not sure if retroactively appointing someone already on a board would count as satisfying the charter.

"If it's wrong and we can't do it, then we won't do it," he said.

He said on Monday that he was not aware of anyone ever having to repay expenditures and also noted that all appropriations, being listed in the budget, were approved under the public eye.

Cathy Zeiner, executive director of the nonprofit Safe Futures shelter in New London, referred to the charter section requiring the council appoint board members as "archaic."

"It is completely in conflict with current thinking of proper governance of nonprofits," said Zeiner, explaining that the interests of a nonprofit may not be the same as those of a town.

Safe Futures is slated to receive $2,000 from Montville this fiscal year.

Zeiner said that up until a few years ago, the town's annual questionnaire for the nonprofit would ask Safe Futures to recommend a liaison for the town to appoint. She said the town hasn't asked for the name of a board member to nominate since at least December 2009.

Zeiner said other towns with charter provisions similar to Montville's Section 710 have ceased providing Safe Futures with funding or have changed their charters.

Jaskiewicz said Monday that the town did not want to attempt changing the section because that would involve opening the charter, which could invite people to propose changes in other sections. He said the last time the council revised the charter, the town spent roughly $67,000 in legal fees to collect expert opinions on proposed changes.

The Finance Committee's discussion last week came amidst a flurry of ethics complaints relating to a donation of $2,500 by the town Water Pollution Control Authority to the nonprofit Project Graduation, which organizes a sober party for graduating Montville High School seniors. Independence for Montville Chairman James Andriote claimed in one complaint he filed that the donation violated Section 710.

Committee members said the complaints did not play a role in their decision to reconsider the town's approach to Section 710. They emphasized that more than five years ago, the town reviewed the section and established council liaisons to nonprofit boards.

Currently, Tanner holds the position as liaision to five nonprofit boards, according to the town website, some of which receive town funds.

t.townsend@theday.com

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