Norwich City Council replaces utilities commission member who criticized Derby trips

Norwich – In a sometimes chaotic City Council meeting on Monday, members voted down, for now, a move to recommend full restitution by five city officials who participated in the Kentucky Derby trips while replacing the one member of the utilities commission who has been the most vocal critic of the so-called strategic retreats.

The 6-1 vote to replace Democrat Larry Goldman, a seven-year member of the Board of Public Utilities Commissioners, followed a strongly worded statement by Goldman during public comment period. Several other speakers also supported Goldman's service on the commission, and complained that the council was removing the lone critic of the trips.

Goldman's five-year term expired March 1, three weeks after the Norwich Ethics Commission ruled that Norwich Public Utilities General Manager John Bilda, NPU Division Manager Steve Sinko and utilities commission Chairwoman Dee Boisclair and Vice Chairman Robert Groner, along with Mayor Deberey Hinchey violated the city's ethics code by attending the May 2016 trip.

Goldman, who said he learned of the trip after it occurred, said he was rebuffed in his attempts to learn more about the retreat, hosted by the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative.

Aldermen, however, said they felt Goldman should have brought the issue to the City Council or other city officials earlier. The trips were not discussed publicly by any city agency until news reports were published in October.

“I believe that over the years I have been a strong advocate for ratepayers and most recently I have been the leading voice at NPU and the first voice to speak out against the recently uncovered lavish retreats,” Goldman said to the council. “… That the council believed I was not a strong enough voice on the issue in the face of their deafening silence is absurd. As an NPU commissioner, I was stonewalled at every turn when I looked for answers.”

The Republican majority council voted to appoint Republican Stewart Peil to the utilities commission instead of Goldman. Hinchey, a Democrat, but a long-standing adversary of Goldman's, also voted for Peil. Democrat H. Tucker Braddock voted against the appointment.

Later Monday, the council became engaged in a sometimes heated and confused discussion over a resolution that addressed a recommendation in the ethics ruling that a permanent file be kept in the city clerk's office to hold ethics letters pertaining to board and commission members.

Some aldermen did not support that move, saying permanent records of the Ethics Commission already will be on file in the city clerk's office. But things became confused when Council President Pro Tempore Peter Nystrom – a mayoral candidate – tried to amend the resolution to recommend that the five city officials who attended the Kentucky Derby trip pay full restitution of the cost to the city.

The Ethics Commission had recommended that Hinchey, Boisclair and Groner reimburse the city for 25 percent of the cost of the trip, with Boisclair and Groner asked to pay for themselves and their spouses – minus $50 for the allowed limit of gifts in the city ordinance. The 25 percent was recommended because NPU owns an estimated 25 percent of the six-member utility cooperative.

The commission recommended Bilda and Sinko only pay the full reimbursement – again minus $50 – believing they bore greater responsibility for the four-year practice by CMEEC of hosting the trips. All four NPU officials are CMEEC board members. Hinchey attended as a guest.

With aldermen split on both the need for a permanent file and the last-minute amendment at the end of the agenda to call for full reimbursement, the combined motion died in a 3-3 vote. Hinchey recused herself and left Council Chambers. Nystrom and aldermen Gerald Martin and William Nash supported the resolution, while Alderwoman Joanne Philbrick, Braddock and Stacy Gould voted against.

Later, following an executive session for the one-year performance evaluation of City Manager John Salomone, Philbrick attempted to change her vote. Philbrick said she supported full restitution, but objected to the requirement of a permanent file on ethics violations. She then attempted to split the motion as others attempted to adjourn the meeting with no further discussion.

Philbrick vowed to bring up a new resolution calling for 100 percent reimbursement by Kentucky Derby trip participants at the April 3 City Council meeting.

c.bessette@theday.com

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