Sludge is a messy business in more ways than one. The Water Pollution Control Authority is charged with overseeing the city’s treatment and processing of waste water. Understanding the machinations of the agency’s collection process is also messy. Retired Superior Court Judge Carmen Lopez, who is providing pro bono guidance to a City Council committee that seeks a number of reforms, provides clarity on an issue that impacts homeowners as well as efforts to bring sanity to the collection process.
Lots of folks in Bridgeport are talking about the Water Pollution Control Authority (WPCA) these days. The collection practices of the WPCA have always been the subject of conversation in our City, but it appears that the grumbling of the people has been transformed into a powerful roar.
The people of the City have shared horror stories about losing their homes in foreclosure actions filed by the WPCA for small amounts of money owed. Those affected by the collection practices have been pleading for help from their elected officials.
City Council Member Eneida Martinez is co-chairperson of the Ordinance Committee of the City Council. She has served in this position for many years, and during that times has been actively seeking a remedy to the suffering of her constituents brought about by the WPCA collection practices.
This year, newly elected Council Member Marcus Brown serves as Ms. Martinez’s co-chair. Council members Pete Spain and Ernie Newton, also newly elected, serve on the Ordinance Committee.
This Ordinance committee has the responsibility and the jurisdiction to inquire and change, if necessary, the Ordinances regarding the WPCA. Pursuant to City Charter, the City Attorney has the duty to provide legal guidance to the members of the City Council as they attempt to fulfill their legislative duties. The minutes of the last several years of the Ordinance Committee establish that the Committee has not been able to move forward in its effort to respond to the residents due to a lack of support from Mayor Ganim’s City Attorney.
In January of this year, the Ordinance Committee Co-Chairs asked me to provide some guidance and assistance to them as they work on this issue. I have been working alongside of the Ordinance Committee providing pro-bono assistance to their effort to bring much needed reform to the WPCA.
The Committee has also been assisted by Attorney Jonathan Klein, who has lent his considerable expertise to this process. He is also serving pro bono.
In researching the relevant issues, I have had an opportunity to see the disorder and dysfunction that permeates our local city government at all levels. As this issue moves forward, some background information on the WPCA may be helpful to those interested in finding a solution to the problem.
For those that are unfamiliar with the WPCA, it is an agency created by the City Council pursuant to State law. It has certain responsibilities regarding the municipal sewerage system. In exchange for providing this service to homeowners and business owners, the WPCA is paid a fee by the user (the homeowner and/or business owner). State law allows the municipality to place a lien on the property of a bill that remains unpaid for more than thirty days. Furthermore, the unpaid bill accrues interest at 18%.
The responsibilities and duties of the WPCA are spelled out in the Bridgeport Code of Ordinances. The Code sets forth the process for the collection of user fees. For many years, the WPCA, under the direction and guidance of the Bridgeport City Attorney’s Office, has filed liens on the property of certain Bridgeport homeowners and business owners once a bill remains unpaid for more than thirty days.
At some point in time, a decision is made by the City Attorney’s Office to seek foreclosure of the lien. After that decision is made, the Chief City Attorney refers the majority of foreclosure actions to outside counsel. This outside counsel files a lawsuit on behalf of the WPCA, in Superior Court seeking either a strict foreclosure or a foreclosure by sale.
In seeking a better understanding of the WPCA and its standard operating procedures, I started by looking into the WPCA Board of Directors. The Code states that the WPCA should consist of nine members, five are considered “at-large members” appointed by the Mayor with the consent of the City Council, and four are automatically members by virtue of their city position. The four city employees include the City Attorney, the Director of Finance, the Director of public facilities and the City Engineer (the web page erroneously lists the Comptroller as a designated member).
According to the WPCA web-page, there are currently only four at-large members. They are Mr. Jose Ortiz, whose term expired on 12/31/10, Ms. Rachel Cunningham, whose term expired on 12/31/17, Mr. Vincent DiPalma, whose term expired on 12/31/16 and Mr. Willie Dyer, whose term expired on 12/31/05. No other names are listed.
The web-page lists Mark Anastasi as the City Attorney representative, John Urquidi, as the Acting City Engineer representative and John Cottell, as the Public Facilities representative.
