Fairfield addresses shortcomings following fill pile scandal

The yard at the Public Works garage in Fairfield

The yard at the Public Works garage in Fairfield

Genevieve Reilly / Hearst Connecticut Media

FAIRFIELD — The town has almost met all of the findings and recommendations outlined in an audit into the Department of Public Works following the fill pile scandal.

The audit, which was turned over to the Board of Finance in May 2020, identified 76 findings and recommendations. In the 20 months since then, the town has fully implemented 44 of them, six were not applicable and 26 are in progress, Connie Saxl, Fairfield’s internal auditor, recently told the finance board.

Most of those outstanding items should be addressed with the new purchasing policy town officials hope to adopt in the coming months, leaving nine items as still outstanding.

“There have been incremental fixes put into place if you will,” said Chris Dewitt, a finance board member who chairs the purchasing subcommittee, adding it won’t be fully addressed until the new purchasing policy is adopted.

The Board of Finance — led by then finance chairman Thomas Flynn, who is now a selectman — commissioned an independent audit of the public works department in fall of 2019 in the wake of the fill pile scandal.

A number of former town officials have since been arrested in connection with the controversy, in which contaminated soil was deposited around town. The cleanup costs are estimated to be in the millions.

The audit was completed by PFK O’Connor Davies.

It examined DPW transactions from July 1, 2016 to July 31, 2019 to see if the town policies and procedures were appropriate, as well as if they and the town controls were followed as intended. The auditors reviewed the town’s written policies and procedures, interviewed management and the appropriate employees and looked at about 350 DPW purchases during that time, said Lori Charlon, the finance board chairwoman.

“That report identified a significant number of deficiencies in the town’s policies and practices, but on top of that there was a fairly high degree of noncompliance with the policies in place,” Charlon said.

Among the issues found were that the bidding requirement wasn’t followed, there was a lack of documents when the town got multiple quotes, incidents of sole source contracts without the appropriate rationale for it, and invoices paid without purchase orders or other supporting documents. There was also evidence of bid splitting, which means multiple contracts were awarded to the same vendor for amounts under the threshold requiring multiple bids, she said.

“It gave rise to the question of whether our purchasing department was involved inappropriately and how the payments got authorized by the finance department,” she said.

A few finance members said the audit identified issues in the day-to-day operations, and though those problems might have also happened in the fill pile scandal, they weren’t on the list of findings and recommendations because of it.

“The findings were obviously troubling but probably not entirely surprising because they were consistent in a number of respects with matters that were alleged in the police affidavit and criminal complaints related to the fill pile,” Charlton said.

A number of the recommendations expanded beyond the public works department to connected offices, including finance, human resources and purchasing.

Of the 26 recommendations still in progress, 17 are directly related to the new purchasing policy being created and should be addressed once the policy is implemented, Saxl said.

Some of the other outstanding items include the road maintenance package — which was partially addressed in the paving report done by Beta Engineering — bidding for a new software system, employee training with more scheduled, moving to a new online permit system, a new work order system and moving to an electronic time keeping system, she said.

DeWitt said they’ve done some good work, but until the final paperwork is in, it’s still not a policy. He said they need to have a meeting for all of the key people to receive comments on the policy and work toward adopting it.

“I’d like to see this done certainly before we start the budget process,” he said.

Charlton said it’s important to make sure the policy makes sense and is flexible enough that it can be operational, while still addressing the concerns raised in the audit. She said “it’s in pretty good shape” and needs to be compared to the original draft the town made from looking at what other towns do.

Several finance board members stressed the urgency in adopting the new policy.

“My concern is that our town was at risk through the DPW stuff that went down and in my mind we’re still at risk if we do not have a purchasing policy that is rock solid and can prevent some of these issues from happening again,” said member Sheila Marmion.

Jarred Schmidt, the town’s chief financial officer, said they’re taking a close look at the draft to ensure it has certain things, including exceptions in place for various situations, like emergencies.

“I know it’s urgent, but we have to do it right,” he said.