City Manager Chuck Strome calls it all a big mix up, former District 4 City Council Member Roberto Lopez said it was lies being told by liars then later admitted it was true but that he had nothing to do with it, and DPW workers were broadcasting over the radio saying "we're going back to Lafayette and you're not going to believe why!" In the end no one could quite make explain what had happened or how.
Here is what Talk of the Sound has confirmed.
On Wednesday morning, at about the time the City of New Rochelle was declaring an end to the recent Snow Emergency, a rather elite crew of Department of Public Works officials and two workers moved piles of snow in front of, on and through a private, commercial parking lot at 26 Lafayette Avenue.
The crew was led by Joseph Cotroneo, the number two man in the DPW, and up until a few weeks ago the acting Commission of the Department. Cotroneo, who in 2009 earned $120,174, was the man standing outside the maintenance shed as the District Attorney executed a search warrant in the ongoing criminal investigation of the New Rochelle DPW. The District Attorney has been investigating the New Rochelle DPW since last summer after receiving information about phony invoices and allegations of kickbacks.
Also on hand was Joseph Quatrochi, another top-ranking DPW official. Quatrochi, who earned $85,616 in 2009, was reportedly working a front-end loader. A DPW pick up truck was on the scene along with two DPW workers using shovels to clear snow.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Joseph Quatrochi's full title is Working Supervisor Streets & Highways
The parking lot at 26 Lafayette Avenue is clearly indicated as a commercial lot with signs from Safeway Towing posted on both sides of the entrance to the parking lot.
A search of City records shows that the parking lot located at 26 Lafayette Avenue is owned by Quitupan Realty Corp. Quitupan Realty is owned by Roberto Lopez. Roberto Lopez served on the New Rochelle City Council for four years before losing his seat to Richard St. Paul in 2006. Lopez told Talk of the Sound yesterday that he intends to run for his old seat in the upcoming election in November 2011.
Reached by telephone and asked to comment, Lopez vehemently denied that any City workers were clearing snow at 26 Lafayette Avenue despite being informed that City Manager Chuck Strome had just confirmed that the workers had been clearing snow at that location. Told there were witnesses who had confirmed the DPW crew was working at his parking lot, Lopez said they were "liars" and then hung up the phone. An hour later, Lopez called back to say that although there were DPW workers at 26 Lafayette Avenue he had not asked anyone from the City to remove any snow at 26 Lafayette Avenue adding, "I'm not that stupid".
Contacted moments after the first complaint had been called into City Hall, City Manager Chuck Strome initially said that he was not sure why the DPW crew was working at 26 Lafayette but that he was being told it was some sort of mixup and that they were supposed to be clearing snow in front of some other location near Lafayette and Fifth Street. Asked for the actual address, Strome conveyed that he did not know exactly where they were supposed to be but it was "near Lafayette and Fifth" and had something to do with clearing an area where the property had a right of way from the City of New Rochelle. Despite repeated requests over the course of the day, Strome would not provide the exact location where the DPW workers had been assigned, only saying "near Lafayette and Fifth" or a "driveway at Lafayette and Fifth".
During the call, Strome stated that the DPW workers had been redirected to the corner of Lafayette and Fifth and that they were there "now" clearing the snow in front of the driveway at the corner that if a person went there the DPW crew could be observed working there to clear a snow pile at that location.
Multiple sources have told Talk of the Sound that there was a pile of snow in front of a driveway at the corner of Lafayette and Fifth and that the pile of snow was blocking or hindering access to the driveway on the corner. However, these sources all say that the snow on the corner was removed before work began at 26 Lafayette Avenue. This would contradict Strome's statement that the DPW crew had gone to the wrong location first but was later redirected to the correct location and that the crew was working at the location at the time of the call.
A different source with direct knowledge of the operation of the DPW snow removal crews but unaware of work being done at 26 Lafayette Avenue was monitoring the the DPW workers broadcasting over the assigned DPW radio band on Wednesday morning. The source says a DPW worker called dispatch to say "we're leaving Lafayette". A few moments later the same worker called back to dispatch saying "we're going back to Lafayette and you're not going to believe why!". No explanation of the cryptic comment was provided.
Roberto Lopez told Talk of the Sound that a man who works for him at the apartment building was asked by DPW workers at the parking lot at 26 Lafayette Avenue who owned the building. Lopez says the man refused to say and was challenged by the skeptical DPW workers who said "you work for the owner but you don't know who it is?" The man, Lopez says, refused to answer.
Lopez later arrived at the parking lot and spoke at length with Talk of the Sound as to the various issues that had arisen with the parking lot and stated that he had spent $100,000 to bring it into compliance with direction from the City of New Rochelle. He said that he would never ask for any sort of favor from anyone working for the City of New Rochelle and that given the problems he had over the parking lot he felt he was someone who was unlikely to get the benefit of any favors from the City even if he were to ask for them something he says he would never do.
During the initial telephone call to City Hall, Strome insisted that the workers on the site did not have "any idea who the owner of the lot was", a statement he repeated several times despite the question never having been asked. Asked whether the two supervisors on hand would know about the owner of 26 Lafayette, Strome said Joseph Cotroneo would not know who Roberto Lopez was because Cotroneo was new and Lopez was before his time. Strome did not address whether Joseph Quatrochi, a long-time DPW employee, would know who Roberto Lopez was but other sources found it improbable that Quatrochi would not know that Roberto Lopez was a former City Council member -- and potentially a future City Council member.
