WALLINGFORD — Since Public Works Director Henry McCully’s candid admission last week that he willfully violated state and local environmental laws by storing potentially hazardous material on town-owned property within the aquifer protection zone, Republicans have tried to dismiss the issue as political grandstanding by Democrats and Town Councilor Jason Zandri, the party’s nominee for mayor.
“It’s a strategy I guess,” said Republican Tom Laffin. “They try to poke holes in the administration by attacking public works.”
During questioning by Zandri at last week’s Town Council meeting, McCully said the Public Works Department has continued the practice of illegally storing material at its 91 North Turnpike Road facility for years and did not seek an alternative method for storing material because “I had higher priorities,” McCully told the council.
The town was cited by state regulators in June after public works stored oily waste from the used oil collection center at the site. McCully told the council the placement of oily material at the site was “not a spill. It was done under direction and control.”
While state regulators have said fines are unlikely, the town had to spend $36,810 to ship 1,227 tons of material over the summer to a permitted facility in Manchester, as required by the state.
Republican Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr., McCully’s boss, did not participate in last week’s discussion beyond saying he couldn’t recall whether concerns expressed by state officials in 2009 about material storage at the site were similar to the recent violations.
“It’s possible that I don’t remember,” Dickinson said Tuesday.
Republican councilors have characterized the violations as a personnel issue and turned their focus onto whether the council has any authority over the matter.
“What power does the council have in order to correct whatever errors might have been made?” Republican Town Councilor Craig Fishbein asked.
The Town Charter gives the mayor authority over the administration of “all departments, agencies and offices” related to the town. The mayor has the power to appoint and remove department heads. The council has legislative authority in town. This, for example, gives councilors the ability to enact or abolish ordinances, appoint advisory boards or commissions and act as a watchdog to the town’s finances.
Zandri said the council should use its authority to hold the administration accountable for a pattern of ignoring environmental regulations at 91 North Turnpike Road and associated costs.
“It’s completely in line for me to ask how many more unfunded expenses they are going to bring up at public works,” Zandri said. “... I need to know if we should increase their budget.”
Under the Town Charter, the council, by a vote of at least three members, also has the power to investigate any and all departments, offices and agencies of the town.
Zandri began his investigation in August when he requested from McCully all expenses related to violations at the North Turnpike Road site, nicknamed the “dog pit.”
A resolution can also be passed asking the mayor to take action, Zandri said. But Republican councilors won’t agree to such a resolution because “they’ve got no backbone,” he added.
“Shouldn’t we be holding the administration accountable regardless of the party affiliation?” Zandri asked.
Republican Councilor John LeTourneau said no one on the council was trying to protect the mayor or McCully.
“There’s no siding with McCully. There’s no siding with anyone,” LeTourneau said. “The mayor’s a big boy, he can protect himself.”
While a majority of Democrats are asking for accountability, there’s not much else the administration can do, Republican councilors said.
“Henry (McCully) was very forthright and admitted he had misjudged things,” Council Chairman Bob Parisi, a Republican, said of last Tuesday’s meeting. “... What do you want me to do, beat him up?
“We bought a ticket to the show and sat and watched, and the show fizzled,” Parisi said of Zandri’s questioning of McCully Tuesday night.
Zandri’s efforts are just the Democrats “beating the drum on this,” LeTourneau said.
Democratic party leaders and Zandri deny that. The pursuit for answers regarding environmental violations at 91 North Turnpike Road didn’t start for political reasons, said Vinny Avallone, Democratic town chairman. But the issue, Avallone said, should have an impact on Nov. 5, when residents vote to elect the next mayor. The town’s response, or lack thereof, to the state’s letter to Dickinson in 2009 asking that all unpermitted material be removed from the site is something the mayor is responsible for, he said.
“The mayor is responsible in my opinion for not acting on this and taking action to correct the problem,” Avallone said.
But, he added, “It’s hard to get past these people looking at how we have low electric rates, which the mayor has nothing to do with, or the AAA bond rating.
“That’s all people care about,” Avallone said.
Zandri said crying politics is just a way for Republicans to dismiss the issue.
“They break a rule, and no one catches up with them, so they do it again,” he said. “Then they say you’re picking on McCully and going after the matter politically. The first thing I have a concern about is the expenditure of money. If Tom (Laffin) and the Republicans want to hang their hat on me politicking, then they can go right ahead. But what is the administration doing about this? Nothing.”
Dickinson said the issues at the site are being dealt with, McCully has taken responsibility and things are moving forward.
“Where does this fit in the entire spectrum of issues confronting the community?” Dickinson asked. “It’s election time. There will be continued charges and counter charges.”