Wild about Harry - Stern Village director gains support

The kerfuffle over Stern Village management during Hurricane Sandy continues, with the new Trumbull Housing Authority chairman, Gail Hanna, publicly questioning the circumstances around Stern Village Executive Director Harry Wise's contract renewal and village residents preparing to have new representation on the THA.

On Friday about 100 village residents gathered to thank former commission Chairman Judith Stern and commissioners Ed Coyne, Bob Marconi and Thelma Burr, who have either resigned or been replaced on the commission in the past three weeks.

"People were crying, applauding, begging them to stay, demanding they be reappointed," said Stern Village resident Pat Lungi. "They're like family. It's bloody wrong what's being done to them."

Fellow resident Paul Littlefield said he had spent an afternoon collecting petition signatures seeking the group's reappointment and 70 residents signed.

"Out of everyone I talked to, only two people refused," he said.

Meanwhile, Wise, whose actions during the storm started the controversy, declined to comment other than to say he would set the record straight at some point in the future.

Lungi, though, said reports that Wise had been inaccessible or indifferent to the residents during the storm were false.

"Harry was all over the complex, making sure people were OK and checking on everyone," she said.

Littlefield said Wise and the staff had been helpful during the power outage, when residents had no heat or lights. The village's congregate building, which has 36 studio apartments, has a generator, but the 50 outlying buildings with 200 one-bedroom apartments do not.

"Every day we didn't have power he came in early and got the fireplace going in the community room," he said. "His guys made urns of coffee in the congregate building and brought it over to us. People were popping corn in the fireplace and cooking steaks on their grills. We had a ball over there."

Littlefield said the questions about Wise's job performance and suitability for his position stem from his demeanor. As something of a curmudgeon, Littlefield said, Wise spoke directly and honestly.

"If you ask him something, he'll tell you yes or no if he can do it," Littlefield said. "He won't take 45 words making you feel good about it, he simply answers and that's the end of it."

Littlefield himself has been on the receiving end of Wise's directness when he placed a political lawn sign in front of his unit. Wise demanded he remove it, citing the complex's bylaws.

"I was mad, I said, 'I'm still an American, I still have rights,'" he said. "But we're renters, it's not our property. The sign came down."

Not everyone at the village shared Lungi and Littlefield's warm feelings for Wise, though. Joy Meehan, who lives in the congregate building, said Wise's managerial style was intimidating and confrontational.

"People are petrified," she said. "You can cut the fear with a knife in this place."

She said residents who question the village management are threatened with eviction.

Wise actually has threatened Meehan with eviction, though he had a good reason, said THA attorney Anthony Musto.

"Meehan ... was recently sent a letter by me as the attorney for the THA," Musto said. "That letter, requested by Mr. Wise, threatened to evict her if she did not stop smoking in the congregate building."

Residents are not allowed to smoke in the congregate building because some residents are on oxygen and smoking creates a fire hazard. The fire marshal has recommended smoking not be allowed in the building, Musto said.

Finally, Musto himself is again receiving criticism, this time for comments made in The Trumbull Times about Wise's contract extension. The commission renewed Wise's contract, which expires in June, for two more years at its December meeting. The agenda for that meeting, though, was not properly posted in Town Hall, leading the new commission to declare the renewal null and void.

Gail Hanna, the new chairman, questioned Musto's statement that he had not discussed the contract with commission members before the December meeting. (Full text of Hanna's letter here.)

"If you did not speak to any commissioners, then who authorized you to renegotiate the terms of Mr. Wise's contract?" Hanna asked in a Jan. 8 letter to Musto. "Your statements raise additional questions as to the correctness of the actions taken by the former housing authority at the previous December 14 meeting."

Musto said he had not discussed the terms of the contract with the commission, "But obviously I discussed the fact that there would be a contract with them," he said. "The commission told me that they wanted me to negotiate the contract terms, but I did not discuss the terms of the contract with any commissioners."