In 1937 the state Legislature authorized a commission to figure out how Stamford – then part town, part city – could be consolidated under one government.
It took eight years to come up with a plan. Finally, in 1945, the commission presented the state legislature with a charter outlining how a united Stamford could govern itself.
In 1947 the people of Stamford adopted the charter by referendum and, two years later, the charter took effect.
In April 1949 the Board of Representatives, Stamford’s new legislative body, held its first meeting. A woman named Louise Seeley, who represented District 1, spoke about the importance of the gathering.
“The final authority for all policies lies in the representatives of the people,” said Seeley, who was a member of the League of Women Voters.
“Stamford is our town. Its government is our government,” Seeley said. “It will be as well-run as we really want it to be and as badly run as we let it be. But our responsibility today is much greater than a matter of well- or badly paved streets or a tax rate which goes up or down. We are the guardians of the hope of the free people of the world. Our country can be no better than the sum of all the towns like ours, and our town can be no better than we, its people, are willing to make it.”
Seeley’s words are posted on the board’s website.
Seventy-four years after she spoke them, the goals of city government should be the same, said the Rev. Tommie Jackson, a longtime figure in Stamford Democratic politics who has been questioning protocols of the Board of Representatives – where 36 of the 40 members are Democrats – and the Democratic City Committee.
“The elitism, colonialism, political patronage and exclusionary practices need to stop,” Jackson said. “We need a better way for people to participate in democracy. I feel that I’ve torn the bandage off a terrible sore that needs to be exposed, and that healing should take place.”
To vet, or not
Jackson’s criticism stems from an incident he says began in February, when his friend, neighbor, fellow Democrat and former city Rep. Susan Nabel told him she was stepping down from her District 20 Board of Representatives seat and asked if he would replace her. Nabel, who resigned March 31, is gravely ill.
The move would have made Jackson the first Black city representative from District 20, a mostly White, wealthy North Stamford neighborhood.
Jackson said he accepted Nabel’s offer, but members of the Democratic City Committee interfered. In the end, another District 20 resident, Carl Weinberg, took the seat.
Jackson said he believes members of the Democratic City Committee pressured Nabel to change her mind and name Weinberg because committee members think Weinberg will deliver votes the party establishment wants on the Board of Representatives, which is roughly split between establishment and reform Democrats.
Other resigning Democratic representatives have chosen their replacements, Jackson said. But he was vetted by the board’s deputy majority leader, city Rep. Eric Morson, an establishment Democrat who consulted the DCC, Jackson said.
Jackson cited a contrasting situation from last year, when board member Rodney Pratt was dying of brain cancer. Pratt resigned his District 9 seat and named Kindrea Walston to fill it.
“The DCC did not vet Kindrea Walston,” Jackson said. “She went on to replace Rodney.”
When Democrat Monica Di Costanzo resigned her District 7 seat in March, she named Bianca Shinn as her replacement.
“Bianca Shinn took that seat without going through a vetting,” Jackson said. “The choice of a replacement has been a personal prerogative.”
His case didn’t stop with vetting, Jackson said. Morson told him that DCC members interviewed Weinberg and a relative of a former city representative for the District 20 seat, Jackson said.
“No one interviewed me, even though they knew I was interested in the seat,” Jackson said. “I didn’t know interviews were going on.”
Calling it a conflict of interest
Jackson said DCC members claimed that he could not sit on the Board of Representatives because he has a conflict of interest – he works for the Urban Redevelopment Commission.
The URC is not a city agency, but representatives now sitting on the board are directly employed by the city, including the police department, health department, Board of Education and city-funded organizations.
“I went and looked this up and found out that the way they handle this is that if a matter comes before the Board of Representatives that is related to your employer, you recuse yourself from any discussion about that matter,” Jackson said. “But the DCC didn’t consider that, or the fact that I don’t get paid by the city. They just called ‘conflict of interest’ and took me out of it.”
Then he learned Weinberg, in fact, had a potential conflict of interest. When Weinberg was sworn in during the board’s April 3 meeting, he was a member of the city’s Personnel Commission, a powerful body that establishes job descriptions, salaries, positions and disciplinary measures for city employees. The charter does not allow Personnel Commission members to hold public office.
Weinberg’s resignation letter is dated April 4, the day after the meeting. But Mayor Caronline Simmons swore in Weinberg during the meeting. He then cast votes and spoke from the floor.
Director of Legal Affairs Tom Cassone said in an email that Weinberg “was properly sworn in to his seat on the Board of Representatives where he has and may continue to properly serve.”
Cassone did not answer questions about whether Weinberg, or anyone, must resign from the Personnel Commission before being sworn in; whether that requirement applies to other commissions; whether the charter precludes someone who works for the city or a city agency from holding public office; and whether working for the URC presents a particular conflict of interest. The questions are “hypothetical,” Cassone said.
“I want to know what the rules are,” Jackson said. “I’ve asked people who have been involved in Stamford politics for years, Democrats and Republicans, and no one has been able to give me a clear answer as to why this process unfolded the way it unfolded with me. I think the rules, if there are any, are applied as certain people deem best for a particular situation.”
Reluctance to respond
Morson did not respond to a question about why the DCC interviewed two other possible candidates for the District 20 seat and not Jackson.
DCC Chair Robin Druckman did not respond to questions about a possible conflict involving someone who works for the URC; whether the DCC considers city representatives who work for the city to have conflicts; and what role the DCC plays when a Democratic city representative resigns and must choose a replacement.
Bridget Fox, Simmons’ chief of staff, and Lauren Meyer, the mayor’s director of policy and legislative affairs, did not respond to a question about Jackson’s claims of unfairness in the filling of the District 20 seat.
Campaign finance records show Jackson was on Simmons’ payroll when she ran for mayor in 2021.
Jackson said he’s worked in Democratic politics for nearly 30 years, including various campaigns for Gov. Ned Lamont, former governor and Stamford mayor Dan Malloy, and others.
“The party was not honest or fair with me,” Jackson said. “I’m determined to see that this does not happen to someone else, and that the Democratic Party gets itself straightened out.”
The president of the Board of Representatives, Democrat Jeff Curtis, said it has been that body’s longstanding practice that a resigning member chooses a replacement, who must run in the next election to retain the seat.
“I first was on the board in the 1990s, and when I left, I named my replacement. That’s how far back the practice goes,” Curtis said.
“Monica Di Costanzo just named Bianca Shinn, and there was no DCC interview as far as I know. Now Representative Melinda Baxter is resigning. She has named her replacement and I have not heard word one about the DCC getting involved. I have not heard any rumblings that her choice needs to be vetted.”
The practice has to be clarified, Curtis said. It’s most likely a task for members of the board’s Legislative & Rules Committee, who could get it on the board’s June agenda by presenting it to the Steering Committee in early May.
It’s time, Jackson said.
“Let’s make the rules uniform, standard. Let’s establish some protocols. If the outgoing representative doesn’t make the choice, then who makes it? Should there be one choice, or can there be nominations from the floor?” Jackson said. “Let’s put the process in writing so the citizenry will know. It’s a very diverse city. Let’s make it a city of inclusivity.”