At a special meeting of the Connecticut Port Authority in Hartford Wednesday, newly-elected chair Bonnie Reemsnyder resigned following a number of questions about financial and personnel issues dating back to at least 2016.
“Bonnie resigned as chairman at the outset … and indicated her intention to resign from the board following today’s meeting,” said David Kooris, Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, formerly vice chair of the authority and the new acting chair, at the meeting.
Shortly after her announcement to the board, Gov. Ned Lamont released a statement calling for her resignation for actions that he said “were inappropriate and unacceptable given the importance of this board.”
According to David Bednarz, press secretary and director of digital media for Lamont’s office, the actions referred to the authority’s purchase of artwork in 2016 created by Reemsnyder’s daughter for the authority offices in Old Saybrook.
“The governor was informed by Reemsnyder and others concerned on the board about the art and he felt it was necessary to take action,” wrote Bednarz in an email to CT Examiner on Wednesday.
Max Reiss, communications director for Lamont, clarified that “the call for her resignation is about the artwork. It was unacceptable to use taxpayer money to purchase artwork or to recommend her daughter’s art.”
The board also addressed several personnel matters that have been the source of speculation, including Reemsnyder’s decision to put authority Executive Director Evan Matthews on a paid leave-of-absence just over a week ago.
According to Glenn Santorini the legal advisor for the Port Authority, Reemsnyder sought legal counsel before putting Matthews on leave. During the meeting, the board approved a resolution ratifying Reemsnyder’s action.
Kooris said the board has not determined the length of Matthews’ leave and is not currently searching for a new executive director.
“I don’t want to put a timeline on it (Evan Matthews’ leave) other than to say we are going to do our best effort to collect all the facts and act accordingly,” Kooris said. “We still have an executive director on staff so there is no executive director role to fill.”
The board approved the hiring of Navy Captain Paul Whitescarver as a senior executive consultant who will fulfill many of Matthews’ duties for four or five months. For more than three years, Whitescarver was commanding officer of the Naval Submarine Base in Groton and retired this May after serving 39 years in the Navy. Because Whitescarver will be paid less than $50,000, the board was able to hire him without a request for proposal.
“Paul will be reporting to the board and working closely with staff to provide his expertise and advise on day to day operations and management functions as well as technical activities given his experience,” Kooris said.
Kooris also addressed the firing of the port authority’s office manager Gerri Lewis on July 9.
“The office manager is separated from the organization, she is no longer employed by the organization,” he said. “It was a misquote to say she was put on leave. Evan separated her from the organization.”
Since July 12, CT Examiner’s repeated attempts for comment or explanation from port authority board and staff members concerning financial and personnel matters have been unsuccessful.
With the departure of Reemsnyder, Lamont plans to restructure the port authority board leadership from within the executive branch.
“It is the Governor’s intent that the chair and the vice chair positions are held by executive branch members to ensure the importance to him that the agency is on the right track,” Kooris said.
In a release Wednesday, Lamont said the “recent events have been a sideshow and distraction to this organization’s critical mission, and that is something I won’t tolerate. It is critical that the Connecticut Port Authority has a clear vision with strong and accountable leadership.
He also stressed that “negotiations on the development of offshore wind in Connecticut remain ongoing” and said his administration “has stepped in to lead the negotiations to ensure the best possible outcome on behalf of Connecticut’s residents and the state’s forward-thinking economic development strategy.”
In an emailed statement Wednesday, offshore wind company Ørsted said its staff planned to continue toward an agreement with the Connecticut Port Authority for the development of the State Pier.
“We don’t comment on personnel matters but we look forward to working with the state and the port authority. Since we announced our agreement on the Memorandum of Understanding in May, we have continued to progress the final agreement. Eversource, Orsted and Gateway remain committed to the future of offshore wind development at the New London State Pier, and look forward to finalizing the agreement with the CPA shortly,” Orsted staff said.
Sen. Paul Formica (R-East Lyme) also released a statement Wednesday supporting Lamont’s decision to ask for Reemsnyder’s resignation.
“The Connecticut Port Authority plays a vital role in developing the state’s ports, growing our economy and managing Connecticut’s role in major offshore wind projects,” Formica wrote. “That core mission should be the exclusive focus of the port authority and I hope that the governor’s actions will help refocus the agency on the important and good work that they are doing for our state.”
In a statement, Senator Heather Somers (R-Groton) called for increased transparency of all state quasi-public agencies.
“We need the Port Authority to be successful and I am hopeful that the governor’s actions will enable us to move forward, address all problems and concerns within the agency and try to restore confidence in this agency. Republican lawmakers have strongly advocated for greater transparency and oversight of all state quasi-publics and we need to move this important conversation further.”