STAMFORD – A Board of Representatives vote Monday to temporarily fill a vacant school board seat has Democrats fighting Democrats.
The battle between party factions has become heated, and may get ugly. Someone created an account on Survey Monkey inviting people to “please share your negative experience” about one of the candidates, Jackie Pioli, before the vote. “There is no need to mention your name, school, title, or any identifying information,” the survey states.
Pioli’s opponent is Jennienne Burke, who served seven years on the school board and has the endorsement of the Democratic City Committee. Pioli, who sat on the school board from 2018 to 2021, is supported by Democrats on the Board of Representatives who defied their party to nominate her on their own. Pioli earned the recommendation of the board’s Appointments Committee by a wide margin.
The 40-member Board of Representatives, the city’s lawmaking body, has 36 Democrats and four Republicans, but party dominance does not mean party unity.
With the vote looming, the board’s deputy majority leader, city Rep. Eric Morson, wrote an editorial supporting Burke, saying fellow representatives who back Pioli are “brazenly choosing to ignore the will of an overwhelming majority of voters.” Morson points to the 2021 school board race in which Pioli, who did not get the Democratic Party’s endorsement and ran as an unaffiliated candidate, failed to win re-election.
Burke, on the other hand, has the backing of 75 percent of the Democratic City Committee, the deputy majority leader wrote, and won large numbers of votes in the two terms she spent on the school board after first winning a special election in 2015.
The majority leader on the Board of Representatives, city Rep. Nina Sherwood, said Monday’s vote will be close, which is why there is concern about talk on the board that inside party Democrats may challenge the right of two city representatives to cast their ballots Monday night.
Target on two representatives
The talk is that because the two representatives, Bonnie Kim Campbell and Bobby Pavia, work as paraeducators in the Stamford school system they should not be allowed to vote for a candidate for the Board of Education. Campbell and Pavia have shown support for Pioli.
“I think that, if these members of my caucus exercise their right to vote, one side of the party will come after them,” Sherwood said Friday.
It’s a scare tactic, Campbell and Pavia said – if they vote, fellow Democrats may charge them with violating the ethics code.
“High-ranking Democrats are making phone calls, questioning whether we should vote,” Pavia said.
But he and Campbell each sought to resolve any potential questions about conflict of interest last year, when they requested advisory opinions from the Board of Ethics, Pavia said.
“I went to the ethics board from the very beginning to find out my parameters,” said Campbell, who was elected in November 2021. “They told me I cannot vote for anything that would bring financial gain to me or my family members.”
The winner of Monday’s vote will sit on the school board until November, when she must run in a special election to keep the seat for the remaining year left on the term vacated by Democrat Ben Lee, who resigned in December.
Campbell said there is no potential for financial gain, since the paraeducators union contract runs through 2025.
“Whoever gets this position, it won’t affect me,” Campbell said. “I don’t see how voting on a vacancy for the Board of Education is a violation just because I work for the Board of Education. To me, it’s handling business so the Board of Education itself can continue with the number of members it needs.”
Anticipating a call
The situation is “upsetting,” said Pavia, who became a city representative in 2021.
“Bonnie and I went through the proper channels and we clearly don’t have a financial interest in this. Our union contract is already set,” he said. “It’s very inappropriate that people are trying to stop me from voting so they can get in the candidate they want. I believe it’s an attempt to suppress our votes.”
Campbell said that, as of Friday, no one had approached her directly about a possible ethics challenge. The anticipation is that the question will be raised during the party caucus in the hour preceding the Board of Representatives’ 8 p.m. meeting.
Asked whether he’d been approached, Pavia said, “Not yet, but I’m anticipating it.”
Campbell said “it’s not right that the organization that helps make the laws in this city uses the Board of Ethics to try to stop two of their colleagues from using their right to vote. Fight me fair. I represent a whole district. Don’t hold my district ransom.”
The ‘nuance’ of ethics
Campbell’s Board of Ethics advisory opinion, issued last May, says there could be a violation if she takes any action she knows “is likely to affect” her economic interests or those of immediate family members.
