August 6, 2007
By JEFFREY B. COHEN And DANIEL E. GOREN, Courant Staff Writers
The presence of a Hartford businessman during crucial negotiations over a massive $1.6 billion regional sewer project was a major point of contention - and might have been a key factor in the talks' collapse.
The talks - between officials from the Metropolitan District Commission, the region's sewer authority, and Hartford legislators - revolved around how much of the work would go to minority contractors.
The MDC was looking to the legislature to approve a new formula to help finance the sewer upgrade, but Hartford lawmakers Sen. Eric Coleman and state Rep. Art Feltman wanted to make sure that the project included work for minority contractors.
The two sides were unable to reach agreement and the effort fell apart in the final hours of the legislative session - meaning, at least for this year, that the cost of the sewer upgrade would fall to local property taxpayers in Hartford, West Hartford, East Hartford, Newington, Wethersfield, Rocky Hill, Windsor and Bloomfield.
The MDC says the talks fell apart because Hartford legislators insisted businessman Rufus Wells be in the room during negotiations - an allegation the lawmakers dispute.
Wells - who told the commission that he recently made well over half a million dollars doing minority contract compliance work with the Hartford Housing Authority and the city's school building project - wants to do work on the sewer project. His presence during the talks posed a conflict of interest, the commission said.
"I wasn't having it," said MDC Commissioner Adam Cloud. "I said to Sen. Coleman, `It's irresponsible for us to have this kind of discussion with Rufus in the room.' ... I told Eric Coleman that I'm not going to be party to a meeting in which [Wells] is going to be present."
But Coleman and Feltman, a Hartford mayoral candidate, say that the blowup over Wells' presence was an excuse that the commission used to railroad the process and paper over the reality that minority contractors often don't get the work they are promised.
Feltman said that the Wells issue was a "red herring," Wells said the commission was putting up a "smoke screen" and Coleman said that the commission was just using Wells as a "convenient excuse."
"The MDC was frustrated because they couldn't as easily snow Rep. Feltman and myself because of Rufus being there," Coleman said. "I think at some point, the MDC interpreted Rufus' involvement as an impediment to what they were trying to accomplish, which was to remove completely any language about minority involvement from the bill."
"Their position was, `Trust us, and we'll get it done,'" Coleman said. "Unfortunately, it has reached a point where trust them is not an option for me, because we end up getting screwed."
Feltman and Coleman insisted on having Wells in the room because he provided valuable experience and expertise that they needed to understand the process, they said.
"What the MDC was doing was trying to deprive us of knowledge so they could be the only ones who could assert their expertise," Feltman said.
The MDC is preparing to undertake a massive project designed to fix problems with the region's antiquated and overextended sewers that send sewage into rivers and basements when it rains hard.
A bill before the legislature last session would have authorized a surcharge to help finance the 15-year upgrade project by spreading the cost among the district's water users. Without it, the price tag would land hard on the municipal budgets of the MDC's eight member towns.
But in April, Feltman and Coleman amended the legislation to include standards for minority contracting. Those standards would have required that 18.75 percent of the small business contracts needed for the project be set aside for minority-owned firms.
It also required that 25 percent of those employed in the entire project be members of minorities, and that 5 percent be ex-offenders who have completed their probation or parole. Finally, the legislators wanted to assess some kind of financial penalty upon the commission should it not comply with the contracting standards.
But MDC officials, although saying that they favored helping minorities, thought that the targets were not supported by tested data, that the penalties for noncompliance jeopardized the project and that the requirements were possibly illegal.
In fact, the commission's negotiator - attorney and lobbyist Brendan Fox - advised it in early April that the bill "must be amended to take out the [minority] set-aside requirements and the penalties."
"The proponents of these set-aside requirements suggest that the MDC has failed to adequately address the issue of minority participation in the Clean Water Project," Fox said, according to meeting minutes. "This is not the case. We have a common interest; however, we may differ on the means to get there."
In an April 24 meeting, Fox expressed concerns to Feltman and Coleman, hoping that the legislators would revise the bill.
But when a May 1 meeting came, the bill's language had not changed, MDC officials said. And when Fox and Cloud arrived to talk with Feltman and Coleman, the lawmakers weren't alone. They brought Wells.
MDC officials said they would meet with Wells only if he waived his right to make money off the project. Wells refused, with the legislators' backing, saying that the waiver he was presented with would essentially bar him from MDC or related work for two decades.
Bart Halloran, the MDC's top lawyer, summed up his concern with Wells' involvement in a May 25 letter to Fox, saying that Wells shouldn't be involved in drafting requirements for a project he hoped to bid on.
"I am deeply concerned that this participation could be viewed as favoritism, or the appearance of favoritism," Halloran wrote.
Halloran then barred Fox from meeting with the legislators if Wells was present, all but ending the talks from the MDC's perspective.
But Wells says he is a scapegoat.
"They're trying to lay it at my doorstep," he said. "But they didn't want me in the negotiations because they know that Art and Eric didn't understand how to get minority work and how to implement minority programs."
Asked why Wells couldn't have been an adviser and not be in the room during negotiations, Coleman said that's a meaningless distinction of "form over substance." Feltman said it was impractical "for us to run to the phone, call Rufus, get some feedback and then run back to the room."
Besides, as legislators, they should be free to meet with whomever they choose, Feltman said.
"The MDC doesn't get to have a perspective on who we consult," Feltman said. "If we decide to go into a séance and consult with somebody who's dead, they have nothing to say about it."
"This is an excuse for them not to come to the table and to try to sabotage [our] efforts," Feltman said. "If it weren't this excuse, there'd be another."
The MDC says it is moving forward with the sewer project, and plans to conduct a study of its own to determine how many qualified minority contractors and workers are available in the region, and what can be done to increase that number, Halloran said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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