The head of the Town Council last week called for the legislative body to get involved earlier in bringing new members onto a prominent committee that helps oversee financial reporting for the municipal government and school district.
The Audit Committee serves as a kind of “financial arm” for the Town Council, the municipal body that created it, and as such the Council “should be in the process earlier,” according to Chair Steve Karl.
That the Town Council isn’t part of the initial vetting of candidates “is considered to be sort of a blind spot in the ordinance” that established the Audit Committee, Karl told fellow Councilmen during the elected body’s March 29 meeting, held at Town Hall and via videoconference.
He added, “The Council is getting candidates for this committee without any input prior to populating the committee, and that is a concern because of checks and balances that should be out there. And I’ll open it up for comment, but we have been passed a candidate which we can vote on—we can vote on at our next meeting—or we can send this to the [Town Council Bylaws and] Ordinance Committee for a look as far as: Do we want to have input in this process sooner going forward?”
The Town Council had a say in populating the Audit Committee when that group was created in 2014, yet “we weren’t consulted at all in this process” recently, Karl said, and the nomination of a new member has “gotten all the way through the process to us.”
“So the question is, given the fact that it’s a committee underneath the Council: Does it make sense for the Council to have a say in vetting candidates prior to going through the whole process and then coming back to us? As it stands right now, the Audit Committee was formed by the Council. We populated this Audit Committee and now we’ve sort of let go of that responsibility. So that’s really the question.”
He added, “From a personal standpoint I feel like if there’s 99 yards here, I’m asked to get involved at the 1-yard line. It’s just not the way it should work.”
The comments came about three weeks after the Board of Selectmen voted 2-0, with one abstention, to nominate Roy Abramowitz for a seat on the Audit Committee. Selectman Kathleen Corbet said during the Board’s March 7 meeting that she was abstaining from the vote because the nomination process was overly narrow and, as such, failed to include a sufficiently gender-diverse set of candidates.
Like Corbet, members of the Town Council stopped short of saying last week that Abramowitz is himself temperamentally unsuited to the role.
Moynihan had said during the selectmen meeting earlier in March that Abramowitz’s nomination “has the support of all members of the Audit Committee”—an assertion later challenged by some.
During the Town Council meeting, Moynihan pushed back on Karl’s suggestion, saying that the Audit Committee must undergo the same nominating process as other municipal bodies, meaning the selectmen vote first on a nominee. In the case of the Audit Committee, a candidate then goes to the full Town Council for final appointment (Board of Finance candidates undergo the same process).
“So it’s not just a committee anymore of the Council,” Moynihan said. “It’s a Chartered committee. So when we change the Charter, we can maybe change the process, but I don’t think an ordinance can change the Charter right now.”
Karl said in response that one of the checks and balances in local government is that the Town Council continues to be “directly involved in putting folks on our committee.”
Moynihan responded, “I don’t look at that. I was on the Town Council at the same time. I don’t view it that way.”
This exchange followed:
Karl: I completely understand how you view it because you went right around us and didn’t consult me. Never ever consulted me or anybody on this Council and you brought us through the Board of Selectmen and you just arrived here. It’s our committee. It’s our committee. And that’s all I’m going to say.
Moynihan: It’s a Town Charter committee.
Karl: I understand that but this is different. This is very, very different than any other commission, committee, board. This is the Town Council’s committee. It’s not—
Moynihan: —it’s a Town Chartered committee.
Karl: I understand that but the way we’ve structured this—
Moynihan: —you could have formed a Town Council committee and the selectmen would not have made appointments. Under the Charter, all appointments are made by the selectmen.
Karl: Listen, I’m not disagreeing with that point. What I’m asking the Council is: Do they want input on this committee that I feel is incredibly important, or do they just want to receive the candidates going forward for the rest of time, basically? I have no issue whatsoever with the candidate. I have zero issue. What I have an issue with is the way this was handled and the process with which this was handled. Because it’s the Council and the Audit Committee is the Council’s financial arm, and we have no say whatsoever in the process.
Moynihan: You do have a say. You vote on an appointment. That’s the way the process works.
Karl: It’s not the way the process should work because there should be communication from your office to us about how this is going to work and who you are considering. ‘Here’s all the candidates.’ We had none of that. Zero. And it gets old to have the end-around on stuff like this. And I’ve reached a point where I can’t do this anymore. I’m just getting frustrated. So that’s why I’m bringing this out here, and I’m bringing it to the Council, and I’m letting a discussion take place.”
