Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Apel cleans house; gets rid of lobbyist, public relations aide

By Suzanne Carlson
Journal Inquirer
Published: Thursday, January 5, 2012 11:59 AM EST

VERNON — In preparation for budget season, Republican Mayor George F. Apel has eliminated two items often cited by Democrats as examples of unnecessary spending — a $25,000-a-year contract with a lobbying firm and a $50,000-a-year administrative public relations aide.

“The decision was made the first week I was in office,” Apel said Wednesday. “Budget time is rapidly approaching.
I will be constantly evaluating what we have for staff.”

The move signals a shift in spending habits for the administration, as Town Council Republicans consistently supported former Republican Mayor Jason L. McCoy’s desire to keep a lobbying firm on retainer, starting in 2009 with New Britain-based Gaffney, Bennett, and Associates.

Town Administrator John Ward said the contract had long been “a priority for the administration,” but Democrats called 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.

Apel said he felt those agencies were sufficient to represent the town at the capitol, and when asked if the town would lose any services by not renewing the contract, he said he’s been in office only since November and couldn’t say.

“I had no visibility because I wasn’t here,” Apel said. “But I think working through CCM and CRCOG, we can get the things that we have to get done.”

McCoy has argued that an independent lobbyist for the town would supplement the advocacy already under way in Hartford and would give Vernon an additional voice in crafting legislation.

At a budget hearing in April 2011, McCoy said he dismissed Gaffney, Bennett, and Associates in 2010 after it failed to catch a budget bill provision that allowed Rockville General Hospital to eliminate its birthing center without state approval. He then hired Sullivan and Leshane, a Hartford public relations firm.

The 2009-10 and 2010-11 town budgets included a $30,000 line item for lobbying, which was reduced to $25,000 in 2011-12.

“We had a contract coming up with the lobbyist, and I made a decision that I don’t think we need it,” Apel said.

He also said he decided the administration’s public relations aide, Christopher D. Bandecchi, was unnecessary.

McCoy created the position in November 2010 for Benjamin Hartman, who had been serving as a campaign aide to gubernatorial candidate Thomas C. Foley until he lost to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

Hartman worked as McCoy’s personal assistant for almost two months, earning $2,170, before Bandecchi took over the job.

Bandecchi, who also had served as a Foley campaign aide, earned $26.78 per hour at 35 hours per week and was employed by the town until Feb. 11, 2011, taken off the payroll, and then returned to the town payroll July 22, 2011.

McCoy has said Bandecchi was hired through a temporary employment agency, and records indicate he was paid out of a fee account, so his position was never budgeted for and approved by the council.

When asked about Bandecchi’s compensation, Apel said, “My understanding is he was being paid differently at different times,” but he could not explain why.

“If it wasn’t in the budget, I guess it has no effect on the budget, but of course, that’s something that will be investigated,” Apel said.

Bandecchi did not have a written job description. Until late December, Bandecchi was answering phones in Town Hall, writing press releases, and conducting business alongside the mayor’s executive assistant, Diane Wheelock.

Apel said that Bandecchi’s position was eliminated at the end of December, and he gave a brief evaluation of his function.

“To me, he was working in the office, writing up proclamations and doing different things like that,” Apel said.

While Bandecchi frequently drove McCoy to and from meetings and events and photographed him for publicity, “he wasn’t chauffeuring me around,” Apel said. “It was more important for me to make sure that the staff up here was staffed the way it should be, and I didn’t think that position was required.”

Town Finance Director James Luddecke could not be reached for comment.

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