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Irregularities at Norwalk’s Oak Hills deserve intense examination

Norwalk Oak Hills Park Executive Director Shelly Guyer, left, and Oak Hills Park Authority Chairman Robert Virgulak listen to an opponent of the driving range proposed for the park at December’s OHPA meeting.

By Diane Cece

NORWALK, Conn. – This letter was sent Wednesday to Norwalk Mayor Richard Moccia, the Common Council, Board of Estimate and Taxation Chairman Fred Wilms, Finance Director Thomas Hamilton and Corporation Counsel Robert Maslan:

No doubt many of you have read local media reports, blog comments and letters to the editor discussing problems at Oak Hills Park, not the least of which may be attributed directly to the action or inaction of it’s board, The Oak Hills Park Authority.

Many accusations are serious, others less so, but disturbing nonetheless, and all are unverifiable by the average citizen. I suspect petty complaints by former employees will likely be dismissed without question, but given the recent activities and controversy of the Authority, I think all matters warrant a closer look.

In light of the inherent difficulties in private citizens getting access to public records, Norwalk taxpayers (myself included) believe it is time for the mayor, Common Council, Board of Estimate and Taxation, and finance and legal departments to launch a thorough investigation into the management of Oak Hills Park, especially including a forensic financial audit and a complete review of the Oak Hills Park Authority, its Chairman Robert Virgulak and the park management team.

Among the most recent items of concern are:

• The selection and approval process of RM Staffing to take over the restaurant operation as a sub-lease of Quattro Pazzi. Despite concerns from me and others, this firm was chosen though their credentials were questionable – you’ve subsequently learned they’re now under investigation in Westchester County. My attempts to vet this vendor were met with resistance from Mr. Virgulak, including his suggestion that I should “investigate NEON instead,” and his sharing that he inquired as to whether anyone at NEON had ever heard of me! Of course it turns out the operations of RM Staffing at Rye Country Club were indeed shrouded in mystery, including a hang-up when I called inquiring as to their then-current operations.

The most recent contract for sub-lease on the restaurant was awarded to a firm who also could not (or would not) provide credentials, and, upon request, the co-owner said, “We don’t answer to the public here. If you have questions, go through the commission.” They had no business cards, had established an LLC in the state only on the very day of authority’s approval, and provided little information to the authority and the public except that they will call the new restaurant “Oak Hills on The Green” and that the “egg sandwiches will be warm”….

• Questions regarding the bidding processes used by OHPA. It’s been suggested that the city look into whether or not the contract for insurance coverage went out to bid. Also, on another bid item, the former superintendent charges he was “asked to call one vendor and ask for a lower price, thus preventing the opposing vendor from receiving the bid.” Additionally, he suggested that other goods and services were acquired without going through proper bid procedures.

• A missed loan payment to the city, and subsequent restructuring of debt. The September 2012 meeting included a suggestion from an authority member suggesting that “the city should forgive the loan”… This is yet another example of the single-focus mentality of the appointed authority members, most of whom think the park and the management of it should be entirely devoted to supporting the golf course, apparently at all costs. I hope that, as part of the debt restructuring agreement, our finance department insisted on fiscal responsibility, accuracy and accountability from the OHPA. Unfortunately, at least two former employees and one former authority member suggest otherwise.

• Ambiguous and misleading monthly financial reports, including a September 2012 update in which Treasurer Patricia Williams states, “It appears at this point that the cash flow can sustain the payroll and expenses through the winter months to March 2013 with excess funds.” There are strong rumors suggesting the authority has only enough cash flow to make it through the first two weeks of January. Even former OHP Director Vinny Grillo highlighted the realities of the finances and informed the public by questioning the OHPA in his Sept. 6, 2012 letter to the editor in The Hour. You can read additional accusations and clarifications from Mr. Grillo in his prior letter from March 22.

• Behind-the-scenes meetings with prospective bidders for a driving range. It is public record now that Mr. Virgulak has been meeting with James Downing of Total Driving Range Solutions (formerly or currently of Tee Time Marketing) for as long as a year in regards to building and operating a driving range at Oak Hills. (Total Driving Range Solutions is a prospective bidder for the driving range project.) Oak Hills’ former superintendent charges “an ad hoc driving range committee has held several meetings with no notice to the public. At one meeting, numbers were distributed that showed a driving range would not be the answer to the financial woes at Oak Hills. These numbers were never distributed to the public.”

• Park vendors are reportedly being paid 60 to 120 days late, thereby jeopardizing vendor/client relationships, and no doubt impacting on favorable credit and discount terms for the next season. Interim Executive Director Shelly Guyer confirmed this fact just this week.

These are just a handful of the concerns raised recently. I think you’d agree they’re of sufficient quantity and seriousness for you to pursue a comprehensive investigation into the current financial health and future viability of Oak Hills Park, and in doing so pay particular attention to the qualifications, effectiveness and capabilities of it’s authority members and park management and staff.

Respectfully,

Diane Cece, Norwalk resident and taxpayer

10 comments

Suzanne January 3, 2013 at 10:13 am

Thank you, Diane. A cogent summary of the issues concerning taxpayers about Oak Hills Park and that Authority directed to the right people.

I would expect some public and clear answers from our elected and appointed officials to whom you wrote this letter but my cynical heart tells me what you describe is business as usual for a lot of City affairs.

