Montville WPCA still unclear on how to comply with audit's recommendations

Montville — After an audit last summer identified almost $30,000 in questionable spending, the town's Water Pollution Control Authority planned to "hammer out the new policies in coming months."

The hammering continues, but just exactly how is unclear.

WPCA officials have declined to comment on repeated inquiries from The Day during the past month about a state-mandated action plan they had to have submitted by Dec. 31, 2019. Chairman Chuck Longton said members of the commission were told to tell the news media to contact him, yet he also ignored calls and emails from The Day, he said, because he wasn't prepared to answer questions.

The private audit, conducted by New York City accounting firm PKF O'Connor Davies, identified the questionable spending by WPCA personnel between 2014 and 2018, including credit card expenditures of almost $13,000 at Mohegan Sun's Tuscany, Bobby Flay's Bar Americain, Chili's and other restaurants without "documentation on who was present or the purpose of the expense," along with additional unexplained purchases. The findings prompted a state police investigation, which is ongoing.

Audit recommendations included more stringent financial oversight at the WPCA, new policies to prevent fraud, a code of ethics and more straightforward expense reports, among others. Commissioners spoke at length during December and January WPCA meetings about segregation of duties, meaning WPCA finances would require approval of the Town Council or another method of segregation and oversight.

At a meeting this past Monday, commissioners and Mayor Ron McDaniel said the state deemed the action plan, meant to describe in detail how the WPCA would respond to the private audit, no longer was necessary.

Town Council liaison Tim May echoed that sentiment. The state found that the WPCA was “doing the process that was set forth," he said. "They said you don't need that 30-day requirement anymore."

Longton also explained after the meeting last Monday that since the WPCA already was in compliance with the audit's recommendations, it was not required to submit an action plan.

So what has the WPCA done to show it's in compliance?

Longton refused to offer direct examples. He said the commission has taken control of the process and is making sure what needs to be done happens "in a timely and orderly fashion." He pointed to the formation of a subcommittee at Monday’s meeting to address the subject. When pressed, he said the mostly new makeup of the commission — although May and McDaniel were involved with the WPCA in 2014-18 — is a good step.

But no actions have been taken, other than WPCA Superintendent Derek Albertson seeing things that were obvious, like separation of finance and operations, Longton said. "As far as specifics of what we did, we're still in the middle of all of this, it wouldn't be appropriate for me to say we've done this and this and this, because things could change."

The Day reported in September some of the changes the WPCA is targeting, such as a code of ethics, tighter spending controls, clearer expense reporting and improved oversight, possibly from the town finance director, who would hypothetically overlook cash disbursement, bidding and bank reconciliations.

Commissioners and the mayor claimed many changes already are in effect, although those alterations have yet to be codified.

"While many of the recommendations are now procedure, we would like to have a written policy so when transitions occur the policies remain," McDaniel wrote in a text.

At Monday's meeting, commissioners again discussed the need for "supporting documentation" for purchases, rather than a single note about a purchase. The WPCA also was told to "immediately discontinue" buying lunch for vendors, described as "not the standard business practice for municipalities." The WPCA also was urged to specify what was being purchased rather than charging purchases to miscellaneous expenses.

Establishing a subcommittee

Some of the first items on last Monday’s agenda were an update on the forensic audit/audit recommendations and forming the subcommittee.

Longton suggested the subcommittee consisting of two WPCA members — specifically Shawn Jinkerson and Brian Quinn — to examine every item in the audit, go through the recommendations, separate out what the WPCA can do and what town administration can do, and then come back to the WPCA in about a month's time with recommendations of their own.

This measure eventually was passed, though some members raised objections.

Vice Chair Anthony Siragusa said he already had provided answers to recommendations four months ago. "I thought people had been looking at them for four months, and we don't know which ones are approved or not approved?" he said. "It'd be nice to find out before we make a new committee."

Jinkerson said he found it difficult to come up with recommendations because he doesn't know "who is actually responsible for letting us know where we stand with the (state police) investigation." He also expressed trepidation because of possible conflicts of interest.

Former WPCA Chair and Town Councilor Jeff Rogers has been vocal in his accusations against May, who Rogers alleges improperly used a WPCA credit card. McDaniel is a nonvoting member who goes to WPCA meetings, used to work for the authority and has been involved with it in his capacity as mayor for years.

Following more back and forth Monday night, including May suggesting going into executive session, commissioners eventually agreed to establish the subcommittee.

"In order to move this forward, because it has been stagnant, put together a subcommittee, make the recommendations, and we'll flesh it out," McDaniel said. "I'll make sure that it passes muster with the charter and town purchasing policies."

Commissioners decided not to approve a November 2019 invoice for $4,250 from PKF O'Connor Davies until they see an itemized list of work completed. Albertson said once the WPCA pays the bill, the town will have paid the firm about $20,000.

During the meeting, which lasted more than an hour, tempers sometimes flared, and commissioners would argue or speak over one another.

Jinkerson addressed the tension at the end of the meeting. "The one thing that I noticed in the year that I've been here is, there's a complete lack of decorum, or civility, and I'm really getting frustrated with it," he said. "We raise our voices, we look at people like they're stupid, we make comments like they're stupid ... That does not move the ball forward.”

“The one thing that I don't hear come out of this commission is, 'What is best for the rate payer and the taxpayer?'” he added. "I'm not leaving the commission, but I've had it with all this craziness."

In the days following the meeting, Longton expressed dismay because The Day had reached out to multiple commissioners with questions. In an email, he declared himself the only person authorized to speak on behalf of the WPCA for the foreseeable future.

“There is no story here beyond what you already know,” he wrote. “We were audited. There are recommendations in the audit. We formed a subcommittee to adjudicate the recommendations and report back to the commission at the February meeting. End of story. Print that.”

s.spinella@theday.com

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