MIDDLETOWN — In a risky bid that could alter the shape of the Middletown Planning and Zoning Commission, current Chair Stephen DeVoto – until recently a Democrat – is running for re-election as an unaffiliated candidate.
If DeVoto succeeds in retaining his seat on the commission without the support of the Middletown Democratic Town Committee, Democrats could have a de facto 5-2 supermajority on the commission – a situation one town Republican leader says would skirt minority representation rules that allow no more than four representatives from one party on the commission.
DeVoto, a professor of biology at Wesleyan University, has been on the Middletown Planning and Zoning Commission since 2013, and has served as chair since 2016, told CT Examiner there were two main reasons that he decided to leave the Democratic Party and run as an unaffiliated candidate.
The first reason, DeVoto said, is that he doesn’t think zoning should be a partisan issue pitting Republicans against Democrats.
The second reason for his unaffiliated run, according to DeVoto, is that there are several other Democrats who want to serve on the Middletown Planning and Zoning Commission, but because of the minority party representation requirements in the town charter, there is only one open seat for a Democrat in this year’s election.
“If I run as a Democrat, nobody younger or newer from the Democratic side can get on to the commission to actually be seated,” DeVoto said. “By running as an independent, I open up a seat for somebody who wants to be involved in government.”
Bill Wilson, chair of the Middletown Republican Town Committee, told CT Examiner he thought DeVoto’s unaffiliated campaign was simply an effort to give Democrats a de facto 5-2 majority, giving the party the power to pass anything they want.
“To pass anything on Middletown Planning and Zoning, you need to have a five to two margin, and the only way to do that is to have an individual run as an independent or unaffiliated,” Wilson said. “That would be Stephen DeVoto. He’s been a lifelong Democrat, and was on the Democratic Town Committee until just a little while ago. My belief is this is strictly about being able to push forward an agenda set by [Mayor Ben Florsheim].”
Wilson said he believes the riverfront redevelopment will be the major issue coming before the Planning and Zoning Commission in the coming years, and he said he believes Florsheim and the local Democrats have an idea of what they want to have done to the waterfront that they want to push through the commission.
“[DeVoto] may be unaffiliated, but he’s unaffiliated in name only,” Wilson said.
DeVoto said that the minority party representation rule that limits the majority party to four of seven seats on the commission is really a “majority limitation rule,” because it doesn’t guarantee that there are three members of the minority party.
DeVoto defended the representation rule when the Middletown Charter Revision Commission considered eliminating it for the planning and zoning commission – writing a letter to the Middletown Press in February, when he argued that the requirement that the commission have a bi-partisan supermajority to pass measures “ensures that such decisions have broad support in our community.”
DeVoto said his goal isn’t to reduce the number of Republicans on the committee. He said that if he felt the Democrats should have all the power, he would not have spoken out in favor of keeping the rule.
“I’m not thinking of it that way. I’m not trying to reduce the number of Republicans,” DeVoto told CT Examiner. “I would welcome a former Republican to also run as an independent, unaffiliated candidate. I don’t see myself running against Republicans any more than I’m running against Democrats.”
DeVoto said the commission makes land use decisions that “will long outlive us:” Where to put up buildings, where to pave streets, where to preserve open space.
“Those shouldn’t be Democrat or Republican, because I can’t tell you that in 80 years, the Democrats will be dominant in the city,” DeVoto said. “We need to work together in a non-partisan way.”
He said both parties on the commission agree on the general goal of economic development. If there is a split, it’s over how the city should regulate businesses and development, he said.
“I believe economic development requires that we regulate businesses, because the property values of a neighborhood – whether it’s business or residential – depends on what goes in next to you,” DeVoto said. “I think regulating design, requiring stormwater management, requiring electric charging stations, mandating sidewalks – those things are all pro-business in my view. They may infringe on the developer, but I think that’s to the benefit of the city and other property owners.”
DeVoto said he knows he is taking a risk by running on his own, and that running without the benefit of the Democratic Party structure or appearing on the Democratic line on the ballot could very well lead to him losing his seat. He said he hopes his experience on the commission and his campaigning efforts will be enough to retain his seat.
From the Republican perspective, Wilson said he hopes DeVoto doesn’t succeed, and that the Republicans take a 4-3 majority on the commission.