Stern Village: Wise remains in charge, but for how long?

A crowd of about 80 Stern Village residents left the Trumbull Housing Authority meeting Tuesday night with more questions than answers. What the residents know for certain is that Executive Director Harry Wise remains on the job, though for how long is anyone’s guess.

After hearing comments from several residents of the independent housing complex for senior citizens, and then receiving a report from Wise about the status of the complex, the panel’s four members, all of whom are newly appointed since December, adjourned into executive session to discuss an unspecified personnel matter.

Chairman Russ Friedson was initially told that there was no private area for the authority to adjourn to for the session, and asked the residents to leave the village’s Community Hall, where the meeting was held. After a number of residents protested about being sent into the chilly drizzle to wait, Friedson investigated further and agreed to hold the private session in a small side office. Upon re-entering the public session, the THA voted to approve “the settlement agreement” and immediately adjourned, raising the ire of about 30 residents who had waited through the executive session to learn Wise’s fate.

“No comment,” Wise said when asked about the terms of the agreement. Wise’s attorney, James Cordone, and THA members Joanna Leone and Diane Pomposello similarly declined to discuss the issue because of the confidential nature of personnel discussions held in executive session.

Friedson said Wise remains the village’s director until further notice.

“When that changes, we will let you know,” he told a group of residents after the meeting. Friedson did not say whether Wise would serve out the remainder of his contract, which expires in June, or if the authority was looking for a replacement.

Wise has been at the center of controversy around Stern Village that has seen all five members of the THA resign or not be reappointed to their seats. In addition, state Sen. Anthony Musto, who had worked as the authority’s legal counsel, has been dismissed by the new panel.

The issue dates back to Tropical Storm Irene, which knocked out power at the complex. All of Stern Village’s units have electric heat.

After Irene, the town’s Emergency Management office drew up a list of recommendations, chief among them the installation of a generator in the Community Hall and making provision for feeding residents. Emergency Management Deputy Director William Chiarenzelli would later comment that there was an apparent “disconnect” between Stern Village management and the Office of Emergency Management.

When Hurricane Sandy struck in October, Fire Marshal Meg Murphy issued a report that generally characterized Wise as being uncooperative, leaving for the day while town workers were evacuating residents who had no heat and being unavailable by cell phone. Murphy also criticized the complex’s record-keeping, noting that a resident who had died of natural causes during the storm was initially misidentified because of the complex’s tenant list being six months old.

At its December meeting, the THA voted to extend Wise’s contract for two years. The contract was set to expire June 30. Since that meeting, all five members of the THA have either resigned or been replaced and the new board has voided the extension, citing the fact that the December meeting’s agenda had not been posted in Town Hall.

Wise has had his supporters, though, chief among them Paul Littlefield, chairman of Stern Village’s tenants’ association that formed earlier this month. Littlefield addressed the authority at Tuesday’s meeting, welcoming the four new members to the complex.

“We have benefited from 12 years of calm by having a good management team, the former board and Harry Wise,” he said.

Littlefield, who is seeking the THA seat currently held by interim member Joy Meehan, said the village’s peace and tranquility had been disrupted by “statements made and reports filed that were less than true,” but vowed that the village’s residents would bounce back.

“Our people are made of tough stuff,” he said. “As a people, we move forward. We don’t live in the past.”