Secret settlement in Norwich shows need for reform

Something is wrong when a municipally owned utility makes a confidential payoff to bury a harassment complaint filed by a female employee against the chairman of the board and the board plays no role, neither discussing the complaint nor approving the settlement.

And in this case, which is not hypothetical, the City Council was also kept in the dark.

On Sept. 16, 2015, a Norwich Public Utilities employee filed a complaint with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities alleging “harassment in connection with her employment” and naming James Sullivan, chairman of the Board of Public Utilities Commissioners, as the harasser.

Three weeks later, Sullivan, who had served on the board for 16 years, the last eight as chairman, resigned. Making no reference to the harassment allegation, Sullivan said he wanted to give more attention to his work as a lobbyist and to his family. Sullivan is married to U.S. Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif.

In addition to Sullivan, the complaint targeted Norwich Public Utilities and the City of Norwich.

The NPU administration chose to quietly handle the matter with the insurance company. NPU General Manager John Bilda authorized a $35,000 settlement in return for the withdrawing of the complaint. The deal includes a confidentiality clause, prohibiting the parties from talking about the matter. Because NPU’s insurance policy carries a $50,000 deductible, the utility made full payment.

There is no way of knowing the veracity of the harassment allegation or even the details of the complaint. Paying a settlement does not amount to a confession. Settlements made to avoid the potential for larger damages and to cut legal costs are common.

The problem is secrecy. Public funds should not be used to buy confidentiality protection for a public official. If Sullivan wanted to cut a deal, with his own money, he could have. The utility commission, representing the interests of ratepayers, and the City Council, representing taxpayers, should have been informed and involved in authorizing a settlement. As pending litigation, discussions about the complaint could have taken place in closed session.

Instead, Bilda, who at the time the complaint was filed and a settlement negotiated was serving a dual role as acting city manager, chose to keep the circle of those in the know a small one.

When City Manager John Salomone signed off on the settlement, he had been on the job less than a month. He should have run it by the council.

If not for the persistence of Day Staff Writer Claire Bessette, who accessed a redacted version of the settlement by way of a Freedom of Information Commission appeal, Bilda and Sullivan would have kept the matter under wraps.

Instead, the handling of this matter should result in a review by the NPU commissioners and the council, with policy changes that assure, going forward, they are included in settlement talks and that public money is not used to buy silence.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Pat Richardson, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, retired Day editor Lisa McGinley, Managing Editor Tim Cotter and Staff Writer Julia Bergman. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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