A decision by the New Britain Ethics Commission to summarily dismiss a complaint brought by Ward 4 Ald. Lawrence Hermanowski over the award of a no-bid $68,000 fencing contract is the latest example of the Stewart administration’s politicization of the ethics process in municipal government.

Current ethics commissioners are all appointees of Stewart and the commission includes contributors to his campaigns. When a new charter abolished most city boards and commissions several years ago the ethics commission was re-constituted by city ordinance. It made the Mayor the appointing authority and its members’ terms tied to his election or re-election. The ordinance failed to adopt a sensible provision from the old charter which required an ethics commission composed of members serving five-year terms. The longer terms served to set the ethics board above partisan appointments and represented a buffer against using ethics complaints for political purposes.

Stewart and his allies wasted little time in using the ethics commission for partisan purposes. During his first term, two city aldermen who worked for the city and were members of the AFSCME Local 1186 were the subject of complaints for involvement in city contract issues. The Commission ruled that Ald. Fran Ziccardi, then a union official, faced a conflict as well as Ald. Paul Catanzaro. The complaint filed at the behest of the administration by Citizen Property Owners Association (CPOA) leadership turned an easily resolvable labor/management issue into an unwarranted ethics flap. The ethics complaint was no more than a thinly-veiled attack on public employees.

Conversely, a complaint filed against Stewart, a city employee on leave from his fire department job, was dismissed by the ethics board. The complaint argued that Stewart, as the duly elected mayor, had every right to participate in collective bargaining and management issues at the Fire Department, including the hiring of the chief. The complaint, however, cited an ethics provision requiring Stewart as the Mayor to file a disclosure statement about his status on leave from the Fire Department. The ethics board, acting like a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Mayor’s office, ruled in Stewart’s favor, ignoring case law and the provision requiring a disclosure statement.

The Hermanowski complaint alleges a conflict involving a considerable amount of public dollars based on the ethics code that was strengthened within the last year to include conflicts arising when appointed and elected officials are involved as vendors in city contracts. At issue is the no-bid award that went to New Britain Fence Co. owned by Wilfredo Pabon, a Police Commission appointee of the Stewart Administration and a Stewart campaign contributor. Pabon’s son is also a member of the Zoning Board of Appeals. “No other fence company was given a similar opportunity to provide such a quote, “ according to Hermanowski ‘s September 19th complaint, which stated the “process was not open and public” as required by ordinance.

Mayor Stewart responded that an “emergency” existed because of a threat of illegal dumping and vacant buildings. Hermanowski, however, maintains that the city had ample time to seek bids since the city took control of the property on August 4th from the CT Housing Finance Authority.

Stewart attacked Hermanowski, calling him “a political hack” and dismissed the issue as an effort by Democrats to embarrass his administration. But Stewart’s quick award of the fencing contract led The Hartford Courant to admonish the Mayor in a recent editorial for overstepping his authority and playing fast and loose with the ethics process. On it merits, the Hermanowski complaint deserved further review and consideration by the ethics commission. It is unfortunate that the partisanship of the Stewart administration has overtaken the current ethics process, making it a rubber stamp when potential conflicts arise involving public money and public officials in his administration. That should not stop Common Council members from exercising appropriate oversight on the award of city contracts and to insist on an open and public bidding process to avoid even the appearance of a conflict.