Ultimately, Karl said he would reach out to Town Attorney Ira Bloom for an opinion regarding the Town Council’s role. Abramowitz’s nomination likely will be taken up by the Council during its April 5 or 19 meeting, he said.
Typically, nominees for town boards, commissions and committees come to the Board of Selectmen from New Canaan’s political party groups, the Democratic Town Committee and Republican Town Committee (Abramowitz is a Republican).
Moynihan said that process should continue and Karl agreed. However, Karl said, those steps weren’t followed in this case.
“I would like to follow that process too but that process, this particular time, happened in reverse,” Karl said. “It went through the Board of Selectmen and then it went … to the RTC.”
Moynihan disagreed, saying he “checked with the Republican Town Committee before we made this nomination.”
Karl said that if the town ordinance regarding the Audit Committee is not editable, then the Town Council could take up the matter.
“I have no idea if we can do that or not,” he said. “Then we can take a look at this and be fair to the Council going forward. That’s all we’re asking for here, is get a process in place and follow it. Because right now, it’s not being followed.”
Other members of the Town Council weighed in, with varying degrees of clarity.
Councilman Michael Mauro said he saw no downside to the Town Council collaborating with other municipal bodies on Audit Committee nominations.
“I don’t think there’s any basis to not bring at least the chairman, vice chair, the head of the minority party, in on it, to have that more collaborative discussion,” Mauro said. “I don’t see any downside to that. It didn’t happen here. But my opinion is you’re never going to lose anything by having a more collaborative process.”
Councilman Luke Kaufman said, “I think, Steve, you are put into a predicament where you are put in at the 1-yard line and I don’t think that’s fair given and I think there’s a lot of collaboration and process and procedure that happens that may or may have not been followed but I think that there’s, you know, extremely talented candidates that are looking to apply for positions, that the process and procedure shouldn’t arrive at your desk on the 1-yard line because your input and your value add is so significant that, you know, if we collectively support somebody then I think we should support them and provide them the best course of success forward and if we don’t then we don’t but I think we should do it and there’s a really good collaboration at the desk here but you should not be put in a position that it’s last-minute but I think on the opposite side of that is, I think there was a lot of well-thought-out candidates and positioning to get you there, I think we just didn’t follow the process and procedure because if we did I think we would be in a position to nominate someone.”
Councilman Penny Young said the Town Council is meant to interview candidates for bodies such as the Board of Finance prior to voting on appointments “to really understand the qualifications.”
“It’s not a—I’m going to use the word ‘political’ thank you for your commitment to the party kind of thing, if that ever would be someone’s thought,” Young said. “But we haven’t been able recently to even have those interviews with possible candidates. It could be our fault in not following through on it and just assuming everything’s fine so we need to tighten up our part of the process as well. But given the number of candidates who are possibilities out there in our community, I think we are selling ourselves short in not taking advantage of knowing what the possibilities of that talent coming to serve our town.”
During the meeting, Audit Committee Chair Bill Parrett noted that the appointed body’s own priority in taking on a new member is “vetting the individual to make sure they’re knowledgeable about accounting, that they could be a good member of the Committee, and if they are a CPA that they are a licensed CPA, that they are doing their CPA requirements and that they are complying with the Public Accounting Oversight Board.”
Parrett added that the Audit Committee is an independent group and that the first selectman doesn’t try to control it.
Referring to Moynihan, he said, “I think Kevin can attest to fact that we push back on him quite frequently and quite often on issues, and he never tries to direct the Committee. Never tried to do that and just want on the record there’s no question about the integrity of the Audit Committee.”
Karl said he agreed regarding its integrity and independence.
Young noted that one concern for the Council is that there was only one candidate whose name came up from the Board of Selectmen.
“We would like it to be a broader base and given the community in which we live, we have—I would imagine—qualified candidates all over the place,” she said. “So one candidate is not necessarily the most appropriate candidate for the Committee.”
Young added that the Council is “sensitive” to discussing process rather than singling out any individual (Abramowitz) “so that we are protecting that person’s reputation and so forth.”
Abramowitz himself addressed the Council, reviewing his qualifications and saying that he had undergone a vetting process five years ago when a then-member of the Audit Committee was considering stepping down.