Legal Fees Go Over Budget

WESTBROOK – A heated debate regarding a $30,092.50 over appropriation for legal fees for town counsel led residents to question whether the Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance actually followed the law.

First Selectman John Raffa and Town Attorney John Webber agreed that when it was determined there were insufficient funds in the 2005-06 budget for legal expenses, the issue was sent to the Board of Finance.

Board of Finance Chairman Paul Connolly admitted the board was notified on June 6.

While the town budgeted $20,500 for the law department account for the 2005-06 fiscal year, it spent $50,592.52.

Connecticut State Statue 7-348 states that towns with grand lists exceeding $20 million shall not allow additional appropriations to exceed $20,000 until it is voted on at a town meeting.

It also states that “no officer of town shall expend or enter into any contract by which the town shall become liable for any sum which, with any contract then in force, shall exceed the appropriation of the department.”

According to Connecticut General Statue 4-100, violators of statue 7-348 could face a $1,000 fine and/or one year imprisonment.

This past May, the Board of Finance voted to move $19,900 out of the town’s unallocated fund into their budget, slightly below the $20,000 required for a town meeting.

Gary Greeve, from Save Westbrook, called this move “further evidence of an intention to play loose and fast with town accounts, part of a coverup.”

A July 10, 2006 letter from Attorney General Richard Blumenthal stated that only the State’s Attorney can prosecute such offenses but wrote he could not give a legal determination that a violation was committed.

Several residents at the meeting said they requested a breakdown of costs of the $30,092.50 and claim they were denied access to such records.

While some municipalities break down legal expenses line by line, Selectman Tony Palermo said, the town’s bill only gives the total.

Blumenthal recommended citizens make a Freedom of Information Act request to view the legal bills and said the Board of Finance has the ability to hire a finance director who could monitor financial controls of the town.

Weber claims the town did nothing illegal since it never appropriated more than $20,000 for the Board of Finance and that the appropriation of the $30,092.50 was the purpose of the town meeting.

“The money has not been spent yet,” Webber said, adding “the bills were basically normal town business.”

Webber said his firm charged the town approximately $15,000 and the town’s labor counsel, Shipman and Goodwin, charged the town about the same amount.

“We couldn’t fix the recommended stuff with the money we had,” Raffa said, adding the high bills were the result of labor board complaints, the land swap issue, and other business in town.

“I am not sure the comparison to last year’s numbers,” Connolly said, adding he expects next year’s legal fees to be less since labor negotiations only happen every three years.

However, according to the Westbrook 2006-07 budget, the Board of Finance budgeted for $54,300, an additional $33,800 over last year.

Webber admitted part of the charge was the result of conversations regarding labor negotiations and said he was unable to provide details since negotiations with the constables are ongoing.

“It is quite obvious that something unusual happened in the 2005-2006 budget in the last three to four months,” Connelly said, adding the real reason of going over budget was over reliance on the town attorney and auditor.

Connelly blamed residents and town hall officials who called both attorneys to ask questions since these conversations were billed to the town.

Questions posed by newspapers and e-mails generated more calls to the auditor, Connelly said.

“If Webber gets a call from someone they will be referred to Raffa to continue the process to ensure bills do not go up,” Connelly said.

Those calling the auditor will be referred to talk to Gary Gavigan, Connelly said, who will serve as the Board of Finance liaison between the board and the auditor.

Monitoring town accounts on a monthly basis to prevent over expenditures is a goal Connelly hopes the Board of Finance will achieve for the next fiscal year.

Webber admitted there was a “minimal connection” of charges billed to the town after Raffa was arrested since the Board of Selectmen consulted the town attorney for legal advice.

Connelly admitted the previous administration did not rely on the attorney for labor negations as much as the present administration.

Raffa defended his use of legal counsel stating, “These are professional people and when you don’t know about negotiations and law you go to the experts and they did an excellent job.”

Some residents proposed not paying the outstanding bill but Webber said the bill is for work he and Shipman and Goodwin did and “we will stand behind it.”

A paper ballot voted in favor of paying the outstanding bills by a vote of 56 to 19.

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