Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Vernon council hires New Britain firm to lobby at Capitol

By Max Bakke
Journal Inquirer
Published: Wednesday, March 4, 2009 1:09 PM EST

VERNON — Majority Republicans on the Town Council approved the administration’s recommended contract for Capitol lobbying services with New Britain-based Gaffney, Bennett & Associates, a leading state lobbying firm with ties to Mayor Jason L. McCoy.

Democrats, however, protested the $36,000 contract — for which $30,000 had been allocated in the current fiscal year’s budget — calling it an inappropriate use of taxpayer money with three legislators, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, and the Capitol Region Council of Governments already working for the town’s interests in Hartford.

“We need to spend every penny carefully,” Democratic Councilwoman Marie Herbst said, who indicated that she removed herself from Tuesday’s vote because her daughter worked for a law firm associated with one lobbying firms vying for the contract.

She declined to name the law firm.

Town Administrator John Ward said the contract has long been “a priority for the administration” and that Gaffney, Bennett & Associates was the highest-rated firm after a review of all of the bidders’ qualifications last month.

McCoy has said an independent lobbyist for the town would supplement the advocacy already underway in Hartford, and would give Vernon an additional voice in crafting legislation. He has decried unfunded federal and state mandates that he has said are choking municipal budgets and aims to ensure the town is represented at the Capitol.

He pointed to a recent cut by the General Assembly that eliminated a $28 million loan program for local bridge repairs. He estimated that Vernon would have received $2 million under that program.

Deputy Mayor Brian Motola and council members Mark Etre, Harry Thomas, Bill Fox, Bill Campbell, and Dan Champagne all voted for the contract, after interviewing representatives from the three firms recommended by the administration.

Council members Pauline Schaefer and Michael Winkler voted against the contract. Councilwoman Nancy Herold abstained.

One representative from a competing firm said that while it is customary for larger cities, such as Bridgeport and Hartford, to seek individual lobbyists, “It’s becoming more vogue” for smaller communities to follow suit.

Gaffney, Bennett & Associates — an influential firm that has lobbied against legislation like the recently approve bottle bill that allows the state to earn revenue from unclaimed bottle deposits — boasts a long list of high-profile clients and has perennially given thousands of dollars to lawmakers through its employees and its political action committees.

The firm also represents the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association, an organization that includes McCoy on its board of governors. Its chief lobbyist, Jay Malcynsky, also donated $125 to McCoy’s mayoral campaign, records show.

The contract approved by the council also permits McCoy to renegotiate the price of the agreement and to extend the deal for up to three years.

McCoy said he didn’t participate in the firm reviews and that he didn’t believe Gaffney, Bennett & Associate’s representation of the trial lawyers factored into its high ranking. He said all the firms that responded to the bid request were well known and highly qualified.

Motola said Wednesday that the council relied heavily on the administration’s recommendation for a firm, and touted the contract as an opportunity for the town to have an influence in the state legislature.

“We’re fairly outgunned,” he said, adding that with the town’s small population, it doesn’t send as many legislators to the Capitol as larger cities do.

He continued, “If we don’t get value for our money, we don’t renew it for the next year … But you never know if we don’t try, and right now I think the more voices Vernon has the better.”

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