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.
Diane Cece, Norwalk resident and taxpayer