Despite controversies, Ricci stays as public facilities chief
BRIDGEPORT — John Ricci is not done working for the city.
But even as he has again put off his exit from running the public facilities department, the agency remains under scrutiny by police and elected officials over improper scrap metal sales and other things that have occurred during Ricci’s three-year watch.
Ricci, whose career as a municipal employee dates back to the 1970s, was brought out of retirement by Mayor Joe Ganim in 2016 to run public facilities, which oversees the maintenance of roads, city buildings, sidewalks, vehicle fleets and parks, along with trash hauling and recycling operations. Ricci has one of the closest relationships to the mayor of any department head.
Ricci last June suddenly submitted his resignation to Ganim, claiming he needed a break. Sources had said Ricci was angry over budget cuts and his $126,592 salary, which was lower than his unionized deputy director’s.
After the mayor refused to accept his resignation and following an outpouring of support from staff, City Council members and the community, Ricci decided to remain on the job for another six months.
Those six months came and went, and, as 2019 begins, Ricci remains the chief of public facilities for the foreseeable future.
“He and the mayor spoke in September ... and agreed that John would stay on through the end of the mayor’s term” at the end of 2019, Rowena White, Ganim’s communications director, said this week.
Before returning to the Bridgeport payroll three years ago, Ricci, who has held a few municipal positions, managed the city’s Sikorsky Memorial airport. He was fired in 2013 by then-Mayor Bill Finch for an alleged conflict of interest with Manuel “Manny” Moutinho, a Stratford resident and developer whose driveway the city relocated for a runway safety project.
Ricci filed a lawsuit and was allowed to retire. Ricci then helped orchestrate Ganim’s successful 2015 mayoral primary against Finch — 12 years after Ganim’s first tenure running Bridgeport ended with a corruption conviction.
Ricci, also a close friend of Democratic Town Chairman Mario Testa, helped advise Ganim’s failed 2018 gubernatorial campaign.
White said Ricci’s future should Ganim win re-election later this year “would be discussed ... next year.”
A political scrap
But while Ricci could be helpful to Ganim’s bid for another term, his department could cause some political problems for the mayor and his campaign in the coming months.
As Hearst Connecticut Media reported in December, documents show that city workers — many employed by the public facilities department — over the past two years sold tens of thousands of dollars worth of scrap metal for cash to P.C. Metals on Central Avenue. All scrap metal collected by the city is supposed to be sold to Sims of New Haven with the revenues deposited in the municipal budget.
Ricci had acknowledged to Hearst some off-the-books scrap for cash sales, with money deposited into a petty cash account used, he said, to boost staff morale by paying for things like birthday cakes, flowers, event tickets and donations. But Ricci claimed only around $5,500 was collected in that account over two years, leaving the bulk of the actual amount — $35,482— so far unaccounted for.
The scrap metal controversy, first brought to light by an anonymous letter sent to City Council members, is under investigation by Bridgeport police and the City Attorney’s and Labor Relations offices.
Although it hasn’t been officially confirmed, sources have also claimed that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has taken an interest.
Democratic State Rep. Charlie Stallworth, who also helped re-elect Ganim in 2015, in a recent interview attacked the mayor’s handling of the scrap metal issue and of Ricci. Beside opening the internal investigation, City Hall has clarified to employees the proper handling of scrap metal and all other leftover city materials.
“It just shows if you’re in the ‘old club’ you get a pass,” Stallworth, who is considering running against Ganim for mayor, told Hearst last month. “I like John (Ricci). He’s a friend. If he were not part of the ‘old boy’s club’ he’d be suspended, if not terminated.”
Ganim has sought to distance himself — and Ricci — from the scrap metal controversy by claiming they “inherited past practices that are unacceptable with this administration.”
However the author of the anonymous letter to the City Council had written, “In no other administration was metal sold for cash using the guise that the money was to be used for picnics or other special events.”
Also, under Ricci, the city decided to operate the transfer station, where scrap metal is supposed to be collected for sale to Sims, and end a contract with a private management company.
Ricci this week, in response to Stallworth’s criticism, said, “He wouldn’t be saying that if he wasn’t thinking about running for mayor. It’s just plain old political rhetoric.”
State Sen. Marilyn Moore, a Democrat, has also been considering challenging Ganim. Moore said she has not had any negative experiences with Ricci.
“I’ll say this — people have to be held accountable for the people who work for them,” Moore said. “It’s possible you don’t know everything that’s going on, but have people reporting to you who should know what’s going on. ... (Ricci) should be digging deep, resolving the problem. If John does all that, then John’s fine in his position.”
Disposal of scrap metal is not the only issue Ricci and his department are dealing with in 2019. The anonymous letter writer also alleged to City Council members that public facilities contracts were not properly bid.
The council is eyeing one of those contracts in particular — the $678,899 paid to Vaz, a city-based construction company, for paving work at the new public facilities garage.
According to city purchasing documents, the paving work was originally budgeted at $185,822 — a small part of Vaz’s $2.9 million overall construction contract. Another $269,277 was added to that cost. Then Vaz was paid $223,800 more. All of this was appropriately signed off on by not just Ricci but purchasing officials and the Chief Administrative Officer’s office.
“During construction, pavement was part of the original contract we did (with Vaz),” Ricci said. “Then we realized there were additional areas that should be paved for future use for our master plan. ... We went further and (paved) other areas that were not suitable for the traffic they had to bear.”
Ricci said the paving money also included drainage and site grading work.
Still, City Council President Aidee Nieves said of the $679,000, “For a parking lot, that is concerning to some council members. That just seems a lot of taxpayer money.”
Ricci has maintained he saved the city a few million dollars by redesigning a more pricey public facilities garage proposed under the Finch administration.
Sources working for Bridgeport said Ricci remains “a highly respected and capable and valuable city department head” and, while it remains to be seen how serious the scrap metal and other allegations against public facilities are, “people don’t think he (Ricci) had anything to do with it.”
One source added, “Employees still admire, like, respect and are willing to work with (Ricci). ... If he stays, they will be very happy.”
Assessing his own performance as public facilities director, Ricci said, “Aside from those anonymous letters, no one else is complaining.”