NEW MILFORD - A former town official testified Wednesday that a controversial vote by the Board of Finance three years ago effectively killed efforts by the town to purchase surplus property from the United Water Co.

Fred Baker , who served as town attorney from 2001 to 2003, told the Ethics Commission any plans the town may have considered for the 162-acre parcel were "dead on arrival, finished, killed" after the finance board acted. Baker was the first witness to testify in the complaint brought by local activist
John Kane against Board of Finance member and local builder
John Spatola , who is accused of violating the town's code of ethics by participating in the vote. The property was subsequently sold to a company in which Spatola's long-time business associate,
Thomas Pilla , was a principal. It's the first time in the town's history that a conflict of interest complaint against a town official has proceeded to a public hearing. Should the commission find Spatola guilty, he could be forced to resign his elected position and be fined. At the heart of the complaint is the 4-2 vote by the finance board in June 2002 declaring that "no funds from any source" would be used to purchase land for open space or recreation purposes during either the 2001-02 or 2002-03 fiscal years. The motion was introduced by Spatola who, according to minutes of the meeting, said the action was needed to reassure taxpayers the town didn't have access to money from other sources. At the time of the vote, town officials were cutting education programs and other municipal services because voters hadn't yet approved a budget. While Spatola's motion didn't specifically mention the water company parcel, Kane's attorney, former New Milford Mayor
Arthur Peitler , contends it was clearly the target. Less than a week before the finance board acted, the Town Council voted against waiving the town's right to acquire the parcel. The council also authorized then-Mayor Robert Gambino to participate in a state Department of Public Utility Control hearing into the proposed sale of the land to San-P homes, the company in which Pilla is a principal. The two parties signed the sales contract in January 2002, but under state law, whenever a utility company seeks to sell off surplus property, the town in which the land is located has the right to intervene. Spatola's attorney,
William Wellman , claimed the town never had any interest in the property, even when it was offered as a donation. Wellman introduced a letter indicating that in 1998, the water company filed a subdivision application with the town, and when it was approved, some 84 acres were set aside for open space. Also, under the contract between United Water and San-P, the developer was required to offer the town the 84 acres for up to two months after the sale went through, he said. But when Baker attempted to explain Gambino's reasoning for not accepting the donation, commission hearing officer Joseph Failla ruled Baker would violate attorney-client privilege by disclosing his conversations with the mayor. The explanation will have to wait until Gambino is called to testify when the hearing resumes next week, he said.

Contact John Pirro

at jpirro@newstimes.com

or at (203) 731-3342.