Editorial / Transparency in town government nowhere in sight
Published 8:34 pm, Thursday, July 26, 2012
Michael Tetreau had barely finished the oath of office as Fairfield's interim first selectman last June when he suddenly discovered the town faced up to $6 million in cost overruns on the new Metro train station.
It was a catastrophe, but the way Tetreau handled it -- with openness and candor -- seemed to usher in a new era of transparency and accountability in town government.
He hired a veteran construction expert to oversee remaining work. He brought in an accounting firm to do an independent audit of the project's finances and an outside law firm to review the town's legal work -- and immediately made their reports public.
He issued regular status updates, made public his ongoing replies to a litany of questions from RTM and finance board members. And he asked for the town attorney's resignation.
Well, transparency and daylight in government was nice while it lasted.
Sometime after his November election to a four-year term, Tetreau dimmed the lights and painted over the windows.
Secrecy and "no comment" seem to be replacing transparency and accountability in his administration.
The first selectman's steadfast refusal to shed any light on the sudden and mysterious absence of the town's chief fiscal officer is the latest example of the public -- even other town officials -- being kept in the dark.
Sources have said Paul Hiller, the town's finance chief for more than 12 years, has been placed on administrative leave. Finance Department employees have been told Hiller is on vacation, and all financial questions are being referred to Tetreau's chief of staff.
Tetreau has refused to answer questions from reporters, RTM members -- even members of the Board of Finance, of which Hiller is the clerk -- saying only that Hiller's absence is a personnel matter.
The first selectman was equally secretive earlier this year when Fire Chief Richard Felner was absent from duty amid allegations he had slapped a subordinate. Tetreau continued to keep the public in the dark during a subsequent investigation and a string of closed-door meetings.
An independent investigation concluded that the chief "more likely than not" slapped Assistant Chief George Gomola in the face three times at headquarters.
Yet neither Tetreau nor the Fire Commission publicly disciplined Felner. The commission ultimately gave the 73-year-old chief a one-year contract extension.
Hiller's status is far more mysterious, and given his oversight of a $272 million budget, potentially far more serious.
In his State of the Town address in January, Tetreau crowed that Fairfield's AAA bond rating had been reaffirmed, allowing the town to refinance at historically low interest rates and making "a strong statement on the health of our town's finances."
Much of what Tetreau was bragging about in January was Hiller's doing.
So, with his seemingly stellar record, why has Hiller been banished from his office? For how long? Is something amiss with town finances?
Secrecy builds mistrust and rumor mongering that can only be destructive. If the town's finances are not in order, Tetreau should say so. If this stems from a personality clash of two strong-willed executives, then Hiller deserves to have the cloud of suspicion removed.
The taxpayers, for whom Tetreau and Hiller both work, deserve some answers.