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In New London, mayor should have sought council's OK

The cost of repairing drainage problems on Pequot Avenue in the vicinity of Greens Harbor Beach has roughly doubled, yet Mayor Michael Passero has not returned to the City Council to get its approval for amending the contract to cover the unanticipated work or to pay for that work.

Yes, this is a worthwhile project and one — if it achieves its goals — for which the city should be proud. It should stop the frequent flooding of the road and the adjacent park, prevent the resulting beach erosion, and reduce the flushing of contaminants into the swimming area that has forced numerous beach closings. Greens Harbor is the only free beach in the city.

But when the scope of a project changes so much that the costs roughly double the council, which is in control of the purse, should be apprised and asked to authorize the changes and spending.

The project, which began in December, was to cost $1.97 million according to the bid accepted. The city planned to utilize $1.5 million in federal relief funds dating to Super Storm Sandy and about $500,000 in bond money. The City Council authorized the work Nov. 19, 2018.

Expected to be completed by the end of June, the intent of the project is to improve drainage and upgrade the park. It was a challenging project from the start, involving aging infrastructure and trying to address a long-standing problem.

Passero said it is nearing completion.

As reported by The Day earlier this month, the Passero administration had to find $1.8 million to cover cost overruns. It is seeking state funding to help, though it is hard to see the justification for a state taxpayer bailout. Most likely, city taxpayers will be on the hook.

But the mayor never returned to the council to seek approval for amending the work plans or to get its OK to transfer other bonding resources to cover it.

This point has been raised by the lone Republican on the council, Martin T. Olsen Jr., who also happens to be challenging Passero in the race for mayor. Because the two are facing off in an election, Passero dismisses the points raised by Olsen as pure politics. While politics are involved (Aren’t they always?), Olsen is raising legitimate procedural questions.

In a letter to City Council President John Satti, like Passero a Democrat, Olsen quotes the plain language of the City Charter: “When it becomes necessary in the opinion of the mayor to make alterations or modifications in a contract for any public work or improvement such alterations or modifications shall be made only when authorized by the council upon the written recommendations of the mayor.”

Public Works Director Brian Sear told Day Staff Writer Greg Smith that the city almost immediately realized the scope of the work needed to be expanded. For safety reasons, plans to detour traffic had to be abandoned and the road kept open during construction. The city’s own specifications were wrong, meaning pressurized sewer mains were deeper than expected and more difficult to bypass. There were more rocks to be removed.

On Monday Passero received a memo from his finance director, David McBride, concluding all the work was within the terms of the initial contract or permitted amendments, meaning no need for further council action. McBride also found, as the mayor did, that it was OK to redirect money from prevsiously approved infrastructure funds.

That doesn’t sound right to us. Largely, funds should be earmarked for specific purposes. The mayor should be provided some latitude, certainly, but moving money to pay for a project that has doubled in expense seems far outside any reasonable executive leeway.

At this point, any council action would be perfunctory. The project is not going to be undone, nor should it be. But in some fashion the council needs to make it known going forward that its approval will be needed before any mayor can expand the scope of a public works project and shift substantial funding to pay for it.

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 Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. 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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