WESTBROOK – Two years in a row, this town has spent its legal budget before the end of the fiscal year leading the Board of Finance to appropriate even more money to cover the difference.
More than $50,000 in legal costs has been expended so far, Democrat Selectman Tony Palermo said, adding that this is “more than twice as much already than any first selectman has ever spent.”
According to minutes of the January 4 Board of Selectmen meeting, Republican First Selectman John Raffa said he was being conservative with using the legal account.
Palermo was the dissenting vote in which Raffa and Republican Selectman Robert Mulvihill voted to request the Board of Finance to reallocate $19,500 to the town’s legal accounts.
“I voted against it because spending is out of control,” Palermo said.
According to Connecticut General Statues, a town meeting is required if $20,000 or more is appropriated by the Board of Finance to cover budget overruns.
Palermo said the selectmen received a letter from the attorney responsible in labor negotiations stating he needs an additional $35,000 to cover anticipated legal expenses for the next six months.
“To me that makes no sense whatsoever,” Palermo said, adding he has requested and received a copy of all legal bills paid so far this fiscal year.
While the Pictorial-Gazette requested a copy of these bills from the First Selectman’s Office at Westbrook Town Hall, Administrative Assistant Gerda Ziolkowski said these bills must be reviewed by the town’s attorney since they are considered “confidential information” before they can be made available.
However, Palermo said these bill statements are public documents and only correspondence between a client and an attorney is confidential.
$54,300 was budgeted for the legal account this year, a 164 percent increase from last year’s budgeted amount, $20,500.
At a budget presentation last spring, the Board of Finance said the increase was the result of $25,000 needed for legal counsel for labor negotiations and $9,000 needed for the town garage land swap with the state Department of Transportation.
The swap would allow the town to acquire a former DOT garage building and a sand/salt garage on a 3.5-acre parcel in Horse Hill Road in exchange for the town garage currently located a 2-acre parcel on Norris Avenue near the Westbrook railroad stop.
Last year, Westbrook spent $50,592.52 on legal fees and the Board of Finance moved $19,900 out of the unallocated fund balance to the legal department to help pay these bills.
A town meeting was held this past fall to obtain voter approval to allocate the remaining balance to the legal department for the 2005-06 budget year.
While voters approved the allocation, some questioned why the town meeting was held earlier in the summer when officials realized they would be going over budget.
Funds went to pay bills from Town Attorney John Webber and the town’s labor counsel, Shipman and Goodwin.
Several residents, at that time, requested a breakdown of the costs and claimed they were denied access to such records.
After Gary Greeve, from the citizen’s watchdog group Save Westbrook, wrote a letter to Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal about the situation, Blumenthal recommended citizens make a Freedom of Information Act request to view the legal bills.