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Bethel Town Officials Are Not Providing Details About 5-Years Total Cost of Attorney Fees, in Thousands of Dollars, Regarding Meetings Consultation and Litigation Cases

Report by Paula Antolini, November 3, 2019, 4:18PM EDT

Bethel Planning & Zoning Commission, Pat Rist Chairwoman (4th from left), shown on last day of decision and vote on Bethel crematorium issue in 2015.
(BETHEL ADVOCATE file photo, ©2015 Paula Antolini / Bethel Advocate)

OPINION

In another struggle to obtain public information from the Town of Bethel officials, when the BETHEL ADVOCATE’s questions were not being answered in a timely manner or at all, the BETHEL ADVOCATE had no alternative but to submit an FOIA request for information regarding the Town of Bethel 5-year total billing charges and payment to ONE Attorney, Charles Andres.

This is regarding ONE topic of Attorney Charle Andres handling consultation and litigation for Bethel having to do with a crematorium application from B. Shawn McLoughlin of Mono-Crete Step, LLC, and consultation and guidance by Andres for the Planning & Zoning Commission and Town of Bethel (Inland Wetlands Commission involved in matters also). This lead to further representation in court litigation matters for this same topic, which is still in court now in appeals years later.

There was meeting and private consultation by Andres and also representation for these CASES that went on for years:

File Date: 10/13/2015

HHD-CV15-6063334-SMCLOUGHLIN, B. SHAWN Et Al v. PLANNING & ZONING COMMISSION OF THE TOWN OF BETHEL

File Date: 10/13/2015

HHD-CV15-6063335-SMCLOUGHLIN, B. SHAWN v. PLANNING & ZONING COMMISSION OF THE TOWN OF BETHEL Et Al

File Date: 06/11/2015

HHD-CV15-6063336-SMCLOUGHLIN, B. SHAWN v. PLANNING & ZONING COMMISSION OF THE TOWN OF BETHEL Et Al

We received the same treatment from town officials as in our other pertinent article, “Show Us The Money – Town of Bethel Officials Not Forthcoming About Where $1.2 Million Grant Money Went, in that officials want to charge hundreds of dollars for BETHEL ADVOCATE to obtain information via our FOIA request, when they are supposed to waive fees for news media according to FOIA U.S. Code § 552 because “if disclosure of the information is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government.”

BETHEL ADVOCATE is also being told it will take weeks to find the information, if at all.

The town officials also endlessly delayed presenting any of these documents to us or giving us any answers, making it into an unnecessarily complicated process, saying that documents were difficult to locate, or difficult to reproduce, or scattered in many departments with no subject headings for a computer search, or in paper files only, etc. and many more excuses.

First Selectman Matthew Knickerbocker said they chose specialist Attorney Charles Andres because, he said, “This is a very complicated land use issue.” He doesn’t know how this attorney was selected, and said, “That’s someone who was used on occasion before I got here.”

In other words, there does not seem to be a system in place beforehand, by which research is done on cost or selection process before hiring an attorney, seemingly in perpetuity, for thousands of dollars, other than a board approving payment of invoices after the fact, it seems.

When questioned if they do “comparison shopping” or similar “bid process” to decide upon law firms as they do for other project costs, Knickerbocker would only say, “We do that with the position of Town Attorney, but for something like this, typically not, because there are so few people who specialize in these areas.”

Town officials were not forthcoming with a copy of a contract employing the services of Charles Andres, that may or may not exist in records, regarding when he was first hired to represent the Town and the Planning & Zoning Commission or if he is on retainer forever, etc.. This case includes not only the Planning & Zoning Commission and the Town of Bethel, but the Inland Wetlands Commission involvement, and Andres is also representing Pat Rist at times too, such as when the plaintiff wanted her deposition.

When questioned about the Attorney Charles Andres billing and payment records, Knickerbocker said, “The town was in the midst of installing new software in the accounting system in the finance department, so the first couple years that we were using that, there was no way to code individual bills by the subject matter, because from 2015 to present, most of Chuck’s [Attorney Charles Andres] billing, I assume, had to do with the crematorium but I can’t guarantee that. He did some other work for Planning & Zoning during that same time.”

Knickerbocker said, “The only way to determine which of those invoices pertain to the crematorium is to sit in the office and go through them one by one. It’s a painstaking process to do … that’s a lot of paperwork, is what I’m saying.”

When asked, Knickerbocker didn’t know if Andres billed once a month or not, nor how many invoices Andres has billed over the last 5 years. “There may be other matters in a given invoice,” he said. He also said Andres is no longer with the law firm in New Haven but he “can’t remember” what the name of the new firm is.

We were eventually emailed ONLY ONE digital document of a list of charges with no names or references for what the document listing was actually referring to for billing, and you cannot click on the links to see any invoices to get information. Basically it is useless.

“The system shows from February of 2015 to about September 11, 2019, there were 81 payment vouchers,” Knickerbocker said, “Now the problem is, one payment voucher might involve several different invoices.”

We still did not receive ANY invoice details or payment figures or documents.

“Nobody’s trying to slow-walk this, it is extremely time consuming,” Knickerbocker said. Yet still no documents were forthcoming.

Knickerbocker said he “guessed” that it was “hundreds of pieces of paper.” He repeated again, that even though they had computers recording records in 2014 they did not insert subject lines by which they could research the records.

Who keeps town records in this manner, that you cannot easily search for them? Who charges hundreds of dollars to obtain public information? Apparently Bethel does.

Knickerbocker said money to pay the attorneys “comes out of Legal” and confirmed this was taxpayer money.

