STAMFORD — A controversy brewed in a cauldron of politics, party divisions, a claim of racial inequity, and a city representative’s dying wishes has come to a call for clarity.
It was made in the form of a proposal to define the Board of Representatives procedure for replacing members who resign.
Five members have stepped down in the last year, and city Rep. Jeff Stella said he wants to amend board rules so members know how to choose successors.
The last two times members were replaced, representatives “left the meetings feeling hurt or confused or even disgusted with how the process took place,” Stella said Friday. “I don’t see why we wouldn’t get to the root of the problem and try to fix it.”
For decades, the practice – never a written policy – has been that the outgoing representative picks someone of the same political party to fill his or her seat until the next election.
But the practice was thrown into serious question last month, when two people said they were asked to fill the District 20 seat of longtime city Rep. Susan Nabel, who was battling pancreatic cancer.
‘An exclusionary attitude’
The Rev. Tommie Jackson has said Nabel approached him in February to ask whether he would take the seat, and he accepted during the first week of March.
Jackson has said that, because of board practice, he thought the matter was settled. But he immediately got a call from city Rep. Eric Morson, the deputy majority leader, who wanted to set up a meeting.
Jackson said he met with Morson, Nabel and her fellow District 20 representative, Ashley Ley, and Nabel told them he was her choice. Morson then said he would write a letter informing Board of Representatives President Jeff Curtis, Jackson has said.
But the letter was never written, Jackson said. Morson then told him that members of the Democratic City Committee did not want him to have the seat, said Jackson, who would have been the first Black person to represent District 20, a mostly white North Stamford neighborhood.
Jackson said he learned that the Democratic City Committee interviewed North Stamford Democrat Carl Weinberg and a woman from the district, but he was not invited to an interview. The Stamford Democratic Party “talks about diversity and inclusion, but this speaks to an exclusionary attitude,” said Jackson, who has for years worked on the campaigns of Stamford Democrats, including Mayor Caroline Simmons and former mayor and governor Dan Malloy.
Jackson has said he thinks the Democratic City Committee wanted someone they could count on to vote the party line on the Board of Representatives, where 36 of the 40 members are Democrats but they are split between party loyalists and reformists.
Curtis has said the board, tasked by the city Charter with electing successors to fill vacancies, was confused about what was going on with Nabel’s replacement. One reason, Curtis said, was that the board received a letter from Jackson asking about the procedure even before members knew Nabel was resigning.
Difficult meeting repeats
Nabel’s resignation letter came March 31. Her daughter read it during the board’s April 3 meeting, saying her mother had dictated it because she was unable to write.
Representatives said the meeting was emotional, because most of them were learning for the first time that Nabel was gravely ill, and confusing because Jackson had knowledge of Nabel’s situation early on, lending credence to his chronology of events. The dictated letter, though, said Weinberg was Nabel’s choice.
The board approved Weinberg with 22 votes, but 15 members abstained.
Nabel, 75, died May 1.
The board had its monthly meeting that evening, and the controversy spilled over. Members learned that another board Democrat, Melinda Baxter of District 5, had resigned.
Following board practice, Baxter named fellow Democrat Dakary Watkins as her replacement. From there, the practice wobbled.
Weinberg, just seated as Nabel’s replacement, voted no to Baxter’s choice. City Rep. Amiel Goldberg and city Rep. David Watkins abstained from voting.
Things are going down a rocky road, Stella said.
“From my time on the board, and from people who came before me, it’s my understanding that the person who’s resigning makes a choice and that is honored. But it seems like that isn’t working any more,” Stella said Friday. “I don’t think there should be a gray area where people can interpret the rules as they see fit, as it benefits them or doesn’t benefit them.”
Stella said the board practice came about because the thinking was that outgoing representatives would have the district’s best interests at heart, and would know people willing to get involved.
“That was never questioned before. And now we’ve had two meetings where people have been selected and it was questioned,” Stella said. “We should review what happened, and clarify how things should be done going forward.”
Three vote down rules debate
Stella sought to get a rules amendment on the board’s agenda by proposing it during the May 8 meeting of the Steering Committee. Stella said he was surprised when three representatives voted against it.
One was Morson, the representative who Jackson says got involved after Nabel asked Jackson to take her District 20 seat.
Morson, one of the party establishment Democrats, did not say why he objected to a discussion about amending the rules, but asked Stella to explain “a little bit about what you’d like to get from this item.”
“It’s easy,” Stella said. “I’d like some guidelines … I’m looking for some sort of way to ensure we don’t continue going down this path.”
Republican city Rep. Mary Fedeli, who often supports party Democrats, also opposed it.
“I just don’t know how you can regulate a person’s circumstance as to how they can resign. So I’m not in favor of this,” Fedeli said.
Democrat Lindsey Miller, who often votes with the party, agreed.
“We can’t legislate how people can quit,” Miller said. “We can talk about how they are replaced but we can’t do this, so I’ll be voting no.”
Other representatives said they welcome a discussion. Among the issues are whether political parties should be involved in naming replacements for resigning representatives, and whether representatives other than the one who’s resigning can nominate people.
“I’m voting in favor of this because I think there should be a discussion and I’m interested to see what comes out of that,” said city Rep. Nina Sherwood, the board’s majority leader and a reform Democrat.
‘All we’re doing is talking’
City Rep. Phil Berns, chair of the Legislative & Rules Committee that will take up the discussion, said it’s time to do it.
“It can’t be harmful to talk about this,” Berns said. “We don’t have to come up with proscriptive language that says you must resign in thus and such a way, but we certainly can come up with suggested language as to how people go about it, which I think could be a helpful guideline for people. Why do we want to not talk about it? That’s all we’re doing is talking about it.”
City Rep. Megan Cottrell said the topic is worth exploring.
“How much can we do legally? I don’t know. But it’s worth a conversation because I think there was a lack of clarity with how some resignations have been done,” Cottrell said. “I think clarity would be extremely helpful.”
The Steering Committee voted 14-3 to place the proposal on the agenda of the Legislative & Rules Committee, which meets at 7 p.m. May 23 by webinar.
Other recent resignations occurred in March, when outgoing Democratic city Rep. Monica Di Costanzo named Bianca Shinn to replace her in District 7. Board members approved the choice unanimously.
Another occurred last year, when Republican city Rep. Charles Florio resigned from District 18 and the board unanimously appointed Republican Stephen Garst.
Also last year, Democrat Rodney Pratt of District 9, who was fighting brain cancer, named Kindrea Walston and the board approved her without question. Pratt, 68, died a few weeks later.