When public business is done behind closed doors
Credit: By David Collins, Day staff writer | The Day | Published January 18. 2020 | www.theday.com ~~
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Nothing puts a journalistr’s antenna up faster than when it appears some public official is trying to hide something.
That’s exactly what was going on last winter, when the Connecticut Port Authority, we now know, was hatching a grand plan, in secret, to drastically remake the historic port of New London, filling in seven acres of the river between the two existing piers, one a stone 19th Century structure on the National Register of Historic Places.
The extensive $93 million project, to be done at the behest of Danish wind power giant Orsted and Connecticut utility Eversource, with the state contributing $35 million, would potentially close the port to traditional cargo for the better part of a generation.
Not only were the negotiations for this massive project, with enormous consequences for eastern Connecticut industry and transportation, being conducted behind closed doors, but the public had no warning about what was being planned and no way to contribute to the plans before they would become final. This is government at its worst.
Port authority officials did not acknowledge the elaborate plans in hand and then actually lied about their existence when asked.
In response to a Freedom of Information request for the plans related to a drawing of the newly configured pier, the port authority said there were none, that the drawing was merely a single artist’s rendering of what could be done.
We now know the port authority already had elaborate plans in hand for the pier transformation – this was no standalone artist rendering – and were even preparing to begin applying for state environmental permits to do the work.
This enormous lie foisted on the public, after months of secret planning, came from a quasi-public authority then run by Connecticut’s deputy secretary of the state.
The obvious lie about the drawing put my reporter’s antenna all the way up.
The day after Evan Matthews, the port authority executive director, told me in July that the $93 million deal announced in May with great fanfare by Gov. New Lamont was not yet signed, he was put on paid leave.
Almost a week went by, though, before Gov. Lamont’s administration would admit rumors that the executive director was on leave.
That stubborn lack of transparency marked the start of a cascade of scandals at the troubled port authority, from Bates hiring his friends to approving the purchase of $3,200 in decorating photographs from the daughter of board member Bonnie Reemsnyder, who lost her bid in the fall for reelection as first selectwoman of Old Lyme. She was running unopposed until she was forced to resign from the port authority.
Reporting by The Day and other media eventually led to Bates’ resignation from the port authority and orders by Gov. Lamont to cease all business of the agency, except negotiations for the wind project in New London, while investigations and audits proceeded.
The General Assembly’s Transportation Committee, under pressure from Republicans to explore the problems at the agency, conducted two hearings. Republicans also called for Bates to resign his deputy secretary of the state position.
The newspaper, supported by robust Freedom of Information laws and the response of readers alarmed by what they learned from the coverage, kicked open some back room doors, where secret deals were being hatched and public money spent without accountability.
Two recent port authority chairpersons, Scott Bates of Stonington, deputy secretary of the state, and Bonnie Reemsnyder of Old Lyme, the former first selectwoman of her town, resigned as the port authority scandals began to unfold.
Democrat Reemsnyder, who resigned when it was reported that the port authority paid $3,200 to her daughter for photographs to decorate the authority’s offices, was running unopposed for reelection at the time of her resignation. Town Republicans put up a candidate immediately after she announced her resignation from the authority board and she lost the November election.
Evan Matthews, executive director of the port authority, was placed on leave and eventually resigned. The interim authority chairman said Matthews was placed on leave because of comments he made in a column in The Day.
In addition to the state audits of the agency, which turned up a lack of accounting controls at the agency, Gov. Lamont ordered the state Office of Policy and Management to oversee its finances.
Legislators have conducted two bipartisan reviews of the authority with information hearings in the General Assembly. Republican leaders have called for Bates to resign as deputy secretary of the state.
The governor called for the agency to suspend all business not related to negotiations for an agreement to lease the pier in New London for the assembly of turbines to be used in offshore wind farms.
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