There could be a conflict of interest under “certain specific circumstances,” the board advised, but any Board of Education matters “unrelated to compensation do not appear to present the same conflict of interests concerns.”
Still, every request for an advisory opinion “has its own nuance,” said Allan Lang, Board of Ethics chairman. “People are free to rely on it to the extent they wish, but it’s not a blanket endorsement by us for any future request that might come before us.”
If someone were to request an opinion about whether Campbell or Pavia should vote on candidates for the Board of Education vacancy, “we as members of the board feel we have to hear the concerns of anyone who seeks a new advisory opinion,” Lang said Friday.
Campbell said she has to wonder whether she needs an attorney to understand the nuances of the ethics code.
“I don’t have money to fight this if I had to. I live in public housing. I’m among the lowest-paid people who work for the Board of Education,” Campbell said. “What I’m feeling, as an educator who has experience and knows what’s needed in the school system, is that I know in my heart who the right candidate is, but I’m so angry that I may not be able to vote.”
Peter Lewandowski, executive director of the Office of State Ethics, said such questions are the business of towns and cities.
“In the realm of ethics, the municipalities are in the driver’s seat. They set up their own board and code,” Lewandowski said Friday. “The only state requirement is that a complaint has to remain confidential until probable cause is established.”
Stephen Conover, an attorney with Carmody, Torrance, Sandak & Hennessey in Stamford and counsel to the ethics board, said he cannot interpret the advisory opinion.
“I give guidance to members of the Board of Ethics,” Conover said, “not to people who aren’t on the Board of Ethics.”
A code ‘used to punish’
City Rep. Megan Cottrell, who nominated Pioli for the Board of Education seat, said representatives overhauled the code of ethics in 2021 to make it clearer.
“It was very murky before, but the way it was rewritten, if something is not affecting your salary directly, you can vote on it,” Cottrell said.
The problem is that “the ethics code has been used to punish people,” Cottrell said.
That’s happening with the factions of city Democrats, she said.
“If you vote with the administration, you don’t have an ethics issue. If you don’t vote with the administration, they say you do have an ethics issue,” Cottrell said. “It’s been a consistent problem. If you challenge the system, the standards are higher for you.”
Sherwood said the problem is not with the ethics code, especially now that it’s been tightened.
“The problem is that the ethics board tends to side with the administration,” Sherwood said.
In recent ethics cases, a city representative friendly to the previous administration was found not to have a conflict of interest after she voted on the appointment of an Operations director, even though her son worked in the Office of Operations, Sherwood said.
But a city representative considered a reform Democrat whose son is a police officer was found to have a conflict of interest after she voted on the appointment of a police chief, Sherwood said.
The ethics board has, at times, “felt like a kangaroo court,” Sherwood said.
A costly history
Stamford has a history of city officials using the ethics code as a cudgel.
From 2010 to 2013 they slapped each other with ethics charges, accusing each other of harassment, slander and conflict of interest.
Forced to defend themselves, some officials asked the city’s law department to cover their legal fees, battles that sometimes ended in court. It cost Stamford taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Honest officials were reluctant to tackle allegations of wrongdoing for fear they would be charged with ethics violations and have to hire a lawyer. The Board of Ethics was criticized for ambiguity, ineffectiveness and bias.
In the end, all the ethics charges were dismissed or withdrawn.
Morson did not respond to a question about possible ethics challenges against Campbell and Pavia. Either did city Rep. Jonathan Jacobson, who recently brought an ethics charge against a fellow city representative.
‘At a crossroads’
Campbell said she doesn’t know whether she will vote on Monday.
“I feel I’m at a crossroads. If I go one way, I make the right decision for the people and children of Stamford,” she said. “Or I don’t do the right thing and let the rubber stamp go down.”
Pavia said he took to heart what members of the Board of Ethics told him.
“They said it’s your job to represent your constituents. Well, I have over 100 emails asking me to vote for a certain candidate,” Pavia said. “I know what the right thing to do is, and who I think is the better candidate. But the ethics code has been weaponized. People are using it to intimidate us. Is that the system we want?”