New Milford council voids Gronbach arguments on use of landfill settlement fund
NEW MILFORD — The Town Council has declared null and void two documents former Mayor David Gronbach cited in spending money from the Landfill Settlement Fund to help turn John Pettibone School into a community center without Board of Finance review.
All seven members present of the nine-member council agreed at last week’s meeting to accept the opinion of Town Attorney Matt Grimes, who said Gronbach had based his actions on “unreasonable and misguided conclusions of law.”
In justifying his spending $225,000 from the settlement fund on Pettibone, Gronbach cited a 2017 letter from the town attorney at the time, and a white paper by former finance director Lee Palmer. Both reasoned that since the money came from settlement of a lawsuit against a waste hauling company, and not from taxpayer funds, the spending did not need Board of Finance approval.
Although the spending was approved by a 5-4 council vote, several members argued that finance board review was required, and the chairman of the town Republican Committee filed a lawsuit accusing Gronbach, a Democrat, of misappropriating public funds.
Grimes said Gronbach violated the town charter and state statutes in acting as he did.
“The Gronbach January 2017 letter and the Palmer White Paper are both legally flawed,” Grimes wrote in his opinion.
Council members met in executive session last week to discuss the matter, and after returning to public session voted 7-0 to declare the white paper and the 2017 letter “null and void.” Councilmen Peter Mullen and Tom Esposito were absent.
Gronbach could not be reached for comment.
Grimes said his opinion is meant to refer to future actions concerning the settlement fund, and he took no position on how the $225,000 already spent should be handled.
GOP Chairman Michael Barnes, who had filed the suit in his capacity as a town resident, said his aim was to make sure the town charter was followed and that the finance board’s role in management of town funds is not diminished.
“I’m just hoping to get it resolved,” he said. “I just want to protect those entities. It’s important to have checks and balances.”
The settlement fund was established in the late 1990s after a long court battle with Waste Management Connecticut, which agreed to pay the town $43.1 million over 25 years. By ordinance, the money can be used to acquire land and buildings for education, libraries, open space and public recreation, and to buy development rights to farm and agricultural land. A limited portion can be used to offset local taxes.
The crux of Grimes’ argument was that Gronbach mischaracterized New Milford as a “consolidated town and city,” which would mean Town Council is in charge of appropriations. In fact, Grimes said, New Milford is an unconsolidated town, which means appropriations must be decided in a town meeting, which typically occurs after Board of Finance review.
“This incorrect characterization is fatal to the Gronbach January 2017 letter because, when followed, it wrongly identifies New Milford’s legislative body as Town Council,” Grimes wrote.
Grimes recommends the mayor’s office and Board of Finance rule these documents null and void.