Field fire: Anonymous donations questioned

Ridgefield police released this photo of the scene at Governor Park following the field fire in April.
Ridgefield police released this photo of the scene at Governor Park following the field fire in April.

People aren’t content that the roughly $40,000 cost of the gasoline-fueled field fire is being covered by anonymous donors. They want names.
“I’ve had two people come in and say you should make public the names,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi told the Board of Selectmen’s May 8 meeting.
People want to know who’s paying for the damage — on the assumption, presumably, that the people covering the sizable repair bill are among those responsible for the enormous lapse in judgment the fire represents.
The infield at Governor Park was damaged in an April 6 fire, apparently lit to dry out the field and make it playable for a high school baseball game. People reportedly drove to a filling station, bought gasoline, drove back and poured it on the field, then lit it to dry out the field. It caused about $40,000 worth of damage.
Marconi announced on April 17 that the repair costs would be covered entirely by donations. He said the money was coming in through an attorney, and the names of the donors wouldn’t be made public.
People don’t like it, he told the selectmen, but it’s the way the situation worked out.
Marconi said the state’s attorney’s office had said that if there was restitution of the town’s losses, a prosecution didn’t make sense.
If the town failed to get full restitution, the state’s attorney told the town, a prosecution could be pursued.
The money to cover the costs has been provided, so there’s no prosecution, Marconi said.
With the money coming through an attorney, the identities of the donors are covered by attorney-client privilege, according to Marconi.
However, all this has left people with a sense that wealthy culprits are buying their way out of trouble.
Some selectmen worried that the situation presents a bad lesson for the kids who witnessed it all.
But Selectman Bob Hebert felt all the fuss wasn’t solely about lessons for the kids.
“People want people to be publicly shamed by this,” Hebert said. “...The vitriolic rhetoric that went on on social media was incredible.”
He noted that there’s a group of people leading an effort to make a “compassionate town” of Ridgefield.
“If we want to be talking the talk and be a compassionate town, we have to walk the walk,” Hebert said.
Finance board debate

The subject of the field fire restitutions came up again at Tuesday night's Board of Finance meeting.

Finance board Amy Freidenrich said she had reviewed the Town Charter about accepting donations anonymously and wondered if the town could cap the number of dollars it accepted from an anonymous source.

"How do we feel about accepting funds from an anonymous source?" she asked the room. "Should there be a number associated with how much we can accept? Should we never accept them? Should we only accept them for certain projects? I would feel more comfortable knowing where the money comes from and how the money is accepted. ... It's concerning and I don't want us to open the door to potential corruption."

She asked fellow Dick Moccia, the former mayor of Norwalk, if he had ever seen anything like this in his days a politician.

"This is an unusual set of circumstances but in Norwalk we had certain private donations accepted for different reasons," he said.

Freidenrich's remarks drew the ire of Marconi who argued that the restitution was done legally and ethically.

"Nothing was done illegally," he argued, "nor were the sources of the funds negative sources. They came from three attorneys here in town who were representing three different people. The fourth contribution came from a foundation in town. ... There was one donor who offered to cover it all but it was eventually agreed that it would be split amongst the four sources."

The first selectmen said that capping what the town can accept as a private donation could "change philanthropy in town."

"Foundations donate all the time and if we reject their contributions than some of the money were used to seeing come through would have to come from tax payer dollars," he said.

Marconi cited the town's Social Services department as one organization that routinely accepts donations regularly.

"People don't want credit for it for whatever reason," he said. "That doesn't mean there's some violation or breach of our ethical policy."

Freidenrich and Marconi sparred for about five minutes before the discussion reached its conclusion.

The finance board member said she feared that someone "with an agenda" could use anonymous donations to their benefit.

"It makes me very uncomfortable that the town could be receiving funs without the ability to be able to track it," she said.

"I'm not say that this is the case here but what if a corporation donated in excess of $100,000 to see someone get a job or something," she added. "I just don't want us to be in anyone's pocket in the future."

Marconi explained that, through the charter, donations that come in anonymously must be conditioned as a gift. If they're not conditioned a gift, then they're not accepted, the first selectman said.

"The Charter states this and that prevents any wrongdoing from taking place," he said.