Post-Sandy shakeup on Housing Authority

What was for years a quiet volunteer board has erupted in controversy with the replacement of three of the five members of the Trumbull Housing Authority, the panel that oversees Stern Village, a 200-unit subsidized senior housing complex on Hedgehog Road.

In the last month, First Selectman Timothy Herbst replaced two members, Bob Marconi and Judith Stern, with Joanna Leone and Russ Friedson. Stern, whose father-in-law is the namesake for the complex, had been serving on the board even though her term expired last year since Herbst had not appointed a replacement. Marconi's term expires this year, though exactly when this year is also in dispute. In addition, authority member Edward Coyne resigned last week, leaving the board with four members.

The dispute began in the days after Hurricane Sandy knocked out power to the complex. All the units have electric heat. The town ultimately relocated a handful of residents after temperatures in the units dropped into the 30s.

"After hearing about the lack of cooperation between the town's emergency management team and the management at the village, I requested a report from the emergency officials detailing what they saw as the problems," Herbst said.

On Nov. 7, Emergency Management Deputy Director William Chiarenzelli submitted his report, stating that Stern Village management, particularly Executive Director Harry Wise, "should have been more pro-active in the way it served tenants."

Chiarenzelli included dozens of emails between him, Wise and other town officials in the months after Tropical Storm Irene struck in October 2011. Chiarenzelli and police Lt. Ron Kirby, the town's emergency management director, recommended a number of actions, including installation of an electrical generator and the development of plans to get food, water and medications to the complex's elderly residents in the event of a weather emergency.

"I am not sure where the disconnect between an action plan and leadership lies," Chiarenzelli wrote to Herbst.

Fire Marshal Megan Murphy, in her Nov. 19 report, provided a timeline of events during Hurricane Sandy. She said on Oct. 31, with temperatures dropping and no timetable for power restoration, she and Deputy Alex Rauso met with Wise about relocating the residents. She said Wise was not sure how many residents remained in the village due to the independent living arrangements. Also, she said some of the residents were considered too "medically complex" to relocate, having conditions such as a tracheal breathing tube or incontinence.

Upon learning of the medically complex residents, Wise indicated his desire to evict them from the village, Murphy wrote. She asked if Wise was able to provide assistance to the medically complex residents, and "he stated again that this is independent living and they need to find their own accommodations," Murphy wrote.

Murphy and a number of other town workers began knocking on doors in the village. Wise left for the day a short time later. Murphy asked for his cell phone number, and Wise told her he didn't have one but was available at his home number. Nine residents opted to relocate to Madison Middle School that night.

The following day, Murphy said, she returned to Stern Village after receiving a report that the temperatures in some of the units had dropped below freezing. Arriving at 11:45, she was told by residents who had remained that Wise had gone to lunch.

"There was a clock on his door that stated he would be back at 1:30," Murphy wrote.

Murphy and a group of volunteers began checking apartments, a task made more complicated by the fact that the list of residents they were provided was six months old. In fact, she reported that a deceased woman found in Apartment 35 was initially misidentified because the list was out of date. The woman was later determined to have died of natural causes.

Wise did not return telephone calls to his office seeking comment.

After receiving the report, Herbst met with Stern and informed her he was replacing her with Leone. He also told her he intended to replace Marconi, whose term expired in December.

The authority then held its regular meeting Dec. 17, during which the members voted to approve a two-year contract extension for Wise, whose contract was set to expire in June. Because it was a regularly scheduled meeting, the notice had been posted last year, but the group did not post an agenda with the town clerk's office, an apparent violation of the Freedom of Information Act.

Herbst told Stern he considered the meeting illegal and all actions taken at the meeting to be voided. Two days later, on Nov. 20, board member Gail Hanna and newly appointed members Leone and Friedson held a special meeting during which they cited the emergency reports and fired the authority's attorney, state Sen. Anthony Musto. The status of Wise's contract remains unclear since the panel approved it during a meeting whose agenda had not been properly posted.

Musto, though, contends the Hanna, Friedson, Leone combination is not a valid quorum. He cited State Statute 8-41, which states that housing authority member terms commence the first day of the month following their appointment. Friedson was appointed in December so his term technically does not begin until January, Musto said. Hersbt pointed to 25 years of precedent where newly appointed authority members were seated on the first Monday of December.

"It doesn't really matter, because they could simply meet again in January and terminate me then," Musto said.

The larger issue, Musto said, is the politicization of the volunteer board that had quietly gone about its business for 10 years. Herbst had issued a statement calling the board and Musto's actions "deceitful, duplicitous and deliberate." (See Herbst commentary on page 4.)

Musto brushed off Herbst's comments about him, but was vocal in his defense of Stern.

"For him to vilify someone who has given so much of her time and money to the institution her family founded, who worked so hard for so long with no other goal than to help those people, who was decidedly non-political, and who was replaced in such a demeaning and insulting manner, is worthy of ridicule," he wrote on the Internet forum TrumbullChat. "I hope everyone thanks Judi Stern for her service to the residents of Stern Village."

Stern declined to comment other than to call Herbst's comments "outrageous."