The leaders of the Stamford Board of Representatives have sent a letter to Mayor Caroline Simmons asking her to meet with them to resolve a conflict they say stems from unfounded remarks by the mayor that opposition to an affordable housing project was racially charged.
In a carefully worded letter, the seven leaders of the city’s lawmaking body said they want to “express concern about the future of communication between the Board of Representatives and the administration,” and that they want Simmons to meet with them “in person to discuss how we can ensure a positive path forward.”
“In the past few weeks,” the Oct. 29 letter to the mayor reads, “the press has highlighted statements from you and your administration that referenced alleged and misconstrued comments made by representatives in regard to the proposed development of the Glenbrook Community Center.”
According to the letter, before statements Simmons made during a Chicago conference on racial equity in September, representatives had “open and honest correspondence with the administration, an essential tool that allows all of us to govern effectively and efficiently.”
But Simmons’ remarks in Chicago and follow-up statements she made after returning to Stamford “give us pause, and we’d like to do everything we can to preserve trust between our two bodies of government,” the letter reads.
It was signed by Board President Jeff Curtis, Clerk Megan Cottrell, Majority Leader Nina Sherwood, Minority Leader Mary Fedeli, Deputy Majority Leaders Virgil de la Cruz and Eric Morson, and Deputy Minority Leader Bradley Bewkes.
Curtis, the board president, said Tuesday the incidents have left representatives to wonder “whether we can sit down and have honest discussions that aren’t going to be misconstrued or used to make us look bad.”
The board, made up of 36 Democrats and four Republicans, and the Democratic mayor have the same goals, said Curtis, also a Democrat.
“We don’t want to see the mayor fail. If she fails, we fail, and the city fails,” he said. “We are not the opposition; we are the same team. Something like this can throw a monkey wrench into the works, so we hope having a meeting with the mayor will smooth out the rough edges. … I just hope it ends with a better understanding of our board and the role of our board.”
The letter went out Monday morning; Simmons responded Tuesday afternoon.
“My team and I look forward to the opportunity to meet and discuss ways that both the administration and the Board of Representatives can communicate more effectively,” the mayor wrote. “My administration’s goal is to continuously seek ways to find common ground in the interest of moving our city forward. As I have stated since taking office, my administration and I welcome and understand the need to have open and honest dialogue with our elected boards.”
Simmons asked board leaders to provide their top three legislative priorities in writing before the meeting “to help guide our discussion.”
The rift began with Simmons’ plan to sell the city-owned Glenbrook Community Center on Crescent Street to an affordable housing developer who wanted to convert it to 51 units.
Representatives said they opposed the project because the rents the developer wanted to charge were not truly affordable, the sale price was far too low, the amount of parking space proposed was inadequate, and other problems.
Some representatives agreed with Glenbrook residents who rallied for the city to restore the closed community center, which provided day care services, a preschool, after-school activities, events for seniors, dance and exercise classes, youth sports and other programs for decades.
Simmons, a former state representative who supported the State Democratic Party’s affordable housing initiatives in Hartford before becoming mayor last year, said Stamford has a critical need for more housing.
Things grew contentious after Simmons spoke at a StriveTogether Cradle to Career convention on racial equity, held in Chicago in late September.
In a video posted to Stamford Cradle to Career’s Instagram page, Simmons is seen telling the Chicago group that her office was trying to get an affordable housing project passed but “there’s a lot of NIMBYism and signage going up around our city against this proposal, and just really abhorrent language from some of the community members.”
Some “despicable language” came from Stamford people who want the city to do background checks on those who would live in the affordable apartments, Simmons told the Chicago group.
After the video surfaced in Stamford, Simmons walked back her comments, saying she was reacting to rhetoric in state and national debates on affordable housing, which she said have included discriminatory statements about renters and checking their backgrounds.
But later Simmons turned around again, pinning the comments about background checks to two city representatives – Sherwood, the majority leader, and Jennifer Matheny of District 19. According to Simmons, her staff told her that Sherwood brought up background checks in a private meeting and Matheny did so at a public board meeting.
Sherwood and Matheny have said they made no such remarks.
Matheny recounted during a board committee meeting that she had met with the developer Simmons chose for the Glenbrook project and asked him whether units would go to working Stamford residents, since Simmons had said several times that the project would provide “workforce housing” for teachers, firefighters, nurses and other fields.
Matheny said she asked the developer whether he would look into the work backgrounds of potential tenants to verify that they were Stamford people employed in those fields, but the developer told her tenancy must be based on income, not residency, and the units likely would be decided in a lottery.
“The mayor turned it into ‘background checks,’” Matheny said Tuesday. “I reached out to the mayor a number of times before the story went to the press, to clear the air, tell her what I meant, and ask her how she got to that conclusion. But she didn’t respond.”
The meeting is a good idea, Matheny said.
“I’m pleased and proud that board leadership is taking this step, and I hope we can work it out,” she said. “The only way to get anything done is to listen to people.”
Sherwood called Simmons’ claim a fabrication. She never discussed background checks with the mayor or anyone else, Sherwood said. A public allegation like that should come with evidence, Sherwood said, but to date no evidence has been provided.
“I think there’s a trust issue that needs to be addressed,” Sherwood said Tuesday. “We need to have an honest discussion about what happened and how we move forward in a way we all feel comfortable. Members of the Board of Representatives need to feel comfortable talking to the administration.”
Simmons withdrew her proposal to sell the Glenbrook Community Center last month, just before the board was to vote on it.
Democrat De la Cruz, one of the board’s two deputy majority leaders, called for civil discourse. The community center project came with “deeply held passions on both sides,” de la Cruz said.
“People have to be careful what they say, and back things up with facts,” he said.
Fedeli, the board’s Republican minority leader, said the relationship between the mayor and city representatives “has had its ups and downs, and has been tenuous at some points.”
“It’s up to us as the leaders of the board to step in when necessary and meet with the mayor to iron out these differences so we can get back to work and do what’s best for the citizens of Stamford,” Fedeli said. “That is my hope.”
Democrat Morson, the other deputy majority leader, said he thinks the relationship between the board and the administration is “generally good.”
“Of course the nature of this work lends to rough patches, and this kind of meeting is exactly what helps board leadership and the mayor get through them,” Morson said. “As long as we remain focused on what is best for the city and its people overall, and that compromise is necessary at times, we’ll all be better for it.”
Democrat Cottrell, the board clerk, said she “will wait to comment until after we meet with the mayor.”