An exchange of August letters and documents between the administration of Mayor Tim Stewart (R-New Britain) and the state Department of Public Health shows that Stewart deliberately misled residents and other public officials in an effort to gain quick approval for a controversial deal giving Tilcon Connecticut, Inc. 131 acres of watershed land for its mining operation.
In September, State Rep. Tim O’Brien (D-24) and State Senator Don DeFronzo (D-6), reacting to concerns of residents and environmentalists as well as Stewart’s contradictory statements and actions on the issue, successfully sought repeal of a law that had initially cleared the way for a Tilcon takeover of watershed land to expand its quarry operation over the next generation.
The Tilcon lease move first saw the light of day shortly after Stewart visited state legislators at the beginning of June -- the last week of the Legislature’s session --seeking special legislation to gain personal pension rights for himself as a firefighter on leave from the city Fire Department and for the Tilcon proposal that required an exception to law protecting watersheds.
Public Act 07-244 was signed into law by Gov. Rell in July allowing the lease of watershed land. New Britain Democratic lawmakers supported the legislation in the waning days of the 2007 session at the behest of the Stewart Administration. They were informed that legislative action was needed quickly to make the land lease with a $15 million return for the city over 40 years possible. Legislators successfully inserted amendments into the law that required Tilcon to restore the leased land "for a public drinking water reservoir" and "the surrounding land for reforestation." At the time the measure drew sharp editorial criticisms three times in The Hartford Courant with the newspaper asserting that the legislative "rat" allowed the lease of watershed at the expense of environmental protection.
While the repeal nixes immediate approval and compels the company and city to pursue the deal with full public input and environmental oversight, the summer controversy shows how far the Stewart administration went to consummate a major public policy decision in secret.
At an August 7th neighborhood meeting of the Hickory Hill-Westwood Block Watch committee, Stewart claimed his administration had not acted on the proposed mining project lease -- a deal promising the city $15 million over 40 years for access to watershed that has long been part of a public trust and subject to environmental protection. "If the people don't want it, so be it," Stewart told the Hickory Hill committee as reported by the New Britain Herald.. "I will support you 100 percent. It doesn't have to go. Marilynn (referring to Marilyn Slate, a Block Watch leader), why don't you do this for me: Start a petition.”
On the same day (August 7), Mayor Stewart was telling residents that their wishes would be considered, however, his Board of Water Commissioners Chairman, Patrick Hamel, had already signed off on a lease proposal outline. The lease agreement -- the equivalent of a letter of agreement – stipulated the terms of the long-term lease between the city and Tilcon Connecticut. The agreement had already been signed on August 6th by Richard Mergens, Tilcon’s President. The agreement, labeled, "Lease Proposal Outline," clearly specifies that that city would have leased New Britain-owned watershed land to Tilcon for forty years for $130,798.17 per acre. The terms of the one-page agreement signed by Stewart's administration are unclear, raising the important legal question about whether it would have been legally possible for the city to withdraw from the deal or to change its terms – like the amount of the proposed lease.
As late as September 13th, Republican Town Chair Paul Carver, whose wife, Lisa, is Stewart's Chief of Staff, was quoted in the New Britain Herald saying that, "there is no deal. The legislation was to allow a deal, which will be followed by a public hearing. If residents are against the deal, Mayor Stewart has said he will pull a plug on the plan." This statement came after residents, taking Stewart at his word, had submitted 350 signatures on a petition opposing immediate approval of a Tilcon lease. But Carver’s statement to residents is contradicted by what had already occurred in August. Stewart’s attempted fast tracking of the watershed lease continued August 23rd in a hand-delivered letter from the city’s assistant corporation counsel, Joseph Skelly, to Dr. Robert Galvin, the state Commissioner of Public Health. “Our office represents the City of New Britain and Board of Water Commissioners,” Skelly wrote. “I have enclosed an executed Lease Proposal Outline between the Board of Water Commissioners and Tilcon Connecticut, Inc. for 0 Biddle Pass, Plainville, Connecticut. In accordance with Public Act No. 07-244, Sec 6 (b)(1), we will be submitting for your approval the name of an independent third party to conduct the environmental evaluation.” The letter sought state approval before the Legislature could meet to consider the DeFronzo-O’Brien repeal measure.
On August 30th, the Department of Public Health responded to the Stewart administration’s hastily sent lease agreement. Gerald Iwan, a DPH Section Chief responsible for drinking water, informed Stewart that “based on a recent discussion on August 24, 2007 with Mr. Gilbert Bligh of the City of New Britain Water Department, the Outline as provided is not considered final...Also, DPH can not consider approval of the lease until a number of items outlined within PA 07-244 are completed.”
With the successful repeal of PA 07-244 in September, the maneuverings of the Stewart administration to conclude the lease deal quickly and secretly are null and void. To legislators and residents, however, Stewart’s actions showed a disregard for the truth and a disregard for an environment long protected by a public trust.