Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Bridgeport won't get driveway funds back

Brian Lockhart, CT Post 
Updated 12:54 am, Tuesday, July 2, 2013  

BRIDGEPORT -- Taxpayers shouldn't plan on recouping the $400,000 Mayor Bill Finch's administration spent to hire developer Manuel "Manny" Moutinho's construction company to build a driveway over airport property to Moutinho's waterfront mansion in Stratford. 

"We built it, we put it in, we adopted those (architectural) drawings, built to those standards. I believe it's ours and ours alone," City Attorney Mark Anastasi told the City Council Monday.

It was about the only definitive statement Anastasi made in an information session on the month-old driveway controversy arranged by Council President Thomas McCarthy, D-133.

Anastasi did hint at the possibility that Moutinho, who had already obtained the permits to build the 1000-foot gravel driveway for himself and three neighboring property owners, maneuvered the Finch administration into taking over the project.

"I can't say with any degree of certainty whether people took advantage of our needs and timetable," Anastasi said. "I don't know what happened here. Hopefully, we'll all know shortly."

Hearst Connecticut Newspapers first reported on the driveway in early June, when it was completed.

The administration has said the project was necessary to move forward with long-sought safety improvements to Sikorsky Memorial Airport's runway. Anastasi reiterated that defense last night as Finch, who presides over council meetings, for the most part quietly observed

Owned by Bridgeport, Sikorsky is located in Stratford.

Moutinho's original, dirt driveway will be abandoned as part of the runway work, so the city owed him a new one, according to the mayor's office.

But Finch launched an internal probe after he said he learned from Hearst about a decades-long friendship and real estate transactions between Moutinho and Airport Manager John Ricci.

Ricci remains on paid suspension pending the investigation by the city's labor office and an unnamed outside attorney who does work for Anastasi's office.

One of the major questions about the driveway is why the city took the project over from Moutinho in the first place, since he had been poised to install it himself and had obtained the permits from Stratford.

Anastasi conceded that for some reason Moutinho had not started construction. And with the federal government mandating the runway project's completion by 2016, the city had to make a decision.

"I think it became apparent to us (that) left to his (Moutinho's) own devices, it would not be constructed in a timely enough fashion," Anastasi said.

Since Moutinho had navigated the lengthy permitting process in Stratford, Bridgeport simply assumed the project as designed. That meant replacing the old dirt driveway with a gravel one, installing two fire hydrants and underground utilities.

"This isn't the road to the Taj Mahal, but it's certainly a market upgrade," Anastasi admitted.

But, Anastasi said, "A decision was made we had to spend some money to achieve some time."

He also said the fire hydrants were required by Stratford. But an April 2012 email from Brian Lampart, that town's fire marshal, to Nick Owen, who represented Moutinho before Stratford's land-use boards, does not mention a mandate. Instead Lampart refers to building a driveway to carry the weight of fire equipment and installing one hydrant as great options.

Anastasi Monday also could not explain why the council was never informed about the driveway, even though the money was, the mayor's office has said, included in the city's $3 million share of the runway safety work. The council voted to borrow that amount last September.

"I don't know the level of detail the council was provided or requested," Anastasi said.

No one from the city's budget department was present for Monday's discussion.

It was only mid-March when the Finch administration -- through Ricci -- approached Stratford to take over Moutinho's permits. In April, Ricci circumvented the city's competitive bidding process and obtained three quotes for the work from local contractors. Moutinho's Mark IV Construction was the last quote sought and the cheapest.

Anastasi blamed some of the delay on what he called a "gag order" preventing officials from going public during the winter while finalizing negotiations over the runway project with Stratford, state and federal officials.

Although Finch sat through the entire meeting Monday, no council members directed any questions to the mayor. The mayor and all 20 council members are Democrats.

Finch said the success his administration had moving ahead with the Sikorsky safety work has made "the stink of this incident" greater.

"There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness, tainted," he said, quoting from Henry David Thoreau and thanking Hearst and whoever brought the driveway story to the newspaper's attention.

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Sikorsky Memorial Airport (KBDR), Bridgeport, Connecticut

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