When the legendary Democratic boss John Bailey died in 1975, his seat on the board of Metropolitan District Commission went to William A. DiBella. It was the start of an enduring relationship between a politician and an office.
Bailey still is a presence at the MDC in the form of a bronze bust, glasses propped high on his head. So is DiBella, 79, who chairs the board of the MDC, a state-chartered public entity that supplies water and treats sewage in Greater Hartford.
DiBella has survived a scandal over a $347,500 finders fee he took on a state pension deal and a challenge to whether he is a legal resident of Hartford or one of MDC’s other member towns, a necessity for serving.
Currently, an internal investigation is underway over whether James Sandler, an octogenarian ally of DiBella and long-time legal consultant to the MDC, collected legal fees unauthorized by the commission’s in-house counsel.
Against that backdrop, a committee of the General Assembly held a public hearing Friday on a bill that would increase state oversight over the MDC by, among other things, requiring annual audits by the legislature’s Auditors of Public Accounts.
The bill also would create a task force to examine the MDC’s charter, which was drawn in 1929, to give four non-member towns that get water from the commission voting seats and require the adoption of an ethics code.
DiBella did not testify. In an interview, he shrugged off a question about why his style and longevity as a force on the MDC draws critics about his governance and questions about his interest in the unpaid job.
“Hey, what can I tell you?” DiBella said. “You know, some people just have to do those things.”
The bill did not include the one provision that some DiBella critics would like — term limits on the MDC, whose 29 voting commissioners are appointed, not elected.
At a press conference before the hearing, the sponsors of the bill never mentioned DiBella, whose tenure at the MDC has overlapped with long stints at the Hartford City Council and General Assembly.
But when it comes to governance of the MDC, its image is inseparable at the Capitol from DiBella, a consummate deal-maker in his two-plus decades in the state Senate, where he was majority leader for two terms.
Sponsors of the oversight bill talked about what the measure would not do.
“We’re not here to sink the MDC. We’re here to try to make it better,” said Rep. Tom Delnicki, R-South Windsor, who worked at the MDC for 32 years.
“We are not attacking the MDC. We’re not blowing up the MDC. What we’re trying to do is nudge it,” said Sen. Derek Slap, D-West Hartford, another sponsor.
Slap made oblique references to some controversies, alluding to the unauthorized legal bills and complaints about the deal the MDC struck in 2016 to provide water at a discount to a bottling facility proposed in Bloomfield by Niagara Bottling, the largest-family owned bottled water company in the U.S.
“So what’s the issue here?” Slap said. “My constituents love MDC’s water. The water is terrific. And you know, they have faith and confidence in the water, and I believe that they should be able to have that same faith and confidence in the governance of the MDC. There should not be a difference between the two. Fundamentally, the MDC exists to serve its customers and the towns. It’s not the other way around.”
Chris Stone, the MDC’s counsel, represented the commission at the hearing Friday before the legislature’s Planning and Development Committee. He called the bill unnecessary.
The MDC is a municipal corporation chartered by the state, enjoying essentially the same legal status as the state’s 169 cities and towns. It operates on an annual budget of about $204 million.
Stone said the MDC’s books are regularly audited, and the commission reports to the governor and legislature the details of its revenue and expenditures, plus an affirmative action statement that provides a description of the composition of MDC’s work force by race, sex and occupation.
“Not once has the MDC been notified of any deficiency in these reports,” Stone said.
While the charter is 94 years old, the General Assembly has passed laws in 2011, 2014 and 2017 mandating changes in hiring, the posting of the budget and other financial data on its website and the creation of an in-house consumer counsel representing the interests of customers.
“Given these substantive changes, the MDC is at a loss as to why the Committee would pursue this course of action,” Stone said.
The MDC, he said, already had an ethics code, which was updated recently with a requirement for commissioners to annually file disclosure statements.
The State Elections Enforcement Commission investigated DiBella in 2016, responding to a complaint that he was not a bona fide resident of Hartford and had been voting illegally in the city. If he was not a Hartford voter, he could not represent the city on the MDC.
While DiBella’s wife owned a waterfront home in Old Saybrook, DiBella listed his legal residence as his son’s 27th-floor condo in Bushnell Tower, an I.M. Pei-designed landmark that sits next to the MDC headquarters and overlooks Bushnell Park.
His son, Marc DiBella, is a lobbyist and the Democratic town chair of Hartford, the city his father represented on the MDC.
The SEEC investigation concluded in 2017 that the Bushnell Tower condo met the definition under state law as a bona fide residence. DiBella received his mail at the condo and had a bedroom with his belongings and a bathroom with his toiletries.
DiBella said his desire to remain on the MDC is altruistic.
“It’s just a phenomenal organization,” DiBella said. “I’ve been involved in it for almost 50 years. And you know, I get nothing out of it financially, absolutely nothing.”
DiBella said the price and quality of its water and reliability of its supply is unmatched in Connecticut, and it has managed major construction programs without scandal.
“Have we ever had a problem where people maintained that there was corruption or was malfeasance or anything else? Not that I remember,” DiBella said. “I’ve been there a while.”