Council forces turnover on sewer commission
NEW MILFORD — A seven-year member of the town sewer commission was replaced this week — against his wishes — with a veteran manager from the utilities industry.
Mike Bensema, who had been serving as the vice chairman, was replaced after a 5-2 vote at Monday’s Town Council meeting. The council acted at the request of Mayor David Gronbach, who cited the town clerk’s determination that Bensema had mistakenly been allowed to serve longer than the four-year term set by ordinance.
Council approved the appointment of John Wittmann to take Bensema’s place, with his term starting this week and expiring on Nov. 30, 2019.
Bensema’s position was listed as a vacancy on the agenda, but Bensema challenged that during the public comment portion of the meeting.
“I have not resigned from the commission,” said Bensema, a professional wastewater engineer. “I’m currently still serving on the commission until the town replaces me or the mayor extends my term. You’re not voting to fill a vacancy tonight; you will be voting to remove someone with decades of wastewater experience and putting someone else in my place.”
Bensema has previously argued that the timing of the change was suspicious. He said town officials had known of the term-length error for months, but did not choose to act on it until he wrote a letter to the editor of the New Milford Spectrum that was highly critical of Gronbach. He also noted that another commission member has overstayed his legal appointment but has not been pushed out.
Councilman Pete Bass asked Gronbach whether he would consider letting Bensema stay on until November, or to take an alternate spot that has been vacant for more than two years.
Bass argued Bensema’s experience is invaluable, especially since the dismissal earlier this month of the sewer superintendent. Having both Bensema and Wittmann as members would allow the commission to benefit from both men’s expertise.
“To me, you’d have the best of both worlds,” Bass said.
Gronbach declined, saying Bensema was uncooperative and has been an integral part of a poorly run commission that amassed a $4 million debt to the town.
“Why would I appoint someone who is here to obstruct me?” Gronbach asked.
“No one is entitled to any position,” he added.
Bass and Councilwoman Katy Francis both voted against Wittmann’s appointment because of Gronbach’s refusal to appoint Bensema to the vacant seat.
Council members applauded the managerial experience Wittmann brings to the sewer commission, with several saying that is more important than experience in wastewater treatment.
“This is an individual who knows management and will add to the sewer commission,” Gronbach said. “Every commission needs new blood and new experience.”
Wittmann held numerous management positions with New York State Electric and Gas Corporation, where he worked from 1971 to 2010. He then worked as a consultant until 2015. He also has held various community positions in town, including the roads committee.
“My hope is that my many years of industry and civic leadership and budget development and management will be beneficial to the commission and the Town of New Milford,” Wittmann said on Tuesday.