Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Vernon council lets ex-mayor keep extra storm pay

By Suzanne Carlson
Journal Inquirer
Published: Wednesday, January 11, 2012 12:51 PM EST

VERNON — The Town Council voted unanimously Tuesday to let former Republican Mayor Jason L. McCoy keep $8,211 in payments he received following the three major storms of 2011 and instead enact policy intended to eliminate the legal loophole used to justify the overtime wages.

“I believe that it is closing the barn door after the horse has fled, but in this situation it is the best course of action,” Democratic council member Michael Winkler said.

Republican council member William Campbell said he’s satisfied with the action as it, “clearly sets the expectations for the future. That’s what’s important.”

McCoy spoke in his defense during the council’s special meeting and said the controversy surrounding the issue has affected his reputation and family.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the 12 council members approved a resolution stipulating that “no monetary payments of any kind ... may be made to the mayor except upon specific authorization of the Vernon Town Council.”

The original resolution on the agenda cited a section of the town charter stating the mayor, “shall receive such compensation as shall be fixed by the Town Council” and would have sent McCoy a certified letter “requesting that he return any compensation in excess of that approved by the Town Council.”

But that idea was scrapped for a strategy proposed by Harold Cummings, who serves as both the Republican town chairman and town attorney but said he was commenting as a resident only, and not offering legal or official advice.

Cummings argued that the resolution provided for no follow up legal, collection, or auditing service, but “implies that the council does not have a handle on the town’s finances,” which would presumably prompt such action.

The resolution also intentionally did not specify an amount to be returned, leaving the door open for McCoy to return any other payments taken in excess of his $20,749 salary that the council might not be aware of.

Cummings warned such action would be legally flawed. He also said the council may subject itself to counterclaims and possibly end up paying civil damages for libel and slander if the resolution was approved, and might even jeopardize the town’s credit rating and Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursement.

The heart of the matter, Cummings said, is “political in the sense of the relative roles of the mayor and the council” under the charter, which would be more clearly defined by his suggested resolution, which ultimately won out.

He also said there are gray areas between the duties of the mayor and the council, but Democratic council member Marie Herbst and others disputed those assertions and said the charter and personnel rules clearly state the mayor is not a town employee and is not due excess compensation for efforts outside the norm without specific council approval.

‘My term is over, I’ve moved on’

Several residents weighed in on the matter with some criticizing McCoy and calling for him to return the payments, while others said the extra compensation was rightfully earned for a job well done.

Resident Allen Sheriden praised McCoy’s work following the storms and said that while he doesn’t approve of his managerial style, “what he’s been paid, in my opinion, he deserves.”

But resident Jean Merz, who spoke in favor of asking McCoy to return the funds, said she disagreed with a legal opinion by town labor lawyer Edward O’Donnell, which Town Administrator John D. Ward used to justify authorizing McCoy’s payments.

“There’s something called the public trust after all, isn’t there?” Merz said.

McCoy took to the podium to address the council, and said members “can always call me before you take an action and make statements that affect my reputation and my family, which is very, very unfair and inappropriate.”

He objected to comments that he “took” money or signed his own checks, and said the council approved the payments “by emergency resolution, and thereafter, collection of those funds was sought from the insurance company and the federal government.”

A private lawyer and married father of three who also is seeking the Republican nomination to the Senate seat being vacated by U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, McCoy indicated that he’s finished with Vernon politics.

“My term is over, I’ve moved on with my life, I want to do other things I don’t want to come back here,” McCoy said.

Republican Mayor George F. Apel released a spreadsheet of all payments made to McCoy by the town during his four years as mayor in response to a freedom-of-information request by the Journal Inquirer, and said he’s committed to fiscal transparency.

The information provided by the town indicates that the three payments totaling $8,211.40 were the only instances in which McCoy was paid above his regular salary.

Apel also said the town’s finances are audited annually and commended the department for its award-winning work.

Republicans and Democrats came to an agreement on the issue in a spirit of bipartisanship so rarely seen that several speakers remarked on it throughout the hour-long special meeting.

Republican Deputy Mayor Brian Motola said that while the council’s course of action, “could be classified as lessons learned,” members need to continue to move forward together and adjust mayoral compensation to a fairer level.

Winkler said he would “learn not to discount the possibility” of unified action as a result of the council’s teamwork, and Democratic member Thomas DiDio said members, “acted in unison” for the first time in memory.

“We are going to be better watchdogs of the taxpayers’ money, and of what we do,” DiDio added.

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