The city Charter, Stamford’s constitution, exists to protect the rights of citizens.
It establishes the powers and functions of city government, with a focus on participation by the people.
The Charter’s preamble states that citizens have “the right to an open and accessible government,” including access to city records, officials, and employees. It says citizens have the right to observe meetings of all city boards and commissions, to speak at public hearings, and to expect that city officials and employees follow the code of ethics.
The Charter is so essential to representative government that it is treated as a living document that must be reviewed every 10 years.
Stamford is in the middle of a Charter revision now.
A 15-member Charter Revision Commission, appointed by the Board of Representatives in February 2022, has been working since then on a draft of its proposed changes. The commission must present its draft to the Board of Representatives by June 7.
The commission held its public hearing Wednesday night, drawing two dozen speakers, half of them elected or appointed members of a board or commission; members of the Democratic City Committee, the city’s dominant political party; and members of a housing advocacy group or the downtown business district.
Some speakers appeared to have no group affiliation.
Lewis Finkel of Weed Hill Avenue, for instance, told the commission that the Charter should treat condominium owners the same as homeowners.
R.J. Mercede of Knapp Street said the proposed changes are difficult to understand for residents who will ultimately vote them up or down at the ballot box. “I hope everyone is better informed when it comes time to vote,” Mercede said.
A Prospect Street man said the Board of Representatives should not be allowed to hire an attorney, as proposed, because that would not be “financially responsible.”
Kevin Maguire, a Leonard Street homeowner, said a proposal that would require that landowners who oppose a zoning change would need 300 signatures to petition against it, but supporters would need 750 signatures to advance it “is not democratic.” The numbers should be the same, Maguire said.
Comments focus on zoning
The speakers with prominent city positions focused on the Charter proposals dealing with development.
Richard Freedman, chair of the Stamford Board of Finance and a member of the Democratic City Committee, told the commission that, though he is a housing developer, he was speaking as the elected head of the finance board.
“Some of you may want to discount my comments as biased. I urge you not to do that,” Freedman said. “Many of the proposed changes to the zoning petition and review and appeals process … are unquestionably designed to make it far more difficult to get developments approved in this city. This will be harmful to the city’s fiscal health” because development adds to the value of the Grand List, and if that increases, taxes are lower, Freedman said.
David Kooris, president of the Downtown Special Services District, said members of the Planning Board and Zoning Board are “professionals with expertise,” and leaving land-use matters to the Board of Representatives “becomes a political process” so “it’s easier to stop something.”
That will result in higher taxes because “every project will be litigated” and that “will prevent our community from … adapting with the times,” and gaining value, Kooris said.
Lisa Feinberg, a land-use attorney whose firm represents developers, said the proposed Charter changes will create “zoning by referendum” and “allow anyone in the city, as long as there are 300 of them to sign a petition, to overturn legislative changes.”
Residents’ zoning frustrations
Some of the land-use changes the commission members proposed may stem from longstanding concerns among Stamford residents about protecting their neighborhoods from what they view as poor planning and overdevelopment. Residents say it has created congestion, traffic, untenable street parking and diminishing ownership opportunities as developers squeeze multi-family units onto small lots and pack in high-rises, charging rents most people can’t afford.
Residents have said they are not heard in a process that is already political, since Zoning Board and Planning Board members are political appointees. Residents say the boards operate in a world of procedures designed to keep them out.
A bid to boost engagement
In March 2022 the Board of Representatives passed a resolution charging the 19th Charter Revision Commission with making recommendations on a long list of subjects that included:
- Allowing citizens and officials to engage in discussion during public hearings; citizens now are allowed to speak for three minutes without interaction from board or commission members.
- Imposing term limits for city officials.
- Prohibiting officials from holding more than one public office or sitting on more than one board or commission.
- Prohibiting officials from voting on a proposed ordinance immediately following a public hearing on the ordinance, so officials have time to truly consider public comments.
- Adding a registrar for unaffiliated voters, a huge block in Stamford. Now there are registrars only for Democrat and Republican voters.
- Improving online access to city records.
- Engaging in resident outreach when a large development is proposed for a neighborhood.
Toward that end, the Charter Revision Commission created five committees – Appointed Boards, Elected Officials, City Departments, Finance, and Land Use.
Since last year, the number of committee and full commission meetings has numbered close to 100, said Tom Lombardo, the Charter Revision chair. Attendance at the public meetings was poor even though agendas were posted in advance and people could have participated virtually or in person, Lombardo said after the public hearing.
It was frustrating to hear speakers say the draft was dropped on them a week before the hearing, Lombardo said.
“In all those months, we had one person speak at one of our meetings. Some land-use lawyers showed up as virtual viewers, but no comment has come to us during or after meetings,” he said. “For emails in general, I would say we got eight total during the entire process.”
Elect instead of appoint?
The commission vice chair, Mike Larobina, a former corporation counsel for the city, said he knows about “the frustration people are experiencing,” but revising the Charter often can’t fix the causes.
“By state statute and case law, Charter revision is about the structure and organization of city government,” Larobina said. “I think the level of frustration is such that people view Charter revision as an opportunity to address their frustration. But it’s not the vehicle.”
One way in which a Charter change might help is if Stamford requires that Zoning Board and Planning Board members be elected, instead of appointed by the mayor, Larobina said. Other Connecticut cities do that, he said.
“I raised that issue, but there was no interest in moving in that direction,” he said.
As they worked, commission members reviewed more than 300 proposals submitted by citizens and elected officials, Larobina said.
Steve Mednick, the Charter Revision Commission’s attorney, said many of the proposed changes are designed to encourage public participation in city government.
“The changes say that, in land use, there needs to be early notice to neighborhoods where the city is looking at projects. In the budget process, we created a joint public hearing before the budget begins to be assembled where the public can say to the mayor and the boards, these are the priorities we want you to think about,” Mednick said.
“There is a provision, like they have in New Haven, Hamden and Hartford, that says when you have a public hearing on an ordinance, you can’t vote on it that evening. You have to let the public know when the vote will be and give the public time to get in touch with their legislator to discuss it. The idea is to involve people at the earliest possible stage.”
Renters in Stamford have been reporting repeatedly broken elevators and garage doors, security issues that building managers fail to address, and other problems. In response, the commission proposed forming a Housing Commission, Mednick said.
“It would be like an ombudsman for tenants. Policies could then follow out of it,” he said. “The city has a Fair Rent Commission. This would be a forum for issues that go beyond rent.”
Lombardo said the Charter Revision Commission will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday to discuss adjustments to the draft. It must go to the Board of Representatives by June 7. Representatives then have 60 days to review it, make any changes, and hold a public hearing.
Once the board approves a final draft, the proposed Charter changes will go on a ballot during an election so voters can decide which ones are enacted.