The Wallingford Board of Ethics found a town councilman violated the town’s code of ethics when he pushed for $182,000 in American Rescue Plan (ARPA) dollars to be allocated to a nonprofit organization where he served as an officer.
The Board of Ethics found unanimously against town councilman Jason Zandri after councilman and State Representative Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, filed a complaint alleging that Zandri had used his position on the town council to influence the awarding of $182,000 to the Wallingford Grange to replace the roof on their building and bring the building into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
According to their website, the Connecticut State Grange, of which the Wallingford Grange is a subordinate, is a fraternal organization “with roots in rural and agricultural history and the Grange ritual,” and seeks “to serve as a unifying and supportive organization of community and district Granges in programs of community service, family activities, legislation and other activities relevant to local communities.”
Zandri became a member of the Wallingford Grange in October of 2022 just as the Town of Wallingford’s ARPA Application Review Committee began to consider business and nonprofit applications to distribute $13.1 million in federal COVID-relief funds. The Wallingford Grange, in conjunction with the Connecticut State Grange Foundation, applied to the town for ARPA funds in December and made Zandri vice president of Wallingford Grange in January of 2023.
However, the Committee decided not to move forward with the application by the Grange in February of 2023. The Committee cited several documentation issues in the application and near non-existent membership in their scoring of the application. In order to be recommended for ARPA funds, a nonprofit’s application had to be scored at 75 or greater.
Upon being notified of the Grange’s score of 59.6, however, Zandri requested the matter be taken up by the town council, noting that it was ultimately the council who determined how the funds should be dispersed. Zandri began encouraging others to support the Grange’s application, according to the ethics complaint, which included emails sent by Zandri to other council members.
Upon learning that his actions may violate the town’s ethics standards and federal conflict of interest guidelines for the distribution of ARPA funds, Zandri immediately resigned from his position at the Grange.
In emails between Zandri and Mike Brodinsky, chair of the ARPA Committee, Zandri noted that he had only been a member of Grange for four months and vice-president for 40 days; that he had nothing to do with the nonprofit’s application and always planned to abstain from voting on the Grange funding issue.
“As soon as I found out that was the exact language of the code, I tendered my resignation to the organization in its entirety,” Zandri wrote in a February 28, 2023, email to Brodinsky. “I still plan to withhold from voting on the item but believe that it meets the requirements of the Code to put an item on the agenda for the other eight Councilors to discuss and vote on accordingly.”
Brodinsky, however, noted to council members that the item should be removed from the February agenda because it could give the impression of a conflict of interest.
“Mr. Zandri thinks that because he has resigned from the Grange, he can now ethically proceed on its behalf to undermine the Committee and get the Grange money,” Brodinsky wrote. “But his conflict of interest, and the appearance of it, survives and persists still.”
The Town Council did remove the item from the February agenda upon learning of the conflict. However, the council decided in March of 2023 to revise the scoring mechanism the committee used to process ARPA applications.
A revision of the scoring recommendation had been posited by Zandri in a February 26, email, noting that if the highest and lowest scores were removed, some of the ARPA applications would have been approved by the Committee.
Town Council meeting minutes from March 21 show the council approved a motion to “approve all current and future applications that have an average score plus one standard deviation of the individual scores which will vary by request.” Zandri abstained from voting.
According to the complaint, in June of 2023, “the Town Council, apparently having been affected by Councilor Zandri’s lobbying campaign, the Town Council voted to begin manipulating the scores of the ARPA Committee, shifting the rejection of certain applications (including the Grange Application) from a prior rejection to an arbitrary approval.”
Speaking before the council on June 13, 2023, Wallingford Grange Steward Aili McKeen said the nonprofit had been shut down due to COVID and therefore could not raise money through events to fund repair of their storm-damaged roof and make the building ADA compliant. President of the Grange Robin Hettrick said they had never actually ceased operations but had restructured in 2022 and were gaining new members.
The Town Council voted to approve the Grange’s application for $182,000 with a commitment from the nonprofit to maintain the Wallingford property for local use for ten years. Zandri also abstained from those votes, according to meeting minutes.
But, according to Fishbein, the Grange was awarded those funds through the advantage of having a town council member working on their behalf.
“Councilor Zandri used his powers as a member of the Wallingford Town Council to advocate for, as well as place the Grange Application in a favorable position using powers not available to the public,” Fishbein wrote in the complaint.
Reached for comment, Zandri said he doesn’t agree with the Board of Ethics’ finding because he abstained from any votes involving the Grange, but he is willing to accept their decision that he erred when putting the matter on the town council agenda while he remained an officer of the nonprofit.
“I’m content that the [Board of Ethics] process was complete and fair, I just don’t agree with the outcome,” Zandri said. “I didn’t realize that being an officer was the dividing line, so when I realized it might be a potential conflict I basically removed the items from the agenda, I basically resigned from the organization and backed all the way off.”
“It was ignorance on my part and ignorance is no excuse,” Zandri said. “I’m not going to get in the middle of them getting these funds, because the Grange is bigger than me.”
Zandri added that he believes the ethics rules are too stringent, noting that practically everyone on the town council is associated with some organization or business and that past practice had been to verbally recuse oneself from a vote, rather than informing the chairman of one’s association in writing. He also noted that Wallingford’s ethics rules are more stringent than the state government’s.
“I am comfortable in the fact that I did not vote on the Grange because I was closely associated for that period of time, so I feel like I met the spirit of the requirement,” Zandri said. “At the same time, for the dozens of additional nonprofits and businesses that I did vote on and bring $7 million worth of ARPA funding to, as a participant in those activities, I am completely satisfied and content with my actions because it helped those organizations recover from the pandemic.”
“I feel very proud to have been part of that process to get funding to everybody and I sleep very good at night,” Zandri said.
In an emailed statement, Fishbein said the conflict surrounding the Wallingford Grange and the ARPA funds “tainted” the town’s application process and ultimately resulted in ARPA Committee members resigning.
“As a result of Councilor Zandri’s actions, Wallingford’s ARPA grant application became flawed and tainted. These actions contributed to the Town Council arbitrarily manipulating the recommendations of the ARPA Application Review Committee, not based on the content of the applications, but to achieve a desired result,” Fishbein said. “Those manipulations led to most of the members of the ARPA Application Review Committee resigning. Up until that point, the Committee had been operating harmoniously, collegially, and in a bi-partisan manner.”
“Especially when tax dollars are involved, there is a great need for the public to be able to trust its elected officials,” Fishbein continued. “This whole series of events is unfortunate, yet also avoidable.”