So why is it that the Town of Bethel officials, and/or officials on the town boards, such as in this crematorium case, the Planning & Zoning Commission (P&Z) (includes Inland Wetlands Commission in this case) pay very little attention to the threat of lawsuits by applicants, or whomever, when it comes to cost?

Instead, they spend huge amounts of money like drunken sailors, hiring pricey attorneys to fight cases they could have avoided if they’d just followed the town Charter and State laws already in place regarding health and safety issues, or rules for the Clarke Business Park, in the case of the crematorium. It already had rules in place to NOT allow a crematorium. Or if the P&Z had listened to what residents and business owners overwhelmingly wanted (or did NOT want in this case), when giving public comment at hearings, and then P&Z meetings later, strongly opposing a crematorium, they would have avoided all the expense and court cases.

What do they care, it’s not their money. It’s YOUR money. Its YOUR taxpayer dollars.

Please pay attention.

People are leaving Bethel and soon you will say “Where is Bethel? I remember that quaint little town! What ever happened to it?”

You only get one chance to bring it back.

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RECAP …

THE CREMATORIUM CASE

The 2015-present crematorium case began when, after the applicant B. Shawn McLoughlin submitted his crematorium application and it was reviewed, the P&Z, lead by Chairwoman Pat Rist, held two public hearings that almost unanimously strongly indicated the public did NOT want a crematorium installed in the business park. But the P&Z, chaired by Pat Rist, ISSUED A VARIANCE ANYWAY to CHANGE THE RULES OF THE PARK to accommodate ONE APPLICANT, allowing for a crematorium in the business park, even going against the recommendations of the Bethel Economic Development Commission (EDC) at the time, who advised against it, and business owners who did not want it, and residents who were also opposed.

How does this happen, PAT RIST?

What was happening at the time in the P&Z that you thought it was okay to CHANGE the rules of the park for a business owner that was already in the park, to ALLOW crematoriums in the park, when no one wanted this change and you were advised against it by the EDC, and by other business owners?

The Economic Development Commission (EDC) then enforced the rules of the park to NOT allow a crematorium.

The response of the P&Z was that Pat Rist personally stood up and read a statement, and argued at an Economic Development Commission (EDC) meeting that the P&Z is “an elected” board, and had superiority over the EDC, “an appointed” board, she said. The EDC had overseen the Clarke Business Park successfully for 30 years but now Rist was telling them they had no power over the P&Z and the P&Z was in charge.

So the P&Z is in charge of running the park and also in charge of what goes into the park, on their approval? Apparently so. Is this okay with you?

A “SPECIAL TOWN MEETING” was held by First Selectman Knickerbocker, when hardly anyone knew about it, on December 29, 2014, on a Monday between the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, and the EDC was suddenly voted out of power when their tenure was up for vote. The applicant and supporters seemed to know about the meeting and were there in force.

Months later a business located next door to the crematorium applicant, CT Coining, hired an attorney and began a lawsuit, and was vocal at meetings opposing the crematorium because of the detrimental affect it would have on his business, and employees’ health, with the location of the planned crematorium in close proximity to the border of his property.

Many businesses followed suit and voiced that they would leave the park if a crematorium was allowed to be built. This eventually became a reality and we lost not only businesses but possible job opportunities. One business owner in the park owned several properties and was planning on opening a business similar to Amazon on a smaller scale, he said. He left.

Another concern was the effect on home values for homes surrounding or near the park.

Pollution of land/air/water was another concern, especially to nearby business owner John Holbrook of Holbrook Farms.

Another business owner in the park was not told ahead of time that a crematorium was planned right across the street from the property he just purchased.

Eventually the P&Z meetings grew so large they had to be held in the General Purpose Room, and about 200 individuals were at the later meetings. Hundreds of documents were presented to the P&Z from both sides of the issue and eventually Pat Rist flipped her vote, holding out until the end, and it was then 4-3 in favor of denying the crematorium application.

At that time, BETHEL ADVOCATE asked Pat Rist why the P&Z did not do all the research on the effects of a crematorium on home values, health, safety, water/soil/air contamination, all which were easily obtainable in a Google search for one, and she said, Because we don’t have to.

This now lead to years of litigation by the applicant, which is still in court in appeals cases presently, and also to numerous billing charges by Attorney Charles Andres in the thousands of dollars, and the Town is not forthcoming with detailed information regarding a total dollar amount thus far.

This is what spending tax dollars like a drunken sailor looks like. Are you okay with that?

Why isn’t there a Bethel Town Charter code that addresses ANY large expenditure of taxpayer dollars, requiring a vote of the citizens first? How are boards or commissions allowed to just spend as they please? Because it is not “their” money? It appears that way. Otherwise, there are no checks and balances of watchdog activity to ensure funds are spent properly and all accounted for.

This is the mess Pat Rist got us into. She lead the P&Z for all the meetings and decisions.

Also, for a person who calls himself the CEO of the town, and says his job involves keeping track of numerous details regarding running the town, does this sound like everything is in control and in order, and there is complete government transparency, and your tax dollars are being used wisely and are all accounted for?

The only “hint” we received (verbally) is Knickerbocker saying the total of that (useless) digital document emailed to us is $137,000 and he thinks “the majority is for the crematorium charges.” But the BETHEL ADVOCATE has no documents with details of payments and billing, and we do not know if this useless “list” emailed to us contains all documents.

What could $137,000 have purchased for the town instead? (or the figure is most likely higher).

This is your money. Why the cover-up from Bethel officials?

So you see folks, this is a bipartisan issue, the wasting or misuse of funds, the blocking of access to public information, the delay tactics, stonewalling used to retain power and/or hide information.

VOTE for the most qualified person! Pay attention to past history!

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