Norwich aldermen criticize separation agreement for former NPU GM Bilda

Norwich — Taxpayers and ratepayers are letting City Council members know their objections to a separation agreement that allows former Norwich Public Utilities General Manager John Bilda to retire with full benefits and receive a $35,000 severance payment, half of which is for compensatory damages, including for "emotional distress."

Mayor Peter Nystrom said he is “disgusted” by the agreement and wants to look into it further, including the total cost of the pension, sick time and accrued vacation time Bilda will receive in the agreement. Nystrom said he met with city Corporation Counsel Michael Driscoll for an hour Wednesday to discuss the separation agreement. Driscoll was not involved in the negotiations.

“I think he should have been dismissed,” Nystrom said. “The idea that he’s entitled to pain and suffering. Are you kidding me? What about the pain and suffering the ratepayers have incurred here?”

Nystrom said he still believes Bilda did not have a valid contract with NPU, as there is no record of the commission having voted to approve an extension after the contract expired in 2016.

But while Alderwoman Stacy Gould said her phone has been ringing steadily since late Tuesday with calls from irate taxpayers and ratepayers, she said the deal is likely the best the utilities commission could have achieved financially.

Gould said the alternative could have been that Bilda remained on the NPU payroll until his contract expired in 2021, costing “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in salary, benefits and legal costs if the city refused to pay.

Bilda was one of five officials from the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative indicted Nov. 8 on public corruption charges related to CMEEC’s hosting of lavish trips to the Kentucky Derby from 2013 to 2016 and to a luxury golf resort in West Virginia in October 2015. Bilda was placed on paid administrative leave Nov. 15, when Assistant General Manager Chris LaRose was named interim general manager.

The board on Tuesday approved the agreement that calls for Bilda to be paid $18,000 for compensatory damages, including “emotional distress,” $17,000 for his labor attorney fees and a $1,000 pension contribution.

Bilda’s resignation letter, also approved Tuesday, was effective Dec. 31, but the agreement calls for him to retire in good standing no later than April 10, after he turns 55 years old. Attorney Anthony Palermino, who represented the utilities commission in the negotiations, said Wednesday the retirement component was a key factor that had to be ironed out.

The agreement calls for NPU to pay Bilda a $10-per-month “pro forma payment” until his formal retirement date to allow his pension to remain active, Palermino said. NPU will provide Bilda's earnings to the city Human Resources Department to calculate his pension, which will be reviewed by the city Personnel and Pension Board, NPU spokesman Chris Riley said.

Other aldermen objected to the separation agreement Wednesday but said the council has no oversight of utilities operations.

Alderman William Nash, one of the first to call for Bilda’s resignation in the wake of public outcry over the Kentucky Derby trips, objected to any payments to Bilda, saying he “violated the public trust."

“I think it’s ridiculous that he got the deal that he got,” Nash said. “I will sit back and pay quite a bit of attention to how the indictments play out. And we’re paying for his (employment agreement) lawyers. This is people’s ratepaying money, and it’s going to a guy who was obviously found suspect in many things.”

Alderman Samuel Browning questioned the provision that directs Norwich utilities commission members on the CMEEC board of directors — Chairwoman Grace Jones and board member Stewart Peil — to vote in support of having CMEEC pay legal defense fees for Bilda in the criminal proceeding. He said the CMEEC board should ask Jones and Peil to recuse themselves in those votes.

The CMEEC board is scheduled to discuss the issue of whether to advance the five officials for legal costs in the pending federal criminal case at its meeting Thursday in Norwalk.

Alderwoman Joanne Philbrick said she was "disgusted" at what she called a "sweetheart deal" for Bilda. She said she has asked NPU officials for the exact cost of the agreement, including pension payments, accrued sick time and vacation time and the severance payments.

Alderman Joseph DeLucia objected to comments by commissioners expressing the desire to put the controversy behind them. DeLucia said that signals a desire to return to “status quo,” when major changes should be in order.

Jacques Parenteau, who represented Bilda along with attorney William Madsen, said Wednesday the criticism of the agreement is unfounded.

Parenteau said Bilda recapped some recent accomplishments in his resignation letter. In the one-page letter, Bilda cited a 2017 performance evaluation that said he had “done an outstanding job benefiting ratepayers and taxpayers greatly,” including national public power excellence awards. The review also said he saved the city $300,000 by serving dually as city manager and utilities general manager for a year.

“As my employment with NPU comes to an end, I am proud to have worked with an excellent team of employees at NPU and to have brought about these accomplishments with their assistance and wish them well,” Bilda wrote in the letter.

“He loved going to work every day and was proud of the work he did for the people of Norwich,” Parenteau said. “... This is not the way his career should have ended.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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