The parking lot at 26 Lafayette Avenue is well-known to many local residents, to City officials and the West End Task Force which fought with Lopez for years over the lot which was used illegally to park vehicles by renters living at 26 Lafayette. For this part, Lopez says that no one complained about the parking under the previous owner of the building and that the complaints were driven by something other than simple concerns about zoning. Lopez failed to elaborate.
It is the ongoing dispute over the parking lot with the City of New Rochelle and some West End residents that Roberto Lopez cites as the reason why no one from the City government would do him any sort of "favor" but that as a matter of his personal principles he would not make such a request. Lopez reiterated several times in the strongest terms that he did not know why the DPW was working at 26 Lafayette Avenue and that he had absolutely not made any request to that effect that snow be removed from or around his parking lot.
Whatever the reason, the DPW crew was present and working on private property. The problem from the taxpayer perspective goes beyond just the expense of using up City resources for private purposes. Talk of the Sound spoke with an experienced attorney from outside New Rochelle who said there are significant legal/liability issues with snow removal or any other work by city workers for a private commercial business. If a worker or equipment damages private property or a pedestrian the City will likely be used and could be held liable for property damage to the owner of the property and personal injury to the pedestrian. If a City worker gets injured and it is discovered that he was involved in this activity he will not be covered under the city's workers compensation policy since he is not engaged in work duties for his employer. The attorney notes that the practical effect of this reality is the workers know this and will "find" a work related assignment or a city road to "take a fall or fall down on the job" on and claim injury while engaged in work duties for the city and then will be eligible for workers compensation benefits and possibly disability all funded by taxpayers.
In subsequent follow up with the City Manager, Chuck Strome said he received a call the night before that a City plow had pushed a pile of snow in front of and blocking a driveway located at Lafayette and Fifth Street. Strome said it was he who asked DPW to send a crew to remove the pile from the street that was blocking the driveway entrance. This is not consistent with his initial statement to Talk of the Sound.
As to the confusion, Strome said an employee responsible for assigning crews was out sick on Wednesday and there was subsequent confusion as to the location of the pile.
Further, that DPW workers were removing snow from the street in front of the parking lot at 26 Lafayette Avenue and "inadvertently" pushed some snow to the back of the lot.
In a subsequent email exchange, Strome said he sent the DPW crew to Lafayette and Fifth based on an anonymous call and said the question of who filed the complaint was "irrelevant".
At that corner, on the South side of the street, there are three parcels of land, two of which have houses and driveways that share a common driveway that empties onto the corner of Lafayette and Fifth. It would appear likely that any or all of these property owners might have called to complain about a pile of snow blocking the driveway which connects all of their properties but that does not appear to be the case.
Parcel 1287-0001 is owned by Regina de Masi. The street address of the house is #1 6th Street.
Parcel 1287-0031 is owned by Luis Beato. The street address is #4 5th Street.
Parcel 1283-01 is owned by Maria Sanchez. The street address is #62 Lafayette Avenue.
Talk of the Sound has made contact with the occupants at two of the three locations and confirmed that a third was on vacation. This checks out because although 1283-01 overlaps with the driveway it is fenced off. There are three vans parked at 1287-0001 and 1287-0031 each ringed with snow which clearly indicates the vehicles have not been moved since the snow storm.
So, who called? And why did they want to remain anonymous?
At this point none of these stories are quite adding up, something is clearly wrong here but it is difficult to say what happened. One thing for sure -- this whole thing does not smell right and Talk of the Sound will continue to pursue the matter.
UPDATE: Talk of the Sound was contacted by one of the DPW employees working at 26 Lafayette Avenue. This employee says the lot was already done before the DPW crew arrived. In recounting the sequence of events from their perspective, the employee says he was told by Joe Controneo to go to Fifth and Lafayette to get two piles of snow. Once this work was completed, he left Lafayette Avenue and did other things around the City. Joe Controneo then told him "you gotta do the parking lot at Fifth and Lafayette". He responded by tell Controneo he was just there and there was no parking lot at Fifth and Lafayette (which is true). Controneo came to the scene and directed the men to do work at 26 Lafayette Avenue where there was a pile of snow in front of the driveway entrance to the parking lot. The snow was cleared from the area on the street in front of the parking lot and the front edge of the lot including a "back cut" to remove snow from the sidewalk. There was some snow still in the front edge of the parking lot which was scooped up by a DPW front-end loader. In attempting to back out of the driveway, the front-end loader encountered a car on Lafayette. Rather than wait for the card to pass, the front-end loader was driven forward, through the parking lot, and snow dumped on top of an existing pile of snow that had been pushed up towards the back of the parking lot.
As there is some concern that this story somehow reflects on the DPW workers, Talk of the Sound would like to be clear that workers are obligated to follow orders and do not independently make decisions on where to work including where to remove snow. In fact, DPW workers have gotten in trouble for filling potholes not on their list, potholes they encountered driving through the City on their way to fill in other potholes. The question is who gave the orders and by all accounts the orders were given by Joe Controneo. What remains to be determined is why he gave orders to clear snow at 26 Lafayette Avenue -- on his own initiative, on orders from his supervisors, at the request of a private citizen or some other source. This workers account does not clarify that question. It does, however, confirm, that the DPW was operating a vehicle on private property which carries it with some of the legal risks described above.