May 4, 2014 01:00AM
By Andrew Ragali
WALLINGFORD — Some council members are accusing Town Councilor Craig Fishbein of unnecessarily taking an aggressive and accusatory tone while questioning social service agencies funded by the town during a recent budget workshop.
Others were less critical, but said they wouldn’t have pursued the same line of questioning during the workshop, held the evening of March 24. Council members said Fishbein, a Republican, was particularly tough when questioning employees and volunteers of Wallingford Center Inc. and the Spanish Community of Wallingford. Also discussed during the meeting were budget requests from the Senior Center and Master’s Manna food pantry.
“I was so in shock at the bullying that went on when Councilor Fishbein was asking his questions of SCOW and WCI,” Democratic Town Councilor John Sullivan said.
Sullivan said that if he were in the shoes of those representing SCOW and WCI during the budget workshop, “I probably would have gotten up and left.”
“It was probably the most awkward meeting I’ve ever been at in my entire life,” Town Council Vice Chairman Tom Laffin, a Republican, said Thursday. “I was embarrassed for everybody.”
Town Council Chairman Vincent Cervoni, a Republican, said Thursday Fishbein gives off the appearance “that he’s being a bully from his council seat.”
“I find it distasteful,” he added.
Asked if it would affect his approach while presiding over future meetings, Cervoni said, “As the chairman, I find that I need to be careful about squelching an elected official’s ability to speak from his seat. I will play it as it goes.”
Regarding his colleagues’ concerns, Fishbein said “It’s their right to criticize.
“I’m used to their criticism of me doing their job,” he said. “Some councilors don’t even open up their budget book. Some sleep through meetings. The public elected me to do a job. I attempt to do it at every turn.”
During the meeting, Fishbein asked specific budget questions of the social service agencies, much of the time revolving around if surplus funding existed and if additional town funding was necessary. He was the first to ask questions of SCOW and WCI. He was the only councilor to ask questions of Master’s Manna. He also brought with him to the meeting tax returns from each organization.
“I think questions need to be asked,” Fishbein said during an interview.
For example, Fishbein asked Steve Knight, vice president of SCOW’s board, and Maria Campos Harlow, the organization’s executive director, what the nonprofit’s budget was for this fiscal year. He then asked if the organization could survive without the town’s contribution. Harlow and Knight told Fishbein the non-profit had a $16,000 surplus last year. The town provided SCOW with $10,000 last year, and the same request was made this year.
Harlow said that it’s “fair to say” that if the organization didn’t get the $10,000 there would be no effect on services. But the organization also depends on fundraising, and the amount of money raised year-to-year can be erratic. Also, state funding is tenuous, she said. A growing surplus is important to cover the organization in case the state pulls back the grant money it provides, she added.
After Fishbein was finished, Town Councilor Vincent Testa, a Democrat, asked him what point he was trying to achieve with his line of questioning.
“I’m looking for oversight,” Fishbein responded, adding that the explanation from Harlow and Knight gave him solace.
Other councilors asked very little of Harlow and Knight, instead offering compliments for their work in town.
“Personally if it was up to me you wouldn’t need to be here,” Sullivan told them, extending the sentiment to other social service agencies in the auditorium awaiting their turn to speak to the council.
Sullivan pointed out during the meeting that of the mayor’s proposed $157.77 million budget, social services make up $1,083,925, or less than 1 percent of the overall budget. For mostly volunteer organizations making up such a small percentage of the budget to be questioned as they were during the meeting “is unacceptable,” Sullivan said.
Councilors have to stay focused on what they’re trying to accomplish, Town Councilor Bob Parisi, a Republican, said Thursday. “When you start picking on something that produces an insignificant amount of dollar reductions, what’s the sense?”
While questioning Center Inc., Fishbein twice said that he would file a Freedom of Information complaint against the organization because officials have not provided meeting minutes. Fishbein said he made the request last year, “but the request was met with silence.”
Since the organization is not a municipal agency, the prevailing view has been that it is not required to provide meeting minutes to the public, Center Inc. President Steve Lazarus told Fishbein. If there was disagreement, the Law Department should be consulted and the complaint should be pursued in a friendly manner because the organization doesn’t have money for legal representation, Lazarus said.
“As I said I’ll be filing the action next week,” Fishbein said.
Lazarus said that as an organization largely composed of volunteers the group doesn’t have much patience for paperwork. If Fishbein’s request for meeting minutes were accommodated, “there would be 30 or 40 other requests coming down the line,” Lazarus said. “We don’t want to open that door ... It would be an ugly picture for a volunteer organization to have to comply with that level of freedom of information.”
Fishbein said not making minutes public “perpetuates the feeling of back-door, non-transparent government.”
Sullivan said Fishbein’s disagreement over whether meeting minutes should be publicly available or not “could have been discussed in a different manner.”
Councilors can meet with town officials in private to discuss matters that only waste time during meetings, Sullivan said, “I don’t need to tie up an entire council meeting to show the electorate that I’m on my game.”
While Fishbein did ask good questions, Sullivan said, “the manner in which he asks them really offends some people.”
“I didn’t care for the tone either,” Republican Town Councilor John LeTourneau said. Fishbein, a lawyer, is a good councilor, LeTourneau said, “but sometimes he forgets he’s not in court.”
“You slip between asking questions and cross examining,” he said.
Council members have the right to ask any questions they want, Landow said, when asked if she felt Fishbein’s questions or tone were improper. “We do have to appear in front of the council and we do have to answer any questions they have.”
Fishbein is reluctant to meet with town officials to have his questions answered in person because “there are no cameras rolling,” LeTourneau said.
“He likes his theater,” Cervoni said of Fishbein. “I believe that he believes his form of theater will be effective.”
As a newcomer to the council, Larry Russo, a Democrat, said Thursday that some of Fishbein’s questions are valuable, “but some probably shouldn’t be asked.”
Another newcomer, Republican Town Councilor Christine Mansfield, said she wouldn’t personally pursue the same questions as Fishbein.
“Whether you like it or not, you respect it,” Mansfield said. “I would not take it to that level, but some of the questions he raised were valid.”