BET committee assignments leave some rankled

After much behind-the-scenes disagreement, the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) has its slate of officers, but it remains to be seen if any bruised feelings will linger.

On Monday night, Michael Mason was elected to his second term as chairman of the town finance board, heading an all-Republican leadership team that now includes Vice Chairman Art Norton and Clerk Bill Drake, a new member of the board. Mr. Drake succeeds Democrat Mary Lee Kiernan in that position. Ms. Kiernan is still a member of the board, which is divided evenly between six Republicans and six Democrats, but she did not run again for the leadership position.

However, not everything moved smoothly for Republicans at Monday night’s meeting, which was the first of the new term and saw the new members sworn in and all the committee assignments handed out by Mr. Mason. Despite already serving as a member of the BET’s Budget Committee, Leslie Tarkington was not picked by Mr. Mason to lead the ultra-powerful committee. Instead it will be Republican Marc Johnson who will take over leadership of the committee from Joseph Pellegrino, who did not run for a new term on the BET. The four-person committee looks over all spending in the town budget and may eliminate, defer or adjust budget expenses proposed by the first selectman.

Ms. Tarkington, who did have the support of First Selectman Peter Tesei, was considered to be the favorite to take the committee chairmanship, but there had also been visible reluctance to give her the position. Mr. Johnson had been seen as a strong candidate to be added to the committee for several months, so this did not come as a complete surprise.

In an interview with the Post on Tuesday, Mr. Mason said he understood there was a long history in the town with importance placed on committee assignments, particularly in the leadership of them. But he said things have been changing, putting much more importance on liaisons and special projects. He said he couldn’t speak for Ms. Tarkington but he said her work on special committees such as the Hillside Road remediation of contaminated soil at Greenwich High School and the MISA project would be invaluable.

Mr. Mason said there were new chairmen and other changes to nearly all of the BET committees and that he had longed planned to make changes to the Budget Committee, of which he is a former chairman. Mr. Mason also chose to appoint Ms. Kiernan to the Budget Committee over her fellow Democrat Bill Finger. She and Mr. Johnson will be joined by Ms. Tarkington, who remains a member of the committee, and returning Democrat Jeffrey Ramer.

“If you had spoken to me last April, I would have told you that it was time for two of the Budget Committee members to come off,” Mr. Mason said. “But then Joe Pellegrino tells me that he’s not running for a new term and that puts me into a bind, because that means we would only have one returning member and that wouldn’t be fair to them. I wanted to put Marc on this committee and I wanted to change the makeup of it. I felt this was the best way to do that.”

Ms. Tarkington could not be reached by the Post for comment before deadline.

Mr. Mason called Ms. Tarkington a “most outstanding contributing member” but said he understood she was disappointed.

“I don’t want to speak for her, but I think she believes that she doesn’t get the credit she deserves for all the work she’s doing and was looking for a leadership role,” Mr. Mason said. “But she is appreciated. I don’t think she sees how appreciated she is. The Hillside Road committee and the MISA committee are the two hot-button issues in town. I need her there.”

Mr. Mason said he had “wrestled with committee assignments for a long time” before making his decisions. Criticism was expressed to the Post about the timing, though, as people said that Republicans found out only hours before the meeting on Monday and Democrats had only minutes before they were told who would be receiving what committee assignments.

Mr. Mason added that he didn’t want to put too much work on Ms. Tarkington, noting that he had also put her on the Audit Committee. But it wasn’t her addition to that committee that raised eyebrows, it was the removal of one of the members. Mr. Mason removed Democratic BET member Sean Goldrick from all his committee assignments, something Mr. Goldrick blasted as political payback.

Mr. Mason insisted it was not personal and said he actually personally liked Mr. Goldrick, whom he praised as honest and genuine. But he also criticized Mr. Goldrick’s conduct on the BET as a member of the Audit and Investment committees. Mr. Mason claimed that too often Mr. Goldrick would focus on the negative and act as an obstructionist, and said he needed to make this change in the best interest of the BET as a whole.

