The revelation that the mayor and other town officials were aware of allegations of workplace violations at the Storrs Center construction site angered some council members who said they were kept in the dark.
Meredith Lindsey learned of the allegations when concerned residents called her after reading , Lindsey said during Monday night’s Town Council meeting.
Lindsey, a council member, said that being caught off guard put her and other council members in an “awkward situation” with residents.
“It would have been nice if we just had a heads-up,” she said.
“We’re all very good at keeping our mouth quiet and not saying anything, but I really think that we were caught flat-footed when it came to this.”
Town Manager Matthew Hart and Mayor Elizabeth Paterson told the council Monday that although they knew about the state’s investigation of a subcontractor working on the $220 million mixed-use project, the authorities told them to not share the information.
Late last week, several news reports surfaced that Allstate Interiors, a drywall subcontractor based in Monroe, NY, was the center of a probe into possible workplace violations related to work it has done on the , which is a focal point in downtown Storrs.
The allegations were based largely on a press release issued by the Connecticut Laborers’ District Council – a release that Howard Kaufman, managing member of Leyland Alliance, LLC, the project's master developer, called “inflammatory” and “inaccurate.”
A representative from the union did not return e-mailed requests for comment.
“I had and the mayor had received some information that the Department of Labor might be looking into this, but because the review was ongoing, it was something that was not to be discussed and we certainly agreed to honor that commitment,” Hart said.
Council member Christopher Paulhus disagreed with Hart’s decision to stay mum.
“The council should have been informed because [Lindsey] was taking phone calls from people and if you were not to speak about it, then the council should have been informed for us not to speak about the subject until the proper time,” Paulhus said.
“This thing could have blown up even more because we weren’t informed,” he said.
Earlier in the meeting, Deputy Mayor Antonia Moran said that she, too, had conversations with a state official and was told “explicitly not to say anything because of the concern that too much publicity would hamper the investigation.”
When questioned further by Lindsey, Paterson said that she could not tell the council the name of the individual(s) who said not to speak about the issue.
“The person who spoke to us asked us to keep quiet, and when I know that a government organization is looking at an issue, and I’m asked to keep quiet, I keep quiet,” Paterson said. “That’s it. That’s the bottom line.”
Council member Paul Shapiro said that while he could accept Hart’s and Paterson’s explanation for keeping quiet in this instance, it is his expectation that if a similar situation occurs during the construction of the parking garage – when the contractors are hired by the town, not the private developer – that "the entire council would be notified as soon as possible."
Later in the meeting, Kaufman, managing member of the project's master developer, told the council that on Oct. 17 and Nov. 7 the state labor department paid “routine” visits to the site. Kauffman said that officials denied the visits were an “unusual raid-type of activity,” and that he was not aware of any referrals or documentation from the Department of Labor or federal agencies.
“It’s a thorny issue,” Kaufman said. “We have many subcontractors on the site. Erland does have a good process in place. Perhaps it could be made stronger, but from our point of view, we want a legal job site and we obviously don’t want to have press like this,” he said.
Eric Greene, vice president at Erland Construction, said that while he couldn’t recall working with Allstate Interiors on previous projects, Erland continues to do its best to make sure that workers are properly documented.
Greene said that when a subcontractor signs a contract with Erland, they must fill out an affidavit that requires that each company verify that all employees have the proper employment documentation. The paperwork is then signed, notarized and kept in Erland’s office and construction trailer.
In addition to being verified by subcontractors daily, Greene said that when workers show up, they are asked for ID and matched up to the affidavit before given the ‘okay.’
“It’s a lot more than most people in our position do, but that’s what we’ve developed over the years to try to track who is on our job site,” he said.
“That’s not to say that we’re perfect, or that this job site is going to be perfect,” Kaufman said.
“Frankly, I think it would probably surprise me if we could go through two years of construction having 100 people or 200 people work on the job, sometimes changing every day, and not have some person slip through the crack. But we need aim to be as perfect as possible and we certainly intend to do that,” he said.