The purchase of a $51,000 Ford Explorer for the mayor of West Haven prompted concerns again this week about the city’s ability to manage its finances and its willingness to comply with orders from a state oversight board.
The Municipal Accountability Review Board, which gained oversight of West Haven’s finances in 2018 after the city racked up a multimillion-dollar budget deficit, has rules in place that require city officials to obtain board approval for any municipal contracts or expenses over $50,000.
But West Haven Mayor Nancy Rossi, who is in her third term, acknowledged Thursday that the new vehicle she is now driving for work and her own personal use was never brought to the MARB for review and approval.
That admission led to what has become a well-rehearsed routine: MARB members voiced anger and exasperation over the city’s failure to follow the oversight board’s rules and the city’s own purchasing policies, after which Rossi and other West Haven officials apologized and promised to do better in the future.
“This is embarrassing, and it should not happen,” said Kimberly Kennison, a MARB member who was representing the state’s Office of Policy and Management at the meeting. “And to me, it feels like it’s deliberate, and I’m sorry to say that. There’s no reason for it.”
“We are trying to do better, and we will continue to get better at this,” Rossi said. “I do apologize for this. This was not anyone’s intention. I know it shouldn’t have happened. It should not happen. I can’t go back and unring the bell, if you will. But we are trying our best.”
The lengthy discussion about the mayor’s new car is just the latest example of the dysfunctional relationship between Rossi’s administration and the MARB, which was created by the legislature in 2017 to help struggling towns and cities fix their finances.
The MARB’s frustration with West Haven and its leadership has been growing for years, largely because the city has not made necessary fixes to its financial controls.
Those frustrations began to boil over in late 2021 after a federal corruption investigation revealed that Michael DiMassa, a former state Democratic lawmaker and city employee, stole more than $1.2 million from the West Haven finance department.
In response to the embezzlement scheme, the MARB voted in April 2022 to place West Haven under an even higher level of oversight. That move was intended to give the oversight board more insight and authority over city budget and spending.
But the situation has only deteriorated since then. In early February, several MARB members went so far as to request that the Attorney General’s office draft legislation that would allow for a full state takeover of the city.
That request, however, was opposed by the MARB chairman Jeffrey Beckham, who also serves as Gov. Ned Lamont’s budget secretary.
Several MARB members said Thursday that the decision to buy a new car for the mayor without asking for MARB’s approval was a clear sign the city was still not taking the oversight process seriously.
The fact that the car was purchased for the mayor — the city’s top elected leader —highlights the extent of West Haven’s dysfunction, several MARB members argued.
“This car is emblematic of my years on this board, and the missteps that continue to happen,” said Stephen Falcigno, a MARB member. “For this to slip through at the highest level, I find it disturbing on many levels.”
Rossi and her team also admitted during the meeting that they didn’t follow the competitive bidding rules required under the city’s charter. The city never formally solicited offers from car dealerships in order to get the best price for taxpayers, as the law requires.
“You would think that if you are buying a vehicle for the mayor’s office that that would be the first thing people would think of,” said Thomas Hamilton, another MARB member. “And then you layer on top of the fact that you didn’t even follow your own purchasing procedures in this.”
“This just violates everything from beginning to end. It is really, really troubling, and I don’t know what else we can do,” Hamilton added.
Rossi deflected responsibility for the city’s violations. She told the MARB that she played no role in the purchase of the vehicle or the city’s failure to bring it to the MARB’s attention.
That responsibility, she said, rested in the hands of the city’s former finance director Scott Jackson, who abruptly ended his employment with the city in late February. She also said the city’s purchasing agent didn’t flag the contract for the vehicle because he was in the hospital at the time.
Rossi also suggested that it was Louis Esposito, her executive assistant, who failed to follow the city’s bidding requirements for the new car.
“Mr. Esposito’s role was he went and looked at the car,” Rossi said. “He’s familiar with cars, and he’s the one who actually assisted in picking it out.”
The financial documents that West Haven officials provided to the MARB this week shows that the vehicle was bought in November 2022.
The purchase of the Ford Explorer came to the MARB’s attention following local media coverage and public comments by West Haven residents.
The purchase of the vehicle was first mentioned publicly during a February city council meeting. John Lewis, a West Haven resident who challenged Rossi in the Democratic primary in 2021, explained that several residents saw the mayor driving around in a new car and he asked the city council members to look into the purchase.
The contract for the vehicle was subsequently obtained by The New Haven Register.
The car was the focal point of most of the Thursday meeting, but it wasn’t the only example of the city’s failure to adhere to the MARB’s directives.
The city also provided the oversight board with a list of 11 other payments over $50,000 that were made in the past year without the oversight board’s approval. Most of those included sidewalk and paving projects.
Falcigno, who has been one of the most outspoken critics of West Haven’s leadership over the past year, told his fellow MARB members that the oversight board also shares some of the blame for the city’s lack of improvement.
“I think its an embarrassment not only for the city of West Haven but the MARB also,” Falcigno said. “Shame on us.”