Ledge Light inspector complains about town councilor’s behavior during inspection
Groton ― A Ledge Light Health District employee alleges that a Town Councilor’s behavior during an October inspection of a Branford Manor apartment “felt intimidating and inappropriate.”
But Town Councilor Portia Bordelon, the target of the criticism, said she has the highest respect for the health district and her behavior was driven by her concern for Branford Manor residents.
In an Oct. 22 email to Ledge Light’s health director, Ledge Light Supervisor of Regulated Facilities and Housing Katie Baldwin wrote that the presence of a town councilor as well as a community member during an Oct. 6 inspection made her “feel slightly uncomfortable.”
Baldwin alleged that Bordelon “made statements and asked questions that felt as though she was trying to sway my inspection or alter my inspection findings. Her behavior felt intimidating and inappropriate, almost like bullying. This was definitely inappropriate to occur during a regulatory inspection.”
Baldwin wrote in her email that she was at Branford Manor on Oct. 6 to inspect a resident’s apartment, where local officials and a representative of a law firm were present, and she was unaware that other people were going to be present.
After the inspection, Baldwin was asked by the resident of the apartment she was inspecting to look at a nearby apartment of a neighbor who had recently died.
Baldwin said she agreed to inspect the second unit as the past tenant’s mother and aunt were present.
According to Baldwin’s email, the mother and aunt called Baldwin to the apartment to look at an item and were “pointing to a structural issue on the exterior overhang porch.” That’s when Bordelon, who had arrived at the end of the earlier inspection, began to talk about drainage issues.
Baldwin wrote that Bordelon “began to discuss other topics about Branford Manor and started to speak louder and more aggressive” and allegedly asked “what does it take to declare this unit unfit?”. Bordelon added that it was crazy that the former tenant’s son was still allowed to live in the unit given that his mother had died.
According to the email, Baldwin had explained that she “observed a very musty odor, mostly in the kitchen closet,” but didn’t see visible mold. The community member, Michael Boucher, “returned outside coming at me with his pointer finger stating, ‘this isn’t mold?’’’
Baldwin asked to be taken to the place where he found the substance – a spot on the living room wall – and Baldwin said she could not tell if it was mold or ash.
“Ms. Bordelon began speaking about opening the wall to find the mold to which I told her we do not open walls to investigate mold,” Baldwin wrote. “She kept repeating this in different ways and making statements and I stated that she could request that of management but that I would not and do not open walls.”
Ledge Light Director of Health Stephen Mansfield forwarded Baldwin’s email to Groton Town Manager John Burt on Oct. 24 and said he was following up on what he told Burt verbally a couple of weeks earlier about the incident.
Mansfield wrote in the email that he told his environmental team that “if they ever encounter behavior like this in the future that they should feel comfortable simply leaving the situation and reporting it to their supervisor.”
Bordelon said in a statement that as someone who has worked for the health district as a member of the Health Improvement Collaborative, she has “the highest respect for what the health district represents to the region and the services they provide the community.”
“That said, as a town councilor, it is my responsibility to advocate for my constituents when they are in peril,” she said. “My primary driving concern was, and continues to be, the health and well-being of the residents of Branford Manor, who were, and continue to be, in extremely desperate and degrading circumstances. If my questions were in any way misinterpreted by the LLHD inspector, please know that I only had the best interests of the Branford Manor residents at heart.
“When viewed in the broader context of the overall situation with Related Affordable, Branford Manor and the residents at risk, this incident should pale in comparison, and perhaps could be simply chalked up as a slight misunderstanding of intent,” she added. “In the days ahead I look forward to working with LLHD to do all that we can to make sure the factors affecting the living conditions, health and general welfare of the residents of Branford Manor are addressed in a transparent, accountable, accessible and timely manner.”
A resident’s death
Maria Torres, the mother of the former tenant, 36-year-old Inez Vergara who died at Yale-New Haven Hospital in September, said Bordelon was concerned about the condition of the apartment, but was never disrespectful and never raised her voice. Torres said Bordelon is trying to help Branford Manor residents live a better quality life.
“She was just addressing what can be done,” Torres said. “She was really speaking on our behalf and just asking questions, like how can we get through the walls to find out if the mold is behind the walls, and the moisture issue.”
Torres said her daughter always was cleaning the apartment and complaining about black mold.
Dawn Garcia, processing technician at the Chief Medical Examiner’s office, said the office did not know the cause of Vergara’s death and did not perform an autopsy because the death was not among those it investigates.
Torres said her daughter went to Lawrence + Memorial Hospital due to complications from back pain and later was transferred to Yale New Haven Hospital. Torres said doctors at Yale found her daughter had MRSA.
Torres said the medical team is baffled why her daughter’s health deteriorated so fast. She said the cause of death is listed as “natural causes”, but it is not conclusive and there are tests that have to be completed. She said a lawyer is going through her daughter’s medical records and will get additional testing of her tissues for mold.
Boucher said that on Oct. 6, everyone present felt bad for the family.
He recalled that after Baldwin made a comment about not seeing mold, he took his finger and wiped it on a moldy spot. He said at the time she was walking in the other direction, so he called loudly to her. He said he wasn’t pointing his finger at her, but wanted her to see it and she agreed to go back in and look at the spot. Boucher added that it was probably a very difficult situation for her as well.
“There’s probably a strong presence of mold in the apartment but unfortunately for her because of the way the mold regulations are written up she’s unable to do it because there's no standards, and it’s just like ‘oh dear God,’” Boucher said.
According to a fact sheet from the state Department of Public Health, there are no “standards for indoor levels of molds” “because there is great variability in people’s reaction to mold” and “no scientific support for designating a particular mold measurement as “safe” or “unhealthy.”“
Baldwin said the health district does not have a formal complaint for the unit so no action has been taken at this time. The unit has not been condemned, according to City of Groton Mayor Keith Hedrick.
Burt, Groton’s town manager, did not have a comment.
The town and city councils voted in October to hold the owner, Branford Manor Preservation, LP, a subsidiary of Related Companies, in default of a tax incentive agreement. The resolutions cited that on or around Sept. 8, Ledge Light Health District issued at least 16 orders for violations of the state public health code, and the city on or around Sept. 26 had 37 open violations of its rental housing code.
Mansfield said Ledge Light is working with Related Companies, the owner of the federally subsidized housing complex, on a daily basis and he said the company has been communicative and responsive. He said the health district has closed out complaints “in the double digits” because the company addressed the nuisances. Ledge Light has issued some extensions for the company to take action when there was a reason to do so.
A group of Branford Manor residents, who have complained about mold and poor living conditions at the housing complex, filed a class action suit against Related Companies, the owner of the complex, on Friday.