Avon swim program draws controversy
December 23, 2016
AVON — Did Avon Town Council member Scott Prince have a conflict of interest when he voted to fund a swimming program at the town's recreation center? The former director of that program thinks so, and the town attorney says there's merit to the suggestion that Prince should have abstained from voting on that part of the town's new budget, which contained more than $100,000 for a publicly run swim program.
At this time last year, swimming skills building at the recreation center was a for-profit business, run by a private company. Recently, it has been converted to a town-run service after recreation center director John Curutchet took a hard look at the program and decided it would be best to take it in house.
Curutchet says so far the town has seen great interest in its new program, with the pool an active area during the rec center's record-turnout "Free Day" on Dec. 8.
"We're seeing a lot of people in the community taking advantage of the program," he said.
APPEARANCE OF IMPROPRIETY?
Prince's son competes in the most competitive level of the swim program — the USA Swimming component — and Prince says kids like his son have benefited from more coaching at swim meets under Avon's new program.
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"The town has committed to having a coach at every meet," Prince said. "We were not always having a coach at every meet … if it was just a few kids at a meet or a qualifying meet, the town is still gonna send someone."
At a meet in November, Prince's son was one of a small group of kids competing under a new coach's direction.
"What (the previous program's owner) would say is 'well we could have a coach at every meet but it would cost you $500,'" Prince said.
The previous program's owner, Theresa Scala, says if these services really are more beneficial for Prince's son, then he should not have taken part in voting in October for the town's new budget, which allocates more than $100,000 for the swim program.
"That's not cheap sending a coach to all those meets," she said. "That's part of the reason they had to allocate so much money to that new swim budget."
Scala says she was surprised to see the swim program as a more than $100,000 line item in the budget, which Prince voted for in October.
"It's an expensive program," she said. "And now this additional coaching Scott talks about is a town-funded service for his child."
'BULLIED OUT OF BUSINESS'
While she says Prince should not have voted for funding a program he says his son will benefit from, Scala says she actually disagrees with his premise — that the program will be considerably better for his son, despite the higher costs it will incur from additional services like more coaching at small meets.
"I think when you break it down I will have ended up providing a better program at the end of the day," she said.
Scala said she has never turned away a child who wanted to learn to swim and dedicated hours to the program that will go beyond the capabilities of a municipally run organization.
"Really I felt like I got bullied by the town manager, and now I've been bullied out of business by the local government she runs," she said. "It's not right."
Town Manager Virginia Egger said the goal was not to put Scala out of business, but to put together a complete program — of which USA Swimming is just one part — with the larger goal of teaching more kids to swim through more affordable swim programs and other services.
Scala said as that re-programming effort was underway, she called council members Jake Wolf and Sarah Smith Hymes together with Curutchet to talk about what was happening.
"At that meeting, it was revealed that Scott had approached the town manager about changing the program," Wolf said. "But that was more in the context of making sure he had approached (Egger) and not Curutchet."
To Scala, it didn't make a difference.
"He is (Egger's) boss," she said of Prince. "And she is (Curutchet's) boss. So it's pretty easy to see how we got from Point A — Scott approaching Virginia; to Point C — Scott voting in favor of putting taxpayer money toward more coaching for his son."
'PROBABLY DOES HAVE MERIT'
Looking at the program through the same lens as Egger — with a goal of putting a large program together and teaching kids to swim more affordably — Town Attorney Eric Heil said he advised Prince to vote for the budget because such a large group of people benefit from the program it wouldn't be considered a specific benefit to Prince. In giving that advice, however, Heil said he didn't realize Prince's son was part of a small group of swimmers who would benefit from services like the additional coaching.
When asked if Prince should have abstained from voting on the budget due to an appearance of impropriety, the suggestion "probably does have merit," Heil said. In Avon, a town which recently reformed its code of ethics to be among the most stringent in the state, a conflict of interest is defined as a simple appearance of impropriety rather than actual impropriety.
"I had not heard all those details about the small number of kids, or the level of increased service to those kids and what they were getting," Heil said.
Heil said as the issue was coming before council, Prince seemed to be careful in taking precaution against abusing his power as a town councilman, which is something Prince said he was mindful of throughout the process.
"I did recuse myself from the council vote on the swim program," Prince said.
When it came to the budget, however, Heil said in general he thinks it's important for the whole council to vote on the budget. In this case, though, Heil said, " … if it was an issue, that (swim program) line item could have been taken out, and Scott could have voted on the whole budget without that line item," he said. "Then they could have done a separate budget resolution to make that appropriation just for that line item, and then they could have done that vote without (Prince)."