“This isn’t personal at all,” Mr. Mason said. “I’d never do anything personal to someone I’ve had breakfast with, gone to get coffee with and made an effort to get to know. But I do not believe that he has been a contributing member. By his own admission to me, he refers to himself as a non-status-quo obstructionist.”

Speaking to the Post on Tuesday, Mr. Goldrick defended his record and said it was “completely false” that he had ever called himself a “non-status-quo obstructionist.” However, he added that he did not believe it was personal between him and Mr. Mason, but rather political because of his “outspoken views” as a Democrat.

“For many months Mr. Mason has threatened me with retribution unless I knuckled under to him,” Mr. Goldrick said. “His threats have been numerous and long-standing.”

He later said, “The problem, as I see it, is that I’m doing my job too well. I have worked hard, understand the issues and communicated, at times, views on the issues that differ from the Republican positions. And that is what Mr. Mason objects to. He would like the BET to go back to the days when all too often BET Democrats rubber-stamped Republican views.”

As part of a group with other Democrats, Mr. Goldrick has been attempting to push the BET toward different policies, which he said is “fulfilling our function as the opposition party.” He said he believed this was a case of Mr. Mason making an example of him in order to “intimidate my colleagues.”

“It is not the role of the majority party to tell the minority party who among them is doing a good job or a bad job,” Mr. Goldrick said.

Mr. Goldrick, who is a columnist for the Post, said he has “worked hard on numerous issues in a very positive manner” during his time on the BET, including as liaison to the town’s retirement board, when he and former Republican member Greg Bedrosian worked on a proposal to reform the town’s pension fund, which Mr. Goldrick called “chronically under-performing.” He said Mr. Mason has taken no action on the bipartisan recommendations and said that if there was any obstructionism in this case, it was “coming from the Republican caucus, not from Sean Goldrick.”

Mr. Goldrick also pointed to his work on the town’s libraries to uphold what is called the “Stowell Agreement,” which Mr. Mason has acknowledged is a point of difference between them. Mr. Goldrick also said he had fought hard for capital projects like MISA, dredging Binney Pond in Old Greenwich, increased focus on school maintenance, and a new municipal pool for Greenwich.

Mr. Mason criticized the more political direction the BET discussions had taken in recent months without naming Mr. Goldrick specifically. But Mr. Goldrick said it was a benefit to the board to showcase the Democratic caucus’s different priorities from those of BET Republicans. Mr. Mason said he hated seeing the board move in this fashion, saying he was not a political person but “just a BET member trying to do his best for the town,” but Mr. Goldrick said the alternatives suggested by the Democrats show a way to fund needed long-term capital projects without placing burdens on current taxpayers.

“That, in my opinion, reflected not only considerable effort, but also involved my financial expertise from years in the investment industry,” Mr. Goldrick said. “And I believe that our collective Democratic efforts in that regard were most certainly positive.”

While Mr. Mason easily won a second term as chairman, he did not win unanimously. He was re-elected by a 9-to-3 margin with full Republican caucus support and half of the Democrats but with dissenting votes from Mr. Goldrick and fellow Democrats Randall Huffman and John Blankley. Mr. Goldrick and Mr. Huffman also voted against Mr. Norton as vice chairman and had been in a dispute over caucus leadership for the Democrats.

Ultimately, William Finger received enough support from Democrats to retain his position as head of the Democratic caucus, but only after a weekend of twists and turns that saw Mr. Goldrick at one point named interim chairman when a special meeting was held last week for Mr. Goldrick, Mr. Blankley and Mr. Huffman. Greenwich Democratic Town Committee Chairman Frank Farricker, a justice of the peace, swore the men in and they proceeded with the meeting without fellow Democrats Mr. Finger, Ms. Kiernan and Mr. Ramer.

The full caucus then met the next day and reached an agreement whereby Mr. Blankley switched his support to Mr. Finger, an arrangement Mr. Farricker said he was in favor of because he felt the caucus was able to openly discuss and work on their differences. Mr. Goldrick and Mr. Huffman, both of whom had called for Mr. Finger to step aside as caucus chair, maintained their opposition.

Mr. Finger could not be reached for comment by the Post.


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