Pension issue again brings heated debate in Preston

Preston — After heated exchanges, a reversal of opinion by a town attorney and one apology, the Board of Selectmen voted not to send to a town meeting and referendum a request that seven non-union school employees be allowed to join the town retirement system.

The issue still might not be dead. Resident William Legler strongly objected to the stance by the selectmen and Town Attorney Michael Collins that the proposal needed Board of Finance approval first since it included town payment of an estimated $780,900 to cover past-year contributions. The two-page letter was a reversal of Collins’ earlier opinion that selectmen had the authority to send the issue to town meeting.

The Board of Finance voted 5-1 against the plan last week. Legler argued vehemently Thursday that the six-member Board of Finance should not be able to override the town meeting process.

“Any citizen of Preston can submit a petition with 20 signatures and force a town meeting,” Legler told selectmen. “And 200 signatures can force a referendum. ... The bottom line is six people should not dictate to this town.”

Legler said after the meeting that he might circulate a petition to send the issue to a town meeting.

Citing Collins' opinion, Selectman Michael Sinko said: “To spend money, it needs a recommendation of the Board of Finance.”

Legler and resident Michael Clancy countered that the town did have a recommendation from the finance board, a negative recommendation, that could be weighed by residents at the town meeting.

The issue has been debated much of the summer after the Board of Education requested selectmen call a town meeting to decide whether the seven employees should be allowed to join the Connecticut Municipal Employees Retirement System, or MERS. The employees had negotiated for two years on a transition from their personal 403 (b) retirement plans to MERS. The plan called for the Board of Education to pay the town’s share of back years’ contributions over 30 years, the employees to pay their share for back years of service and for the employees to reimburse the board for all past contributions to their 403 (b) plans.

Board of Finance Chairman Norman Gauthier has led the argument that the Board of Finance could stop the town meeting. He threatened to take the Board of Selectmen to court in August over the issue. But Gauthier’s first statement Thursday was an apology to the Board of Selectmen and First Selectman Robert Congdon for language in an opinion article Gauthier wrote that was published in the Norwich Bulletin. Gauthier said he did not intend a personal attack on Congdon, who has recused himself from the MERS discussion, because his wife, Linda Congdon, a school nurse, is one of the school employees.

“You attacked the integrity and the ethics of all three of us,” Congdon responded Thursday to Gauthier, “and I take exception to that. I don’t buy that it wasn’t intended.”

Congdon read one paragraph of Gauthier’s piece he found offensive, repeated that he has recused himself “every step of the way,” did so again and left the room as the MERS item was next on the agenda.

“Even without a lawsuit,” Gauthier had written in the opinion piece, "the Selectmen should have agreed to Board of Finance review to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest. One of the Selectmen will realize a financial benefit from this plan. It appears that they were trying to rush to a quick vote with only the beneficiaries, their family, and friends present to overrun the meeting. The Selectmen’s action to help line the pockets of one of their own members comes uncomfortably close to crossing the line of ethical behavior.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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