Stonington releases controversial operations report

Stonington — First Selectman Rob Simmons released a consultant’s report on town operations to The Day on Monday, two days before the state Freedom of Information Commission was to act on a recommendation by its hearing officer that the town be ordered to release the document.

The Day, which had appealed to the commission after the town refused to release the report last year, withdrew its appeal to the commission after it received the 27-page report. The FOI Commission had been scheduled to meet Wednesday to act on the hearing officer’s recommendation.

The town had argued that the report it paid consultant Keith Chapman $15,000 to develop was a draft and therefore exempt from disclosure. But The Day argued there was no overriding public interest in keeping the draft secret and that it was in the public's interest to disclose the consultant’s unedited view of how the town operates.

Simmons said Monday he still feels Chapman’s report was a draft but that he saw no point in going through the time and expense of appearing before the commission in Hartford or appealing any decision in Superior Court since "95 percent of the time” the commission upholds the recommendations of its hearing officer.

Many of the recommendations and comments in Chapman's January 2017 report on how the town operates are the same as those that appear in the report the town released in April 2017 after Simmons made revisions. Overall, the report, which Simmons commissioned, concluded that while there are needed improvements, the town is well managed.

A review of Chapman’s report revealed Simmons had removed some of the criticism of the town’s Highway Department as well as the naming of three “struggling” department heads before the town released the report in April.

Simmons said that he made the deletions after he found some of the comments to be inaccurate, exceeded his instructions to Chapman, named specific employees or looked back instead of forward.

“I did not want this to focus on the past but to look to the future. We all know about the past and what I inherited here," he said Tuesday. "This is a management tool. It’s not intended to embarrass anyone or look backwards.”

The report states that the town is “transitioning away from the toxic work environment of the past 4 or 5 years that resulted in close to a dozen excellent employees” leaving for other jobs.

“We had been through hell,” Simmons said about employees who left under the tenure of former First Selectman Ed Haberek, who departed for a job in Seattle after a sexting scandal and a number of other controversies.

In his report, Chapman pointed out that Director of Public Works Barbara McKrell, Director of Finance Jim Sullivan and Director of Administrative Services Vincent Pacileo appeared to struggle in leading their staffs and said their lack of directly related municipal leadership or municipal management experience may have contributed to the difficulties they were encountering. Their predecessors all left during Haberek’s time in office.

Simmons had deleted Chapman’s comments from the report the town released in April 2017 as well as others critical of McKrell.

Asked if the performance of the three department heads have improved since Chapman’s report to the town 13 months ago, Simmons said “absolutely.”

“We’ve had improvements in all our departments, including some who were functionally adequate at the time,” he said.

Simmons attributed the improvements to increased communication and collaboration, some of which he said occurs at twice monthly mandatory staff meetings he has with 20 department heads.

The performance of the Highway Department under McKrell has been a topic of conversation since her controversial firing of well-known Highway Supervisor Louis DiCesare in 2015. DiCesare has since filed three union grievances and a federal lawsuit against the town. All four actions are pending.

Chapman wrote that Public Works employees seemed to have taken sides in issues involving employee discipline and acceptance of McKrell. He wrote that she “has a limited background in highway and fleet operations and has been faced with significant employee issues that have divided the Department and to some degree the Town as a whole.”

He also wrote that about 25 percent of the Highway Department staff was in conflict with McKrell's goals for the department, a situation that needed to be rectified. Simmons disputed the assertion, saying only a few members of the staff disagreed with McKrell.

Simmons also said that since Chapman filed his report, McKrell has developed and implemented systematic plans for maintenance and replacement of trucks and vehicles, paving of roads, leaf collection and snow removal, and has installed GPS systems in all department vehicles to improve efficiency and safety.

He estimated that nearly 50 percent of Chapman’s recommendations, some of which involve the Highway Department, have been implemented or are being worked on. These include developing standard operating procedures, requiring purchase orders for less costly items, cleaning up clutter at the Highway Garage and installing the GPS system on highway trucks. Overall, Chapman wrote that the Highway Department is responsive to the challenges it faces.

Simmons also deleted a comment by Chapman that clerical staffers feel they are underappreciated and viewed as less important than other full-time employees.

“This feeling appears to have merit, as this is the only group of employees that must punch a clock before and after lunch daily,” he said.

Chapman praised “seasoned” directors and department heads such as Humans Services Director Leanne Theodore, Director of Planning Jason Vincent and Tax Assessor Marsha Standish, saying they have more easily overcome challenges.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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