Bob Horton: Money control problems rampant in Town Hall
Fixing parking tickets was a longstanding, bi-partisan affair in Town Hall, former Democratic Selectman Drew Marzullo confirmed this week when he said that he, too, had voided tickets during his eight years on the Board of Selectmen.
Republican First Selectman Peter Tesei said last week that he or a member of his staff routinely voided parking tickets. Neither Marzullo nor Tesei could remember how many tickets each had forgiven, or the identity of the parking offenders.
This paper has filed a Freedom of Information request to determine the numbers of tickets voided since 2006, and the identities of the pardoned.
“I cannot remember how many tickets I had voided,” Marzullo said by phone this week. “I don’t think it was that many. But there was a good reason for each one. And, I didn’t know it was illegal,” the former selectman added. Marzullo lost his bid for re-election last year.
Section 152-b of the Connecticut General Statutes and Article 2, section 14-54 of the Greenwich Town Charter define the parking ticket appeals process. It is a legal proceeding conducted by hearing officers appointed by Tesei. If a ticket recipient does not agree with the hearing officer’s finding, he or she can appeal to State Superior Court. The process is spelled out on the back of each violation; it does not instruct ticketed drivers to ring the Selectmen’s Office doorbell for further assistance.
Improperly voided tickets are just the tip of procedural problems at Town Hall. A 2016-17 audit of the Parking Services Division started a virtual avalanche of investigations into cash management practices there. That audit was completed in May 2017 but was suppressed by the Greenwich Police Department because of a pending criminal investigation.
In April 2017, Michael Gordon, a clerk in the Parking Services Division, was charged with stealing more than $11,000 from the town’s till. Then, in November 2017, Greenwich Police arrested Dwayne Lockwood, who allegedly sold town-owned scrap metal and kept the money. He is on administrative leave from his job as a process control manager at the Grass Island Water Treatment Plant, an obvious place to look for dirty money.
Shortly after Lockwood’s arrest, two town workers showed up in the Town Comptroller’s office with a wad of cash. Multiple sources said that Comptroller Peter Mynarski asked the two sewage plant employees the source of the money. “Scrap metal” was their answer. When they were asked how long they had had the cash, they said it had been accumulating for some time but were not specific, the sources said. Nothing quite clears the conscience like watching your fellow worker led away in handcuffs.
Just days after Lockwood’s arrest, Tesei formed a department head task force charged to, among other things, “insure consistency across all departments.” Consistency is not the problem, it seems every department is consistently 50-70 years behind the times in managing cash.
One Board of Estimate and Taxation member told me that the town has looked into 11 departments since the middle of last year, and found lax practices in each. “It is not a question of moving Greenwich into the 21st Century,” he said. “It’s getting it into the 20th century.”
Parking Services alone generates $5.5 million dollars each year, much of it in cash. The 2016 audit uncovered a remarkably primitive way employees were pocketing cash. In some parking lots, the town uses a central pay station to collect daily parking fees. Customers punch in a parking space number and then pay with cash or credit card. The cash drops down a pipe into a red bag secreted in a closed cabinet at the pay station’s base.
Attendants remove the bags once a day with a proprietary key, and replace it with a new bag. The bags are designed so to prevent access by the attendant. But no design was going to stop Greenwich’s determined parking pros. They simply replaced the bag with an open cardboard box. No key required to remove it, and nothing to keep the attendant from skimming some bills.
Former Parking Services Division Director Rita Azrelyant started her post in July 2014. Within a few weeks she became so concerned about cash management that she alerted Comptroller Mynarski and then town Auditor Ron Lalli. The investigation revealed significant weaknesses in cash management.
Though the investigation has still not been made public, one draft report indicated that Azrelyant provided the only cash controls in the entire department and that prior to her arrival in the job, it was handled on an “honor system.” One might think that Ms. Azrelyant’s vigilance would have earned her a spot on Tesei’s cash task force. But it did not. Instead, Tesei eliminated the job of parking services director and Azrelyant is now looking for a new position. The town needs another task force to look into senior management.
Bob Horton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.