Town Council members unanimously approved a memorandum of agreement Monday, allowing Finance Director Ronald Bunovsky to oversee the Board of Education’s finance office.
A joint finance department has been created in the agreement, which expires on Feb. 28.
“Ron’s experience and familiarity with some of the issues at hand will allow him to have an immediate impact on the Board of Education, while also ensuring that our budget process continues to move forward,” First Selectman Ken Kellogg told the council. “Ron understands that this is a large undertaking and I am grateful that he is willing to take on this challenge.”
Central Office is shorthanded with the paid suspensions of Superintendent of Schools Jack Zamary and Interim Finance Director Frank B. Connolly, so the intent of the agreement is to assist with the new budget process and in closing a $1.5 million deficit in the current education budget.
Town Attorney Frank Lieto drafted the memorandum of agreement (MOA) with input from Kellogg, Acting Superintendent of Schools Joseph Kobza and Board of Education Chairwoman Donna Lane.
Kellogg said there are ongoing discussions with Kobza and the Board of Education to come up with a proposal for the creation of a permanent joint finance service for the town and the school board.
Such a proposal would need approval from the Town Council and the Board of Education.
Kobza said, “I think the spirit is to come up with a proposal, and if there is a viable solution, sharing this service could be a good thing for the town.”
The Town Council did not approve the MOA without a long debate that included several motions by Democrat, Jason Maur, and a short recess so Republicans could caucus in private.
Maur, who is an attorney, wanted to amend Section 1B to add an attachment of the Board of Education finance director’s job description.
Though he said it is not likely, Maur said there could be disagreement and one side could claim the other is not fulfilling the agreement, leading to litigation.
Fellow Democrats, Dee Dee Martin and Jennifer Aguilar said they felt comfortable with Maur’s motion to amend the resolution to approve the agreement. Martin said it explains things a little better.
But several Republicans were reluctant to change the language of the town attorney’s MOA without Lieto being present to comment.
Town Councilman Jonathan Formichella, who is an attorney, said it was fully vetted by the council’s Legislative and Administrative Committee and fully “comports” with the intentions of the first selectman, Board of Education administration and chairwoman’s goals.
Formichella said Maur’s additions were “totally unnecessary.”
Maur contended the amendments would not harm the agreement and would be more prudent, because it would possibly protect the town from litigation.
Kevin Reid, a Republican, said the spirit of the agreement is to get two capable finance directors, Bunovsky and Meade, to Central Office to resolve a $1.5 million budget deficit.
“We’re arguing over a couple of words,” Reid said. “I’m not going to vote for that amendment. This is going to be very painful if we have to do this for the next two years.”
Republicans also touted the professionalism of Lieto, who drafted the MOA. Reid called him, “probably the most incredible town attorney in the state of Connecticut, who is working pro bono.”
Maur suggested tabling the issue until Lieto could come to a meeting and share his opinion on the amendment.
“I agree we have to get the Board of Education the help it needs, so why not put in the language?” Maur asked. “Why not mitigate risk when you have a chance to do so, instead of voting in a partisan manner?”
Reid said they have to show faith in the people they put in positions such as town attorney, adding he doesn’t want to be “in the business of wordsmithing” things if it doesn’t significantly change a document.
Maur’s amendment failed 6 to 3, in a vote along party lines.
A rubber stamp?
“We were elected by the people of this town not to rubber stamp what is written by the town attorney,” Maur said. “It’s a disservice to the people of this town.”
Maur said rubber stamping everything that comes across their desk makes the Town Council irrelevant.
He also expressed concern that the Board of Education has yet to discuss the matter of creating a joint financial department.
Kobza said it is on the agenda for the Board of Education’s meeting this coming Monday.
Maur motioned to add the word “proposal” to the section of the MOA to create a joint department of finance, because approvals will still be needed by the Board of Education and the Town Council.
When asked, Kobza said he had no problem with that word being added and Formichella said it would be appropriate.
The motion passed unanimously.
Town Council Vice Chairman Sean O’Rourke had said he was uncomfortable doing that without the town attorney present, so Maur made a second motion.
Maur motioned to change the termination of the agreement from June 30 to Feb. 28 to allow the MOA to go into effect and give Lieto time to review it and, if he wants to make his own changes, to draft a second MOA to be put into effect after Feb. 28.
That passed 8 to 1 with Republican, Tony Scott, against it.
Tensions cooled down and Reid said if those motions came out earlier, he would have welcomed it. Maur said he would have made them if he thought of the motions then.
“I implore us to work this way,” Reid said of the bipartisanship.
If the Democrats could hear the back and forth among Republicans in their caucus, which he would not share, Reid said they would see they’re not rubber stamping anything.
Reid expressed his hope Republicans and Democrats on the council will work well together on future issues. He said, “arguing over ‘the’ and ‘thee’ going forward is not going to work for me.”