Updated, May 10; reasons why Council members recused themselves.
NORWALK, Conn. — A recent request for federal money to fix the roof at the South Norwalk Community Center was a “ploy,” Common Councilwoman Sharon Stewart (D-At Large) said Thursday, minutes before she and Minority Leader Travis Simms (D-District B) walked out of a Planning Committee meeting.
In their absence, the committee voted 3 to 0 to recommend giving the center $80,000 in Community Block Development Grant (CDBG) funding, a recommendation that the full Council will vote on Tuesday. There was still a quorum, Planning Committee Chairman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said, because there had been one at the start of the meeting. But even if there wasn’t, he would use his prerogative as chairman to advance the CDBG recommendations to the Council, he said.
Simms and Stewart came back in, protested that a vote had been held and then walked out of the meeting and left the building.
In a conversation shown in the video below, Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) complained that he had been accused of lying.
“That kind of behavior has no place in a Council meeting at any level. You just don’t in a loud voice suggest that people are lying to get their way,” Kimmel said. “… It’s the first time – it’s my sixth term, never anything remotely so crude such as that in order to intimidate another Council member.”
“Well, I was called liar tonight, too,” Hempstead said.
Committee members Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large) and Shannon O’Toole Giandurco (R-District D) left the room as the discussion began, recusing themselves from the CDBG vote due to a conflict of interest; Bonenfant said CDBG applicant Norwalk Seaport pays him for services and O’Toole Giandurco said her husband does work the CDBG applicant The Carver Center. Kimmel made a motion to amend the motion that had been put forward, to switch the $80,000 slated for SoNoCC’s roof to funding another first-floor renovation at 98 South Main St.
This would create a third classroom for the After the Bell afterschool program as well as administrative offices. Funding for After the Bell next year is in doubt, but Norwalk interim Superintendent of Schools James Connelly had provided the committee a letter stating that the program is a priority and will continue, Director of Community Development Planning Tami Strauss said.
The city is continuously wasting money at the center, Stewart said, asserting that this plan goes against a statement Hempstead made in March. Hempstead, according to Stewart, said the Council should not fund anything but the roof repair.
SoNoCC Executive Director Kelly Robertson told committee members in March that the roof needed repairing and people were in danger of falling through it. SoNoCC board Chairman Warren Peña said last month that fears about the roof had been exaggerated. It had been inspected and was determined to be serviceable, he said.
“Mysteriously the roof was not in need of repair, but yet they want to take the $80,000 and move it down to another project inside South Norwalk Community Center,” Simms said Thursday. “From my understanding the funding they had previously wasn’t even all used up. So before you come back and request more money from the CDBG, the monies prior has to be spent and we asked for financials and they still haven’t produced anything. BET asked for financials and they haven’t produced anything. So why are we pushing this thing through and allowing these people to just continue spending money at their leisure and at their will?”
“These people?” Kimmel said.
“Well, the South Norwalk Community Center, Bruce,” Simms said.
“The only thing they’ve got going on is that new school thing,” Stewart said. “They don’t have no services, and that’s fully funded.”
The SoNoCC people knew their application for another renovation was going to be denied, Stewart said.
“It seems like it was a ploy in the beginning,” Stewart said. “They actually knew they didn’t need any roof repairs and now they want to take that money that they were going to be refused and use it for something else. I don’t understand how come you keep pushing them with all this money.”
“You are absolutely 100 percent correct,” Hempstead said. “We got to a discussion about choosing one over the other, my statement was, ‘If the roof is leaking and it’s a problem then the roof should be replaced first before we put any other money into the building.’ That is exactly what I said.”
“That’s exactly not what you didn’t say,” Simms said.
“We also made the statement that their proposal was padded and that wasn’t listened to either,” Stewart said. “Now, you guys keep saying the Council meeting isn’t the place for it, but when we bring up stuff in the committee you guys still got your own agenda. We said this. I’ve said it over and over. At the other meeting when Kelly (Robertson) was there and she made all these false statements, that was proven wrong also. But you guys still volley straight ahead and you ignore all the facts.”
