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    Tuesday, August 16, 2022

    Contracting watchdog waiting for governor to appoint director

    Three weeks after its executive director stepped down, local elected officials are anxiously waiting for Gov. Ned Lamont to appoint a new head of the state Contracting Standards Board.

    Executive Director David Guay stepped down at the end of June. The contracting watchdog agency has six open positions, including the director, but cannot fill any of the positions until a new director is appointed.

    “I talked to the governor’s chief of staff yesterday, and he essentially said they are still vetting someone. I told him I consider this a very important position and would like to see this happen sooner rather than later,” state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said Wednesday.

    The state budget provides about $467,000 for the board, fully funding it and its staff.

    “Cathy Osten did an incredible thing and she made it so the governor's budget office can't make reductions or implement lapses if the budget is in surplus," state Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, said in May. If the state doesn’t have a surplus budget, the provision allows the governor more leeway to make cuts. The state currently has a $4.3 billion budget surplus.

    Lamont’s chief of staff Paul Mounds Jr. sent a statement to The Day about the executive director hiring process on Wednesday.

    “The Office of the Governor is completing background and reference checks for potential candidates for this role, as is done for any executive nominee that has to be confirmed by the General Assembly,” Mounds said in the statement. “We expect to have a nominee for the position in the coming weeks at the conclusion of background reviews.”

    State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, said Wednesday that she is concerned about who exactly Lamont will choose for the role.

    “Whoever it is, and I really feel this is true, it can’t be a former Republican rep, or a former Democratic senator, it has to be somebody who is well-qualified and has the expertise, and the legal expertise, to help guide the board,” Somers said. “It can’t be a partisan political appointment because it’s just wrong. It needs to be an unbiased professional with contracting law experience because with so much happening with the port authority and other contracts, we need to have confidence that the contracting standards board is completely pure.”

    The mission of the State Contracting Standards Board, created by the General Assembly in 2007, is "to require that state contracting and procurement requirements are understood and carried out in a manner that is open, cost effective, efficient and consistent with state and federal statutes, rules and regulations,” according to the state website.

    The board completed an investigation into the Connecticut Port Authority earlier this year. The board had identified issues and possible violations of state statute committed by the authority during its time working toward the redevelopment of State Pier in New London. Parts of the board’s report were contested by the authority.

    The report recommended that the authority adopt ethics and communications standards to limit any conflicts of interest. That specific recommendation stems from the board’s examination of the circumstances surrounding a $523,000 success fee that was part of a $700,000 payment to Seabury Maritime Capital, a contractor hired by the port authority in 2018 to help find an operator — Gateway Terminal, which also operates New Haven's port — for State Pier.

    Lamont's initial budget proposal allocated $218,770 to the Auditors of Public Accounts for three additional auditors, instead of the additional $467,055 needed to fully staff the Contracting Standards Board. The board, in addition to an executive director and intern, has been seeking to fund five more positions: a chief procurement officer, staff attorney, accounts examiner, research analyst and trainer.

    Following public pressure, Lamont reversed course and supported fully funding the board during an interview with The Day editorial board in March.

    “I think we’ll probably make a change,” Lamont said at the time. “I didn’t appreciate everyone saying, ‘Lamont is cutting the state Contracting Standards Board.’ I funded it the same way all my predecessors have funded it.”

    “I think it’s time for the governor to make a choice. He’s got a history of not responding well to the Contracting Standards Board,” state Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, said Wednesday. “In fairness, it’s less odd to have an opening this time of year. We’re a few weeks into the new budget, and there’s probably some movement with personnel as a result of budget adjustments.”

    Osten said she doesn’t feel the governor is delaying the appointment because it’s campaign season: “It’s not like they’re going to hire somebody and the next day there’s going to be some great revelation.”

    “I do want to see somebody hired there,” Osten added. “It’s very important we get somebody in there, and I’ve expressed that. We’ve got too many open positions. My understanding is they’re close to hiring somebody, but I’m hoping that happens quickly. I’ve been pushing to talk to them for three weeks on this issue, and I went up the Legislative Office Building to track down Paul (Mounds) so I could talk to him.”

    The Contracting Standards Board’s next scheduled meeting is on July 25, but the board can’t meet until an executive director is appointed.

    s.spinella@theday.com

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