Norwich utilities commission to review bylaws in the wake of harassment settlement

Norwich — The Board of Public Utilities Commissioners will consider making changes to its bylaws to clarify when the board would have a role in any future harassment or other employee complaints if financial settlements are considered.

Near the end of Tuesday’s commission meeting, the board addressed the recent public criticism over the handling of a $35,000 payment made by NPU in May 2016 to settle an employee’s harassment complaint filed with the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities against then-commission Chairman James Sullivan. The settlement was handled by NPU administration without approval by the board, and because the settlement amount was less than the insurance deductible of $50,000, NPU made the payment directly to the complainant.

The settlement was ordered released by the state Freedom of Information Commission after a complaint by The Day seeking the document.

The current board bylaws contain no provision for reviewing complaints filed against board members.

Commission member Robert Staley started the discussion Tuesday, saying the issue has made NPU the “center of attention” and asking General Manager John Bilda if the current policies are correct and whether the board should have been informed. Most of the five current board members were not on the board at the time the settlement was negotiated.

Staley asked Bilda if he would brief the board on the 2015 complaint in executive session, but Bilda abruptly refused, citing a confidentiality agreement included in the settlement.

Staley said he is “of two minds” on confidentiality agreements, agreeing that a lot of women wouldn’t come forward with complaints without the confidentiality provision. But he said confidentiality on the board’s part is another issue.

He said in the next month or two, the board should consider changes in policy to involve the board in finalizing settlements and involving the board to some degree in the confidentiality issue.

Board Chairwoman Grace Jones, retired president of Three Rivers Community College, said in her professional career, the mantra has always been “to take care of the complainant, the victim.”

Bilda said he did brief the previous board on the issue and the current board — but only on the fact that there was an FOI complaint pending by The Day. He said he took the advice of attorneys on how to handle the complaint and settlement.

“I signed a confidentiality agreement that I will not breach,” Bilda said.

Jones said the commissions and organization boards do not typically get involved in administrative personnel issues, such as issues of harassment or firings.

Jones suggested a board workshop to review the policy documents and decide whether changes are needed.

But Bilda said the board recently went through a half-day “board governance process” and reviewed the board’s and the general manager’s roles, which have been consistent with the policies in place. When necessary, he updates the board on issues in executive session “as much as I can.”

“I think we should make sure we have a place in our bylaws so it’s clear when we have a role, if we should have a role,” Jones said.

At the start of Tuesday’s meeting during public comment, Alderman Samuel Browning said the board should address the issue of the settlement and the criticism it generated. Browning pointed to a provision in the bylaws that “requires” NPU administration to report to the board on “damage claims over $5,000.”

But after the meeting, Bilda and NPU spokesman Chris Riley said the provision governs physical damage caused by NPU on private property or businesses, such as if a utility pole or wires fall and damage property.

c.bessette@theday.com

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