HARTFORD, CT (AP) When James Fleming was suddenly appointed public works commissioner recently, Gov. John G. Rowland gave him the power to make changes in the embattled agency.
Fleming, the consumer protection commissioner for the past five years, started his new job on Sept. 19. Although he plans to meet with Department of Public Works (DPW) staff before making major changes, Fleming said the governor put no restrictions on him, including making staff changes.
“He’s given me a lot of leeway to restore integrity in the agency. He was very clear about that,” Fleming said.
Fleming comes into the job after Rowland pressured Public Works Commissioner Theodore Anson to resign. The Hartford Courant had reported Anson accepted free architectural drawings for an addition on his house from a firm doing business with the state. Through his attorney, Anson has denied any wrongdoing.
Rowland said his decision was not based solely on the drawings issue and that he wanted a change at DPW.
Many lawmakers want reforms at DPW, which is embroiled in an investigation into alleged steering of state contracts, said state Sen. Donald DeFronzo, D-New Britain, co-chairman of the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee.
“I think the need for change is clearly on our minds,” he said. “Perhaps the governor should have moved more quickly on this and avoided this type of embarrassing situation.”
DeFronzo said he hopes Fleming will re-examine top administrators as well as foster a strong sense of ethics at the department.
“I think the entire culture of the agency needs to be looked at,” DeFronzo said. “Hopefully Commissioner Fleming can instill a higher level of sensitivity to ethical considerations.”
Senate Minority Leader Louis DeLuca, R-Woodbury, said he believes Fleming — a former Republican colleague in the Senate — will carefully consider whether he needs to clean house at DPW.
“I wouldn’t like to see anybody going in and start making changes without first seeing what’s going on,” DeLuca said.
Fleming met privately with some top DPW officials on Friday, said agency spokesman Patrick Nolan. Nolan said the commissioner was unavailable for an interview following the meeting.
DPW is at the center of a continuing federal investigation into possible bid-rigging within the Rowland administration. In March, Rowland’s former deputy chief of staff admitted to accepting bribes in return for steering state contracts.
Earlier this year, DeFronzo’s committee and the full legislature passed a series of reforms aimed at tightening the process for dolling out state contracts. Among other things, the package established a new process for prequalifying contractors wanting to bid on projects and prohibited communications between bidders and state officials in an effort to get rid of any appearance of special treatment for certain contractors.
All DOT construction projects must follow a competitive bidding process, according to the bill. The “fast-tracking” process, which allowed the state to bypass the regular bidding process in emergency situations, also was revamped.
Many of the regulations still need to be put in place by DPW.
Tom Swan, director of the Connecticut Citizens Action Group and a critic of the Rowland administration, said he doesn’t believe the new bidding changes or the appointment of Fleming will effectively reform the Public Works Department.
Swan said the problem stems from the governor, who still oversees the entire administration.