Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Vernon mayor paid himself overtime for storm cleanup

By Suzanne Carlson
Journal Inquirer
Published: Wednesday, December 21, 2011 12:19 PM EST

VERNON — Former Republican Mayor and U.S. Senate hopeful Jason L. McCoy, who is facing nearly $200,000 in personal and business debt, used a payment mechanism intended for firefighters and emergency personnel to pay himself about $3,600 in overtime just before leaving office.

And former Town Council Democrat Pauline Schaefer, who lost the mayoral election to Republican George Apel, today called for an audit of the town’s finances to ensure that McCoy did not misappropriate any funds.

In a discussion of an additional $562,000 cleanup appropriation for the Oct. 29 snowstorm, which was approved by the council at Tuesday’s meeting, Democrats grilled town Finance Director James Luddecke about a $4,610.32 line item for administrative overtime.

After several minutes of questioning, Luddecke admitted that McCoy used his authority as the town’s chief executive officer to pay himself approximately $3,600 in overtime, a bonus of 17 percent above his $20,749 annual salary.

Luddecke said that during Hurricane Irene, the town decided to pay firefighters and emergency responders an overtime rate of $25 per hour, an unofficial policy that carried over to the snowstorm.

The decision to use the same mechanism to pay McCoy was approved by the town’s management, Luddecke said.

“So he hired himself, is that correct?” Fox Hill Drive resident Carl Schaefer, who is married to Pauline Schaefer, asked.

“In a sense, yes,” Luddecke said. “At the time, the mayor was yes, the manager of the town.”

Luddecke and Town Administrator John D. Ward’s signatures appear on town paychecks, but it’s unclear which town employees or officials were aware of McCoy’s overtime pay prior to Tuesday.

When asked if McCoy had been paid a similar bonus during Hurricane Irene, Luddecke said he didn’t recall, but indicated he does not remember any previous mayors taking such payments.

At a rate of $25 per hour, $3,600 equals 144 hours of work, or a dozen 12-hour days.

The snowstorm hit Oct. 29 and Republican Mayor George Apel was sworn into office 12 days later on Nov. 10.

Council Democrat Marie Herbst, who served as mayor during Hurricane Gloria, said she did not pay herself or any administrative staff for the hours they put in during that storm, adding that “no mayor gets overtime.”

Democrat Michael Winkler said that “my definition of a manager does not permit overtime.”

Pauline Schaefer, who served on the council during the storm, said McCoy charging the town for his time “is an absolute disgrace.”

Apel and Town Attorney Harold Cummings could not be reached for comment today.

McCoy said he worked in excess of 180 hours, which is reimbursable from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

He did not receive a legal opinion that accepting overtime payments was proper, he said, but former Assistant Town Administrator Peter Graczykowski, who has since left for a job in Rhode Island, received a legal opinion from Town Attorney Bud O’Donnell authorizing payment for work that “was not within the normal scope of duties.

Ward and Luddecke were aware of the overtime, McCoy said, “as well as whoever is doing the FEMA grant.”

When asked if there had been other instances in which he accepted payment for his role as mayor above his annual salary, McCoy called the question “ridiculous” and “very unfair.”

He was paid during Hurricane Irene and the most recent storm, but “never for my role as mayor above and beyond the annual $20,000 per year salary,” only for “time worked during snow removal and the hurricane,” McCoy said.

A private lawyer, McCoy said he tries “to earn a living as such,” but suffered during his time in office because he “cut out all criminal work involving the Vernon Police Department or any work involving the town as a party, regulator, or associate of a client.”

Schaefer went on to say that she and many other elected officials volunteered many hours during the cleanup effort without asking for or being offered payment and said that while Republicans may have known about the mayor’s overtime pay, Democrats did not.

The comment sparked a forceful rebuttal during Tuesday’s meeting from Republican Deputy Mayor Brian Motola, who said Republicans “didn’t know either” and that every council member serving at the time was culpable for the mayor’s actions.

“We’re all responsible if this slipped by us, and it shouldn’t,” Motola said.

Schaefer today compared the situation to that of state workers accused of stealing food stamp benefits distributed after the storm and said all of the town’s financial records should be audited to ensure that no other funds were spent without proper approval.

Herbst said the council has not received a legal opinion or other evidence certifying that the mayor could collect overtime, and Cummings and Apel said nothing about the issue during the meeting.

“I’m appalled. No mayor has ever paid himself. It is wrong. He has no right to declare himself an overtime salary without permission of the Town Council, the fiduciary power of this town,” Herbst said. “As far as I’m concerned, what he did was an illegal act.”

While $3,600 is a drop in the bucket compared to the storm’s $3.82 million overall cost, Herbst said, it’s not the amount of the payment that’s at issue but the ethical principle behind it.

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