I am particularly concerned by the treatment you received by RM Staffing, its origination and claims that other contracts were awarded using inside information on low-bid proposals. (I have found this to be a common practice in private business, unfortunately, and was shocked that sealed bids were not the norm. Certainly, with taxpayer money, adherence to a sealed bid process should be followed.)

It seems it has become more important to protect the Authority from itself by this administration rather than applying fiscal responsibility during these especially difficult economic times.

I would again remind each and everyone of the officials to whom you have sent this letter: your FIRST responsibility is to ALL of your constituents and to be OF SERVICE to the Citizens of Norwalk. You can start by reviewing and investigating each one of Diane’s points including, but not limited to, a forensic audit of all business transactions as well as a review of management actions and behaviors. We put you where you are: it is the least you could do.

Diane C2 January 3, 2013 at 12:01 pm

Suzanne, no responses as of yet. The process issues are of the most immediate concern to me, because until the city forces Oak Hills to see they can’t operate in a vacuum, this stuff will continue.
Here is a link to just how bad things can get when there is no process, aq lack of oversight, and arrogant, blatant disregard for the public – the Rye Golf Club Commission investigations into the RM Staffing deals and the Rye Golf Club management….from youtube:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=4dbFeOCMOn4&feature=endscreen

Suzanne January 8, 2013 at 10:19 am

Diane C2, I watched the entire two and a half hours of the Rye piece. Couldn’t help it. The group dynamics were fascinating. I have not been to meetings re: the Oak Hills issue and have no idea if the meetings for it are as messy and, ultimately, satisfying as this one in terms of information shared, constituency participation and Authority/Board response.

Now, this leaves the issue of RM Staffing. Based on this meeting recording, Norwalk should be running the other way very quickly from their services. It was made clear in the video that this company does not really exist, is a front for big bills and heavy salary increases billed to the public and that the person who wrote the proposal for Norwalk, the Rye Golf Manager, is in clear conflict of interest in obtaining new business (for him) for RM Staffing.

This is public information you have have provided and should be required watching for the Oak Hills Authority prior to the next meeting. Then, a real bidding process with vetted companies, legitimate entities, could be considered for the job of staff at Oak Hills.

While I realize this is just one of many issues outstanding at Oak Hills, it is an important one as demonstrated by the budget numbers presented at Rye. RM Staffing had significant bills to the Club but when reviewed by the one golf club member using FOIA, showed that those bills represented salary increases of between 25 and 140 percent over initial billings.

The shock on the Authority faces when real numbers and facts were placed before them changed the entire dynamic of the meeting: the budget had to be approved on a pro forma basis but will not have to be re-worked based upon the members’ demands. Boy, that was a satisfying conclusion! The question now is: can the same solid, fact finding mission be accomplished or demanded on behalf of Oak Hills in order to stop this Authority in its tracks until real data is divulged. Taxpayers, golfers, the community – we all have a right to know what is going on.

Thank you, Diane. The lack of sleep was worth it.

Suzanne January 8, 2013 at 6:40 pm

Please note correction to previous entry: “…the budget had to be approved on a pro forma basis but will NOW have to be re-worded based upon the members’ demands.” Sorry.

Suzanne January 8, 2013 at 6:55 pm

Oldtimer, I read the article from October 9, 1982 and I must say Mr. Virgulak is showing the same signs of entitlement and lack of responsibility similar to those many years ago. I can hardly believe it: did he learn nothing? He does not seem to have “changed his spots” though I am loathe to accuse someone based upon past actions for which retribution has been made.

However, it would seem that this type of behavior would relinquish Mr. Virgulak’s rights to NOT have a forensic audit. Clearly, he has been confused in the past about what is his and what belongs to the City. His claims based upon his own writings that he has not taken funds from the City of Norwalk for Oak Hills and that he basically owes the constituency no information are real danger signs triggering deep caution in me in having him responsible for a resource as valuable as Oak Hills.

Mr. Mayor, please remove Mr. Virgulak from his position as Chairman of the Oak Hills Authority. He clearly feels no responsibility toward us, the taxpayers, as has been demonstrated by his words and acts. Require a forensic audit of the books and get the bills paid to outstanding vendors. Remove Mr. Virgulak, and get the Oak Hills house in order. Given his history, I am shocked you would have placed Mr. Virgulak in so tempting a position.

*the previous statement has, yet again, another error: the word is “reworked”.

Diane C2 January 9, 2013 at 12:12 pm

Suzanne, I’m glad you watched the shenanigans, and arrogance, and the results of such inadequate oversight at Rye. Though RM is out at Oak Hills, the same lack of vetting that occurred with them apparently exists with the new sub-lessor, AV Mgt. I haven’t had time to request documents from Oak Hills regarding their own due diligence, and I won’t be surprised if there is little they are required to share since the contract remains with Quattro (Rolling Hills?). Better management and contract reviews when the restaurant was first built and bid could have prevented ALL of this nonsense by simply preventing Quattro from subleasing. Period. This way the operation of the restaurant would have to go out to bid, and the process would have to be open to the public.
I hope you will consider writing directly to the Mayor, if you haven’t already done so, with your requests. The more people who ask questions and demand actions, the less likely we are to be ignored.
(more later…)

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