Funding requests totaling $468,546 were overwhelmingly approved Monday night at a Town Meeting, but not without pointed questions and the revelation that a Freedom of Information complaint had been filed over the process that led up to the larger request.
About 100 residents in Samuel Staples Elementary School heard presentations on a $404,346 funding request to fix Staples’ Building Management System, which controls temperatures in the school, and to upgrade the school’s lighting, and a $64,200 request to convert three town buildings to natural gas.
The larger funding request dominated discussion during the hour-long meeting.
John Bromer, of Silver Hill Road, said he was in favor of fixing Staples’ BMS but said the process that led up to the $404,346 funding request was “deeply flawed.” He said the Board of Education had “falsely” told the state Department of Education that construction of the school was complete when its BMS wasn’t working; that a working group that came up with the recommended solution met privately without posting agendas or minutes of its meetings; and that Honeywell was selected without a public bidding process.
“We have time to do it properly and legally,” Mr. Bromer said. “It will again be our shame if this flawed process is approved tonight.” Earlier in his remarks, Mr. Bromer said it was to the town’s “shame” that Monday night’s meeting was scheduled on the federal observance of Martin Luther King’s birthday.
Gowan Dacey, of Redding Road, said he had filed a complaint with the state Freedom of Information Commission over the process that led up to the $404,346 funding request.
Mr. Dacey made a motion to table the vote on funding to fix Staples’ Building Management System and upgrade the school’s lighting until the FOI Commission issued a ruling on whether the “working group,” which issued requests for qualifications to fix the BMS, which recommended Honeywell as the contractor and put together the budget, had violated FOI laws.
Several members of the audience “seconded” Mr. Dacey’s motion, and Selectman Robert H. Lessler, who served as moderator at the Town Meeting, said he believed two-thirds of residents at the meeting would have to vote in favor for the motion to succeed. On a voice vote, more residents voted against the motion, and Mr. Lessler said the motion was defeated.
Town Clerk Derek Buckley said he had spoken with Tom Hennick, an FOI attorney, and that Mr. Hennick, based upon what he was told, believed the working group was a town agency and should have filed agendas and minutes. Mr. Buckley said decisions by the working group could potentially be reversed if the FOI Commission found it had violated FOI laws.
Later in the meeting, Bert Webbe, of Maple Road, questioned what the impact would be if the FOI Commission ruled that the working group had violated FOI laws. “If a ruling comes back and cancels the work of the subcommittee, how will that affect your company’s approach toward this contract?” he asked Rob Morrow, Honeywell’s district sales leader. “Is there a rush to sign it now, or wait until the FOI issue is resolved?”
Peggy Sullivan, director of finance and operations for Easton, Redding and Region 9 schools, replied, “The work group, as it was set up, did not make any decisions. There was no action taken by the work group.”
Ms. Sullivan said an RFQ was issued and four vendors responded. She said the work group made a recommendation to the Board of Education, and it was the Board of Education that made the decision.
Earlier, Adam Dunsby, the Board of Education chairman, said the BMS “never worked completely, which resulted in some classrooms being too cold and some classrooms being too hot.” He said parts also wore out faster than they should have. He said the building committee that oversaw the school’s construction couldn’t agree on how to fix the BMS and turned the project over to the Board of Education, which accepted it.
Mr. Dunsby said a $140,000 rebate from United Illuminating brought the cost down to $260,000 and that projected energy savings of $55,000 a year meant the project could pay for itself in five years. He said Honeywell was guaranteeing 90% of the projected energy savings.
Residents questioned whether Honeywell would guarantee energy savings beyond the first year and who would ensure that the savings were realized.
Mr. Morrow said, “Once we know in year one they are realized, it’s logical to assume they will continue down the road.” He said Honeywell could perform mechanical maintenance on the BMS at the town’s option, but that would cost another $18,000 a year. He said he wouldn’t necessarily view that as an added expense because it would replace existing contracts the town had.
“I would suggest that we get a service contract from Honeywell upon completion,” said Art Greiser of Westport Road.
Beverlee Dacey of Redding Road said fixing the BMS was “necessary and long overdue,” but she said $404,346 was a lot of money and Staples was “a brand-new school.” She questioned why roof problems at Staples weren’t included in the project, and Mr. Morrow said, “We were asked not to look at it.”
Ms. Sullivan said repairs to the roof shingles were under way and that defective shingles were under warranty, but the town had to pay for labor. She said the repairs ought to be completed next week.
Sharon Stemme, a Staples’ parent, said the process that led up to the funding request may not have been done the right way, but she said the faulty BMS had affected students’ education over the past seven years. “I really plead with everyone that we put the other stuff aside,” she said.
The motion to approve $404,346 to fix Staples’ BMS and upgrade the school’s lighting was approved on a voice vote, with only a handful of “No” votes.
The $64,200 funding request to convert boilers in the old Staples school, Town Hall and the Easton Public Library to natural gas from oil went much quicker.
Ed Nagy, director of the town’s Department of Public Works, said service lines to all three buildings had been installed, which led Mr. Dacey to ask who paid for that work.
“Southern Connecticut Gas paid for all work done to date, with no cost to the town,” Mr. Nagy replied. Mr. Nagy said First Selectman Thomas A. Herrmann had signed an agreement with the gas company, which led Mr. Webbe to question whether the town had guaranteed a contract to Southern Connecticut Gas.
“So, in essence, [Southern Connecticut Gas] was guaranteed a contract based on the first selectman’s decision to bring natural gas to the town. Is that what Mr. Nagy is saying?” Mr. Webbe asked.
Mr. Nagy replied, “I’ll let the first selectman speak for himself.”
Mr. Herrmann didn’t respond, and Mr. Webbe said, “Just trying to be transparent. I’m only an advocate for transparency.”
The funding request was then overwhelmingly approved on a voice vote.
The Town Meeting didn’t get off to a smooth start. A resident toward the back of the room objected to Mr. Lessler serving as moderator because, as a selectman, he had voted to send the funding request to the Town Meeting.
Mr. Webbe nominated Beverlee Dacey to serve as moderator instead. After a brief discussion on whether a paper ballot should be used to select the moderator, Beverlee Dacey said, “Point of order. I want to withdraw,” and Mr. Lessler was approved on a voice vote.