After an outcry from Board of Education members, who said they were caught by surprise, the Town Council decided Thursday evening to postpone a vote on the formation of an audit committee for the Town of New Canaan.
At a Town Council public hearing the night before, board members described the committee's proposed ordinance as "overbroad" and they seemed especially concerned that the new body would have access to all records of the town and the board.
The committee would have the power "to investigate any matters on its own motion or brought to its attention with full access to all books, records, facilities and personnel of the Town and Board of Education," according to Section 62-4d of the proposed ordinance.
"Section 62-4d strikes me as overbroad and potentially problematic," Board of Education member Penny Rashin said. "That's very broad-sounding to me."
Chairman Hazel Hobbs said the board is governed by the state and must comply with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Hobbs said the board's attorney, Tom Mooney, is worried the new committee would have access to confidential records, including those of teachers.
"He said that the audit committee has every right to review records of board's purchases, but the board operates, as you all know, already independently as an agent of the state, and it maintains many records that are confidential, in accordance with FERPA," Hobbs told the Town Council on Wednesday.
Board members asked the council to postpone the vote because they had not been given enough notice before the public hearing. Hobbs and other board members said they learned about the proposed committee less than a week ago.
Members of the council said the committee has been in the works for about two years, but they recognized the Board of Education's concerns and decided Thursday to postpone the vote until the two bodies can meet to discuss the ordinance.
"We want to make sure that everybody is on the same page, that (Board of Education members) understand that the audit committee is there for everyone's benefit and we want to make sure that there's no perceived threat," Councilman Steve Karl said. "We put this committee together over the past two years and it's been a lot of work, a lot of meetings, a lot of input from many different places."
The proposed committee would comprise three "accounting experts," as described on the proposed ordinance. The Board of Selectmen would appoint three regular members and two alternate members who would serve three-year terms and no more than three consecutive terms.
Board of Finance member Judy Neville took to the microphone Wednesday to defend the ordinance as it is. She told the Board of Education that the purpose of the committee is transparency.
"I don't see the conflict," she said. "They obviously do have access, full access to the records of the Board of Education. That to me is important. You don't create these barriers of what they can and cannot do because we don't know what issues will come up in the future. I think it needs a broad base."
Another problem Board of Education members said they found in Section 62-4d of the ordinance was that the board could incur expenses if the committee decides to call the district's legal team to attend meetings.
The audit committee would have the power "to request any officer or employee of the Town and Board of Education, the Town's and Board of Education's legal counsel, internal auditor, independent auditors or other consultants to attend a meeting of the Committee or to meet with any members of, or consultants to, the Committee," according to the proposed ordinance. Read Full Article
Board member Gene Goodman said the ordinance does not mention who would pay for such expense.
"That seems beyond the scope of the purpose of the committee," Goodman said. "It's clear that, by statute, the BOE cannot be forced to expend things at the Town Council's request. I'm not trying to say we wouldn't want to cooperate, or anything else, but it just seems to fly in the face of the ... existing statute."
Goodman said the council wouldn't "lose anything" if it deleted Section D from the ordinance. "You already have the right to request information, request to meet with people," he said.
Board member Alison Bedula said the council should have communicated better with the board about the upcoming vote on the formation of the new committee.
"I'm a little bit disappointed that, as the Board of Education, we're scrambling at the last minute to speak about this to you," Bedula said. "We were not aware this was going to be voted on, that this was coming to fruition.
Bedula said she remembers when there were discussions on the audit last summer, but that the board wasn't "made aware of the fact that this was put back on the table again." She asked the council "to be more transparent" in the future.
"I know there was no ill intention on your part in terms of doing this," Bedula said. But she asked the council to communicate better when there are new initiatives "that are going to have a relatively serious impact on any other town body or any of the members of the town."
"I think maybe we could all work a little bit more on communicating so that we could all be in a good place in terms of discussing this and not scrambling at the last minute to discuss it," she said.
Rashin also wasn't pleased that members of the new committee would be appointed by the Board of Selectmen.
"This seems to concentrate a lot more power in the first selectman and I wonder if that's what we want to do as a town body," Rashin said.
Besides being the first selectman, Robert Mallozzi is the chairman of the Board of Finance.
"I know there have been discussions on whether or not the first selectman should also have the right to be chair of the Board of Finance. That's something that past charter committees have looked at," she said. "Now you have the first selectman, (who) chairs the Board of Selectmen, chairs the Board of Finance and picks the audit committee. I know there are some controls on that, but as a town citizen, that struck me as something worthy of debate."
Besides the appointment, Neville said, the new committee would have no relationship with the first selectman. Mallozzi, who also attended the hearing, noted the Town Council would have to confirm the appointments.
"I would have to disagree with Penny Rashin," Neville said. "It is an independent body. It is a stand-alone (body). Other than the appointment process or reappointment process, it's an entity onto itself."
Mallozzi spoke in favor of the document, but he asked the council to sit down with the Board of Education to discuss their different view regarding the ordinance.
"I wholeheartedly support the Town Council's creation of an audit committee," he said. "(But) unlike other departments, the school district and the Board of Education do not report directly to the town. And, therefore, they may have some areas within the ordinance that can be tweaked to reflect that different dynamic."
Committee members would have no compensation and should not serve on any other office or committees of the town government, according to the proposed ordinance.
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