Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Vernon arts center project stymied by lawsuit

By Suzanne Carlson
Journal Inquirer
Published: Wednesday, May 25, 2011 12:14 PM EDT

VERNON — A construction company has filed for an injunction to block another firm from beginning work on the planned Community Arts Center, arguing that the town’s bidding process was arbitrary and influenced by favoritism.

Seymour-based Haynes Construction Co. filed a lawsuit in Vernon Superior Court on May 11 claiming the town improperly awarded the project to A. Secondino & Son Inc. of Branford, which also was the contractor selected for the $1.6 million Town Hall reconstruction project completed in 2008.

In response to an invitation to bid put out by the town on Nov. 16, the complaint claims that Haynes submitted a base bid of $1.665 million — $9,000 less than the bid submitted by Secondino.

The sealed bids were opened at Town Hall on Dec. 11, according to the claim.

In a letter dated March 31, Haynes was notified that its bid had been rejected, but the town gave no explanation of its decision to accept a higher bid from a competing contractor despite repeated requests, the complaint claims.

Hayes has argued that the town applied bidding criteria in an inconsistent or discriminatory fashion, allowed favoritism to influence the conduct of bidding officials, and “conducted the bid process in such a fashion as to defeat the very object and integrity of the competitive bidding process.”

The complaint goes on to claim that the town has no lawful right to award the project to Secondino and says the company is bringing suit to protect the public’s interest “in preventing the granting of contracts through arbitrary or capricious action.”

The federal government provided partial funding for the project, according to the complaint, and company president Paul Haynes filed a sworn affidavit verifying the suit’s claims on May 3.

A motion to dismiss the suit was filed by the defendants Monday, according to court records, and a hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday in Vernon Superior Court.

The Hartford law firm of Hinckley, Allen & Snyder is representing Haynes, while Town Attorney Susan Boyan is defending the town in the case.

The law firm of Siegel, O’Connor, O’Donnell & Beck is representing Secondino.

Situated on the corner of Center Road and Hartford Turnpike, the prominent white clapboard building at the heart of the controversy was constructed in 1927 as a school for poor and homeless youth in Tolland County. It later was used as a kindergarten building after it was acquired by the town in the 1950s.

Recently, the Board of Education has used the structure for storage and it was in consideration as the location for the new ambulance building until February 2004 when former Democratic Mayor Ellen L. Marmer convened a special committee to pursue turning the building into a community arts center.

That group since has evolved into the Vernon Community Arts Center, a nonprofit that operates independently of the town’s Vernon Arts Commission.

In 2005, the Town Council granted the Local Historic Properties Commission approval to nominate the building as a historic property, enabling the Arts Center to apply for historic preservation grants.

Since the initial proposal, progress on the planned reuse has come in fits and starts.

In 2005, the state Commission on Culture and Tourism’s historic division awarded the town a grant for $16,251 to fund a feasibility study, which estimated the total renovation cost at $3.1 million and said renovation work could be completed as early as November 2008.

That timeline lapsed despite a $300,000 grant from the state tourism commission in 2008.

In July, the State Bond Commission released a $1.5 million grant for the project, enabling the town to hold the bidding process. Marmer estimated at the time that the project’s remaining costs totaled around $2.5 million to $2.7 million, much of which would be covered by the grant.

The building, which still is in good condition considering its 83-year history, needs a new stairwell, an elevator, and building-wide renovations to bring it into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The council has granted a 10-year lease to the Vernon Community Arts Center, and will continue to maintain the ground and utilities for the building.

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