“Did anybody check it out?” Stewart asked. “That’s what’s supposed to happen. We need to make sure they have social services going on.”
Kimmel pulled out his notes from a previous meeting and said he was “being perfectly consistent,” he had made a motion to fund both the roof and the first-floor renovation.
“Bruce, I’m sorry, that’s just totally false and you know it,” Simms said.
“That’s my proposal,” Kimmel said.
“I don’t care what your proposal is. That’s something you have written down probably right before this meeting, before last night,” Simms said.
“That’s not what you said,” Stewart said.
“Are you calling me a liar?” Kimmel asked.
Minutes were produced to substantiate earlier conversations.
“It’s the same old switcheroo, same old same old, you’re pulling the switcheroo on it, that’s it,” Simms said.
Attention turned to Peña. John Kydes (D-District C) asked if the $80,000 would fund the entire renovation. Peña said that was the quote they had gotten.
“We would have no need to come back before you for construction or facade improvement in that first floor,” Peña said.
“I just think we should open the door for other folks down the road, but I’m not going to take away from you and what you are doing. You are doing good thins and obviously there is a demand,” Kydes said.
Simms and Stewart walked out while Peña was talking. It came time for a vote.
“I think if I remember correctly the quorum was established,” Hempstead said. “If somebody walks out in the middle of a meeting it does not mean you don’t have a quorum if I remember correctly. If it doesn’t, the chairman is just going to push this on anyhow.”
The amendment to fund SoNoCC passed 3-0. So did the amended CDBG plan. Kimmel made a statement for the record, expressing displeasure over being called a liar.
“I do not like the folks from the South Norwalk Community Center were referred to as ‘these people,” Kimmel said. “I think it was done in a very dismissive way and I didn’t like the direction it was heading. I am certainly pleased it only happened once.”
Simms, Stewart, O’Toole Giandurco and Bonenfant reentered the room. “You needed a quorum,” Simms said.
Mason’s Rules will be consulted, but the item would have gone to the Council anyway on chairman’s prerogative, Hempstead said. There’s a deadline to submit the CDBG plan to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Hempstead said.
“That just sounds like a dirty deed to me,” Stewart said.
In the hallway, Stewart said they would check with Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola.
“They are taking advantage of a situation and hoping we don’t know enough about Mason’s and Robert’s Rules,” Stewart said.
Simms and Stewart complained that many social service agencies were turned down for funding. The $80,000 should have gone to them, they said.
HUD mandates that CDBG money be split into categories. The social services are in one category; infrastructure improvements are in another. STAR Inc. was the only application in that category that wasn’t fully funded. STAR requested $144,000 and is recommended for $99,155 in funding.
After the pair left, Strauss said the Redevelopment Agency monitors grant spending. SoNoCC has spent all of the $200,000 in CDBG funding that it was previously awarded, she said.
Hempstead said he wasn’t sure, but there was “something quirky” about quorums in Mason’s Rules.
“I think you may be right because there was no official statement they that were leaving the meeting,” Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan said.
Simms and Stewart also walked out of the last Council meeting for a short while, missing a vote.
O’Toole Giandurco found Mason’s Rules with a Google search. She read them before the meeting was adjourned:
“The committee may act only with a quorum. A committee’s bylaws or founding documents designate what shall constitute a quorum. Unless otherwise stated, the number required for a quorum is not affected by vacancies and if a member has withdrawn from a meeting without being excused by majority vote of the remaining members present, he or she shall be counted as present for the purposes of determining whether a quorum is present.”
“If you don’t have that they can prevent themselves from losing votes all the time,” Kimmel said.
“I slipped a little in my duties; I should have taken control of the meeting,” Hempstead said. “I was called a liar, too. … It’s sad, but it is what it is and we’re going to hear it Tuesday night.”