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Zandri challenges Fishbein’s dual role as tensions over ARPA continue in Wallingford

WALLINGFORD — The Town Council approved the first wave of applications for federal pandemic funds during a special meeting Tuesday night, but over the three-plus hour meeting, council members debated a number of procedural issues, including if one councilor should even be allowed to participate.

The agenda included two sets of proposed grants, one to small businesses and the other to town nonprofits. After those items, other agenda items were discussed as to whether the council should consider applications that the town's consultant, UHY Consultants, declined to advance to the ARPA Applicaton Review Committee because of problems with the applications meeting the requirements, and whether the council should consider applications the review committee declined to recommend.

Councilor Christina Tatta proposed removing the grant requests from the agenda and waiting until all of the applications have been processed.

"I had requested for all of the consent agenda items to be pulled. I feel that things we may be discussing later in this meeting might bring some clarity to the process as to how ones that were recommended to us were recommended to us and others were not," she said. "I don't think I want to give the money to businesses and nonprofits now who just happen to be early on the committee agenda. I prefer that we wait until the committee is completed with its work and we address all of these at one time at the end. 

"The applicants had no say in when their applications were reviewed and there are still a lot that have not been reviewed so I would rather wait and approve them all at the same time," she said.

The council declined to act on that suggestion, instead going forward and approving all the applications, with the exception of two that were pulled from the agenda.

"The committee has been reviewing applications over several meetings now and I have watched every one of them," said Councilor Autumn Allinson. "I don't' think in my opinion that this is something that should be held back. We voted 8-1 to have this committee reviewing the applications. All nine of us appointed people who would work in the best interest of the applicants."

The way the applications are being reviewed is not in a first-in, first-out fashion, rather it is by randomizer that was agreed upon by the committee to try to prevent that first-in, first out situation," said Councilor Craig Fishbein, who also is a member of the ARPA Selection Committee. 

Waiting to approve all of the applications at once would create a disaster for the Law Office, which is charged with processing them with the applicants and determining what they will be responsible for doing in order to get the money. Federal guidelines require the organizations to submit three bids for the purchase of products or services, and a job description for funds being used to hire staff.

It's estimated that it will take several weeks to process the applications and release the funds, Town Attorney Janis Small said.

"That's the goal," she said. "It's basically my office, which is understaffed, and (the Finance) office. The applications, particularly the nonprofits, they're each unique, so doing them all at once, you're going to hear me screaming from wherever you are in the town of Wallingford. 

"It's really going to be an incredible burden," Small said. Her office has already begun the process for some applications anticipating their approval, she said, but it is still going to take time to go through each one.

"It's not just sending a check out," said Mayor William Dickinson Jr. "We have an obligation to monitor exactly how the money is going to be spent and that means a contract signing with each of the recipients. So that is a process that is going to take time." 

Dual role questioned

Councilor Jason Zandri questioned whether Councilor Craig Fishbein should be allowed to vote on the application in light of the fact that he already had the opportunity to vote on them as a member of the committee.

"The concern that I have is that it doesn't allow for good due process in my opinion," Zandri said. "We've got him making recommendations on one committee, positive or negative, whatever they might be, and he brings them back to this council and votes on them a second time. I'd like to get a ruling on whether or not that should continue or if it was permissible in the first place."

"It's interesting that this should come up after allegations are made of ethical conduct regarding this body," Fishbein said, referring to an issue that came up recently regarding Zandri's involvement with the Wallingford Grange, which applied for the funds. Zandri was a member of the Grange for a short time before he recently resigned. 

"Surely this body, when it created a subcommittee, didn't put any constraints," Fishbein said. "There has been numerous meetings of this body since that time. I ran the first meeting. I made sure that a chairman that is not myself was elected, and a vice chairman who was not myself was elected. 

"The procedure has been going on for a while. Certainly if there was a good faith concern the avenue to seek that has long since past," Fishbein said.

Small said she doesn't believe it is a question of ethics, but is something that the council should handle.

"I don't view it as an ethical issue, and as I always say when someone wants to talk to me about ethics, I'm not the Board of Ethics. I see it as a council issue. Is that what you intended?" Small said. "You allowed yourselves to be appointed to this committee. It's not like it's a subcommittee of the council which then would go back to the full council, it's a separate committee. And then when it comes back to the council, my reaction is whether or not that individual from the council's position should then be acting on the things that that committee did. 

" I don't think it's an ethics issue." she said. “I'm going to kick it to the nine of you."

"Far be it to me to defend Councilor Fishbein, but we didn't object to him appointing himself in the meeting where he did so," Allinson said. "While I also find it odd, I guess I didn't find it odd enough at the time, so I don't think there's any going back. I totally understand where you're coming from but I don't know if it's appropriate."

"My only concern is the due process for these people," Zandri said. "What I'm concerned with is if any of those organizations are declined, they're getting declined a second time from the same individual. It's not like they have the opportunity to seek a whole new order and be able to be heard. But if there's no concern up here, then I'm good."

Further concern

Allinson said she is concerned by the disparity of some of the application's scores and why that happened, as well as the behavior of some of the committee members. Applications are scored according to written criteria established by the Town Council. Nonprofit applications that attain an average score of 75 or more out of 100, and business applications that attain an average score of 70 or more are forwarded to the council with a positive recommendation.

"What we ended up with from the very beginning since this committee's formation is a disappointing amount of personal commentary and a committee that has openly shared their opinions political and personal with some of our members of the council and misrepresentation of the charge by a few individuals," she said.

The ARPA Selection Committee is continuing its review of applications. It met Wednesday night to review another dozen application, and will meet again March 29 at 6:30 p.m. at the HUBCAP, 128 Center St.


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