On February 20, 2018, during a City Council meeting, the Co-Chairs of the City Council Ordinance Committee, Ms. Eneida Martinez and Mr. Marcus Brown hand-delivered a letter to Mayor Ganim advising him that it was critical that he immediately begin to fill the vacancies and the expired terms on this important Board.
Mayor Ganim has not yet responded to the letter. However, prompted by the Ordinance Committee’s efforts, at the April 16, 2018 City Council meeting, he submitted two names for the WPCA Board. His referrals are pending in the Miscellaneous Matters Committee.
On April 17, 2018, the WPCA Board of Directors, as constituted, convened a meeting at its Seaview Avenue office. In an effort to become better informed of the process so as to effectively provide assistance to the Ordinance Committee, I attended the meeting.
A few days before the meeting, I learned that Mayor Ganim had appointed Mr. Clem Young to the WPCA Board in April 2017. Mr. Clem Young is currently the Chair of the WPCA Board of Directors and presided over the April 17, 2018 meeting.
At the meeting, I was told that neither Mr. Ortiz nor Ms. Cunningham are considered members of the Board of Directors. Mr. Dyer was present at the meeting, as was Mr. DiPalma. Mr. John Ricci, director of public facilities, Mr. Ken Flatto, director of Finance, and Mr. Robinson the Acting Director of the WPCA, and staff members of the WPCA were also in attendance. Council Member Ernie Newton attended in his capacity as City Council Liaison to the WPCA.
On April 11, 2018, the City Council held a public hearing on the issue of a moratorium on all WPCA foreclosures, including those that are pending in Superior Court. At a special meeting following the public hearing, the City Council voted unanimously to immediately cease the collection practice of filing for foreclosures on WPCA liens. The resolution called for a 180 day moratorium on all WPCA foreclosures.
Two members of the Council were absent that evening, Ms. Maria Zambrano-Viggiano, (District 136) and Ms. Christina Smith (District 130). Ms. Michelle Lyons recused herself, given that her husband is a state marshall and serves foreclosure papers on debtors. The moratorium passed with 17 votes.
Mayor Ganim has not signed the moratorium resolution. Nor has he vetoed it the Council action, as is his right.
Instead, Mayor Ganim and his City Attorneys have set about to undermine and ensure that the City Council moratorium never takes effect.
At the April 17, 2018 WPCA meeting, Attorney Anastasi appeared with a motion for the WPCA Board to approve. The motion called for the WPCA Board to convene a special meeting on Friday, April 20, 2018 at 5:15 in the afternoon. Attorney Anastasi’s motion even had the agenda drafted, including the order of the items to be discussed. He was so thorough, that he included a list of City Council members to be specially invited, specifically the City Council leadership. Other than the Co-Chairs of the Ordinance Committee, no other member of the Ordinance Committee was on the guest list.
Imagine that, a three day notice for a special WPCA meeting to be held on a Friday night at 5:15.
This is transparency?
Due to a failure to properly notice the special meeting, Mayor Ganim and his City Attorneys could not move forward with their plan. They are planning their next meeting and City Council leadership are whispering that the meeting is being planned for May 1, 2018.
Meanwhile, the Ordinance Committee has put forth substantive changes to the collection practices of the WPCA. The reforms include removing the Mayor as the appointing authority for membership to the WPCA Board of Directors and giving the appointing authority to the City Council.
In addition, the Ordinance Committee is recommending that no foreclosure be commenced against a home owner or business owner unless the arrearage is greater than $4,000, and that a payment plan be offered to the home-owner or business owner to reduce the amount owed, provided the current bill is paid on a timely basis.
And finally, and perhaps most importantly, the recommended changes would require that all collections of unpaid WPCA bills to be managed internally by the City Attorney’s Office, including the filing of foreclosure actions in Superior Court. The use of outside attorneys for foreclosures will be limited to those cases in which a conflict of interest exists between the City Attorney’s Office and the debtor.
Most of the outside attorneys used for foreclosures are major donors to Mayor Ganim’s gubernatorial campaign.
Mayor Ganim’s City Attorneys preside over a $5 million per year law firm. It is unacceptable that the overburdened and oppressed home owner and business owner, must not only pay for the law firm, but pay for outside counsel as well.
It is of vital importance that the people of Bridgeport stand up to this abuse by the Mayor Ganim and his City Attorneys and allow the Ordinance Committee to finish the WPCA reform work it started.