With Jackson hired, West Haven eyes ‘new day’ in finance department over scandals

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WEST HAVEN — Every day is a new day, West Haven’s new chief financial officer, Scott Jackson, told city council.

“We’re going to do better every day,” Jackson said on his first day on the job Monday.

This may be music to the ears of many West Haven residents, as recent scandals have revealed that the state’s youngest town’s reliance on “old-fashioned” financial practices has left its money vulnerable to the operation.

“I believe in the statute, rules, policy and procedure and documenting these steps so that everyone is on the same page,” Jackson said.

Former CFO Frank Cieplinski left his post abruptly the previous week, announced by a town hall statement naming Jackson as the new director. Mayor Nancy Rossi declined to discuss personnel and did not share the circumstances of Cieplinski’s departure, but the change came after the city came under increased scrutiny from its finance department due to its lack of clear, written policies and procedures that incorporate checks and balances.

Last October, former Democratic State Representative Michael DiMassa – who worked at City Hall as an administrative assistant and received City Council approval to serve as one of the delegates de Rossi to facilitate the spending of federal pandemic relief funding – was arrested and charged with wire fraud. DiMassa allegedly submitted forged invoices for more than $1 million to Cieplinski, directing funds to a shell company and at least three alleged associates. Cieplinski signed the documents, though federal investigators allege in court papers that department heads said they never authorized any work from DiMassa’s company.

Rossi said she thinks Jackson can move the city’s finance department forward.

“I have instructed the finance department to review existing internal controls and add necessary controls to ensure the theft of public funds never happens again,” she said.

Rossi said Jackson will review all of the city’s purchasing, budget and spending controls and “make any necessary improvements or changes to ensure the safety and protection of our funds.”

Bridgette Hoskie, chair of the city council’s finance committee, said she thought Jackson’s hiring was a “coup” for the city.

“It gives us the opportunity under Scott to build a team under him that I would trust will be fantastic,” she said. “I think he should have a helping hand working hand in hand with the new purchasing manager.”

Recently, the city hired a purchasing manager with the intention of adding three full-time employees to the purchasing department. Previously, the office had the equivalent of half an employee working there.

“He’s the expert, so I expect to get suggestions from him and hope he’s as transparent with the city council as his resume suggests,” she said.

Jackson’s qualifications have been a talking point around town – namely that he has so many.

Prior to working at West Haven City Hall, Jackson served as mayor of Hamden, commissioner of the state Department of Labor and its Department of Tax Services, undersecretary in the Office of Policy and Management, chief administrative officer of New Haven and, most recently, chief financial officer of Hamden.

“The man has worn a lot of hats,” resident Michael Hickey told the council, saying he had a problem with Jackson’s qualifications: that he has so many.

Allingtown Fire Marshal Frederick Brown, who has worked with Jackson in the past, said Jackson was always “extremely respected” in all of his positions and thought Jackson and Hoskie “would make a great team.” .

“The short answer to that question is that I am a government professional, and government professionals are rare,” Jackson told the board after the public remarks. “I’m very good at my job and I intend to bring those characteristics to West Haven.”

Hoskie said she doesn’t see Jackson’s work history as a problem.

“A lot of people take on a lot of different jobs and go where the opportunities may arise for career advancement,” she said. “People change jobs a lot, I don’t think that tells a story.”

Although Rossi said Jackson will spend his first week familiarizing himself with the finances and financial procedures of the city, the biggest task for him should soon arrive. Following the allegations against DiMassa, the Office of Policy and Management authorized a forensic audit of the city’s finances and procedures. According to Kimberly Kennison, OPM’s finance officer, auditing firm CohnReznick has concluded its field work and the audit report is expected shortly.

However, recent changes to the OPM may affect the State’s monitoring of the implementation of the recommendations in this report. The city has been under the oversight of the Municipal Accountability Review Board, a state initiative under OPM, since 2017. MARB maintains a limited level of control over city finances, providing additional funding to the city in exchange for approval authority over the city budget and union contracts.

OPM Secretary Melissa McCaw steps down March 11 to take a municipal job following the emergence of an investigation into a controversial school building subsidy program formerly overseen by the OPM. West Haven is next due to meet MARB on March 10, a day before McCaw leaves.

“I will be attending the next MARB meeting as co-chair,” OPM Acting Director Jeff Beckham said in a statement. “This transition will be seamless and I expect council to continue its oversight of all affected municipalities within its jurisdiction, as it has done since these local governments requested our assistance.”

Rossi said she doesn’t expect any disruption to the city’s work with MARB and OPM.

“I could be wrong, but I don’t think there will be a big hiatus,” she said.

When the city first came under MARB control, Dannel Malloy was governor and Ben Barnes was OPM secretary. Rossi said the city had already seen a change in administration under MARB control, and she would not expect the change to be as big as a change under a new governor.

Hoskie said that if anything were to change about MARB under a new OPM secretary, she hoped the tone of some of its more outspoken members would become more productive and polite.

“I hope we can achieve a level of professionalism without taking personal photos,” she said.

brian.zahn@hearstmediact.com

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