In Stamford, a crucial government function is out of whack.
Operation of the city relies on some three dozen boards and commissions with members who are not elected. They are citizen volunteers with significant power.
They decide planning policy and zoning regulations; they appoint police officers and firefighters; they settle tax appeals for residents and ethics investigations of elected officials and city employees; they determine the future of historic buildings, the cost of a round of golf at a municipal course, and much more.
Six months into her administration, Mayor Caroline Simmons, who appoints the citizen volunteers, has been working to fill 32 board and commission vacancies. So far, 20 seats have been filled by new appointments or reappointments, Simmons’ chief of staff, Bridget Fox, told the Board of Representatives this week.
But city representatives identified a problem they say is bigger than vacancies.
Half of the roughly 200 board and commission seats are occupied by appointees whose terms have expired, some as far back as 2009, city records show.
Aggravating the issue, some of the seats are occupied by appointees who were rejected by the Board of Representatives, which must approve the mayor’s picks.
That’s true for the board that handles Stamford’s touchiest topic, zoning. At its July 2021 meeting, the Board of Representatives rejected the reappointment of Zoning Board member William Morris, but Morris remains in his seat, deliberating approval of projects proposed by developers and homeowners, rezoning of neighborhoods, demolition of the historic Lofts at Yale & Towne building, and other matters.
The Zoning Board now is at the center of a critical question – whether to opt out of a state law that would allow accessory apartments in all single-family homes. The deadline for opting out of the mandate, which opponents say will exacerbate the city’s longstanding problem with illegal apartments, is Jan. 1.
All five Zoning Board members are serving under expired terms, according to city records. Besides Morris’ rejected reappointment, the term of Chairman David Stein expired in 2017; member Rosanne McManus’ term expired in 2018; Roger Quick’s term expired last year; and the term of Joanna Gwozdziowski, who is stepping down from the Zoning Board, expired in 2018.
Another board that decides matters central to life in Stamford, Planning, has similar issues, city Rep. Nina Sherwood told Fox during Wednesday night’s meeting of the Board of Representatives’ Appointments Committee. City records show four of the five Planning Board members are serving on expired terms.
“One of those members was rejected by the Board of Representatives,” Sherwood said. “There is a flaw in our city Charter that allows for somebody who comes before the Board of Representatives and gets voted down by the Board of Representatives to continue to serve if the mayor doesn’t appoint a replacement.”
It’s a problem the Simmons administration inherited from former Mayor David Martin’s administration, which determined that keeping a rejected reappointment in a board seat does not conflict with the Charter, Sherwood said.
“It’s important that we don’t continue that policy moving forward, because it doesn’t serve the city and make for the kind of government we all collectively want to create,” Sherwood said.
Fox said the Simmons administration is working to fill open and expired seats.
“It is a priority of ours to … identify individuals in the community who would be reappointed or new people to step into some of these roles,” Fox said.
The administration is working with the almost-organizaed Stamford Appointments Commission, enacted by ordinance last year to recruit candidates from all backgrounds, neighborhoods and political parties, Fox said. The commission, which hasn’t met yet, has seated five of its seven allotted members.
The administration also is working with city Democrats and Republicans “to bring new people into the fold and ensure we get as many people engaged in public service as possible,” Fox said.
But the administration is ignoring a vital question, city Rep. Anabel Figueroa said. Allowing appointees who were rejected by the Board of Representatives to remain seated repudiates governmental checks and balances, Figueroa said.
“I find that to be very troubling. We are the legislative body. If we do not reappoint somebody, I would think the administration would make it a priority” to name a new appointee, Figueroa said. “It should be done immediately.”
City Rep. Sean Boeger agreed.
“It is disturbing that nominated candidates come before this branch of government and are rejected … by the representatives of the people of this city, and are being allowed to continue to make very impactful decisions,” Boeger said.
He’s concerned it will present legal problems for the city if someone challenges a decision by a board on the grounds that a sitting member was not approved, Boeger said.
City attorney Doug Dalena said it is “a settled question of law” that his department has reviewed more than once.
“The Connecticut Supreme Court has held that appointees whose successors have not yet been appointed may serve until replaced and may act with full authority,” Dalena said.
Boeger said that, to respect the integrity of city government, the administration should replace rejected appointees who are still serving.
“I would immediately remove them,” he told Fox. “What is your intent?”
“Our intent is to look at all of these boards and make decisions as soon as possible,” Fox said.
“So you are not going to immediately remove rejected individuals?” Boeger asked.
“Correct,” Fox said. “We are not doing that.”
“I whole-heartedly disagree,” Boeger said. “If you look at other forms of government in this country, it would be ludicrous that there would be a situation where a nominee would come before the U.S. Congress, fail, and then get to go sit on the Supreme Court. That is not good government.”
City records show the breadth of the problem.
On the Board of Ethics, which rules on elected officials’ possible conflicts of interest and the actions of city administrators, two seats are vacant and five are expired, as are the terms of two alternates, city records show.
All seven seats on the Commission on Aging expired between 2012 and 2015.
According to the city Charter, an appointee may remain for no more than six months after a term expires. But members of the Stamford Golf Commission, which operates the E. Gaynor Brennan municipal course, have said the Charter is not enforced. Terms of two of the five Golf Commission members are expired.
On the Stamford Golf Authority, which runs the Sterling Farms municipal course, six of the nine terms are expired.
City Rep. Jeff Stella, who brought the issue to the attention of the Board of Representatives, said news of expired or nearly expired terms should be widely shared.
“We as reps should be notified and the people of Stamford should be notified,” Stella said. “It’s the only way to get new blood, get more people involved, make these boards more diverse, and get a better handle on this.”
City Rep. Bradley Bewkes said the strategy should go beyond filling vacant seats.
“This is a huge way the city does its work, through all these volunteer boards and commissions,” Bewkes said. “We have expiration dates for a reason – so new people can participate in the democratic process.”