Herbst, Council Democrats clash over new policy

The Trumbull Town Council debated, and ultimately approved on a party line vote, a new rule that seeks to prohibit any public official from submitting bids to do business or provide professional services to the town of Trumbull without exception at a council meeting Oct. 5.

First Selectman Tim Herbst proposed the new rule, citing it as “a necessary first step in the beginning of a comprehensive revision of the Trumbull Code of Ethics,” which he stated had not been revised since 1989. Democratic members on the council objected that the new rule created a conflict with the town’s charter, unnecessarily prohibits residents from doing business with the town, and will inhibit people volunteering to serve on boards and commissions.

The new rule defines a public official as “any elected or appointed town official, officer or employee of the Town of Trumbull and the Board of Education.”

The new policy, as adopted, eliminates the Conflict of Interest section of the Trumbull Purchasing Policy and Procedures, and replaces it with Resolution TC25-207 that prohibits public officials from any “Town Work.”  Town work is defined as “any bid or bid-waived requests covered by the Town’s Purchasing policy and/or any professional service performed on behalf of the Town of Trumbull or its Board of Education.”

In his presentation to the Town Council, Herbst said that the new ordinance “will avoid ethics complaints” and “make it simple.”

“You can either be a town official or do business with the town, you can’t do both,” he said.

Citing a 2013 complaint to the Ethics Commission and an incident earlier this year involving two part-time employees who also provided a service to the town, the first selectman said, “It is my hope that this ordinance eliminates any gray area or ambiguity.”

“If you are a public official serving the town of Trumbull, appointed or elected or an employee, you do not bid on work,” he said.

A different interpretation

Council members Scott Wich and Vicki Tesoro had multiple concerns about the new rule.

Wich, an attorney, disagreed with Herbst’s interpretation of the charter, and said the new ordinance would be in direct conflict with it.

“Any public official providing professional services to the town or BOE would, in my opinion, be caught in an area of uncertainty due to the ordinance's specific definition of ‘town work’ to include the provision of professional services, but then the failure to use that definition in the substantive portion of the law,” he told The Times.

“In my opinion, the real risk to the town on this point is the possibility of litigation if someone who loses work decides to challenge the interpretation, as well as confusion for those looking to do business in Trumbull,” he said. “And any employee of the town or BOE would be prohibited from receiving any bid or bid waived work by virtue of the definition of ‘public official.’”

Tesoro, according to the committee report, agreed with Herbst that updating the ethics code was a good idea, but thought the new ordinance might be too restrictive.

In an interview after the meeting, the first selectman candidate said that “this is unfortunately another example of the first selectman not following the proper process.”

“We now have an ordinance that conflicts with the Town Charter,” she said. “It will also have the effect of making it is less likely people will offer to run for offices or serve on commissions.”

The first selectman’s office did not respond in time for publication to The Times’ request for a follow-up interview about the new policy.

Poor wording

The Town Charter states: “No purchase shall be made from nor shall services (other than services as an officer, agent, or employee of the town) be secured from any officer or employee of the town, or from any partnership or corporation in which such officer or employee is a partner or officer, or holds a substantial interest, unless such relationship and the fact that such purchase is contemplated shall be made known in writing to the agency making such purchase, and notice thereof posted, for at least five days before such purchase be made, in the office of the agency making such purchase and in a public place in the Trumbull Town Hall.”

This language is identical to the language in the Trumbull Purchasing Policy that the new resolution specifically eliminated.

Wich said the new ordinance is also flawed because anyone can form an LLC to get around the new policy because of its poor wording.

Councilwoman Cindy Penkoff said during the debate that the new ordinance could be improved if a dollar limit were included, creating a situation where Trumbull residents who had small business relationships with the town would not be affected. However, no amendment to this effect was formally proposed, and the new ordinance was passed with 14 Republican members voting in favor of it, all four Democrats voting against and Councilwoman Ann Marie Evangelista abstaining.