STAMFORD — No one is saying how, exactly, it happened, but just before midnight on June 7, as the state legislature was ending its 2023 session, proposals on the table in Stamford to amend its charter became illegal.
Now, the volunteers who have been drafting the changes for nearly a year and a half — and city representatives who were about to deliberate them — are furious with Mayor Caroline Simmons.
They said they only learned by reading a story in the Connecticut Mirror, published Thursday, that Simmons had a hand in creating what is known in Hartford as a “rat” – a piece of law quietly tucked into a big bill as a political favor. Usually a “rat” needs a ride in a bigger bill because it could not get through the Legislature on its own.
In this case, the new law – tucked in a multi-billion-dollar capital spending bill passed at the last minute – made some of the most significant changes proposed by Stamford’s Charter Revision Commission illegal.
Many of the proposals concern the hottest topic in Stamford – zoning.
Simmons told the Connecticut Mirror, which covers the legislature, that her administration “advocated” for the legislation that now bans charter changes that would make it easier for citizens to appeal Zoning Board decisions, bans changes that would make it more difficult for city officials to acquire private property by eminent domain, and other matters.
Simmons, a Democrat and a former state representative, told the Connecticut Mirror that tucking the new law into the bonding package was “another tool in the political toolbox.”
Tom Lombardo, chair of the Charter Revision Commission, said Friday it’s difficult to accept that Simmons knew that the legislation she sought was passed on June 7 but said nothing even as the commission fine-tuned proposals that were no longer legal.
Commission members and their attorneys had a six-hour meeting Wednesday with the Charter Revision Committee of the Board of Representatives, which must approve the proposals, only to find out Thursday that much of what they’d discussed had been illegal for two weeks, said Lombardo, a Republican.
“We were completely taken by surprise,” Lombardo said. “We knew nothing about it until somebody passed on the information from that newspaper story.”
Legislature’s ‘dark art’
Connecticut Mirror described it as “the dark art of making law and doing favors in Connecticut,” writing that the Stamford legislation and another “rat” involving the Town of Middlebury “exposes the lack of transparency and the ad hoc nature of what goes into closing a budget deal.”
Steve Mednick, one of two attorneys for the Charter Revision Commission, said he’s worked on more than 30 municipal charters in Connecticut and never saw a state law raised to block proposals under deliberation.
“I’ve never seen this done during a charter revision process,” Mednick said. “Usually when you have differences, you battle it out in the field, try to persuade commission members to change their position, try to persuade the legislative body and, if you can’t, you try to beat them” at the ballot box.
The piece of law that appeared in the bond package had six prongs, he said.
One negates a commission proposal that would allow Zoning Board decisions to be appealed to the Board of Representatives if 300 property owners citywide sign a petition, and would make it easier to gather signatures.
Another negates a commission proposal to require a two-thirds vote of the Planning Board, Board of Finance and Board of Representatives to exercise eminent domain, a government’s authority to take private property for the public good. Still another would raise the vote threshold for selling public property.
“This law now says a municipality can’t amend the charter to set a more restrictive standard than state law,” Mednick said.
A fourth provision tucked into the bond bill appears to prohibit municipalities from requiring planning or zoning boards to alter how they handle public hearings, Mednick said.
“We had approved a proposal that prevented planning bodies from acting on something on the same night as a public hearing,” Mednick said. “We wanted them to take a little time to digest what members of the public said, then come back to make a decision, even if it’s the next day. Now we can’t do that.”
Law affects all 169 Municipalities
With the new state law, “if a mayor or legislative body or a group of citizens wants to alter their charter in any four of these areas, they have to go ask the legislature to do that,” Mednick said. “It takes us back to the days before home rule, where you have to go to the legislature to fix something instead of fixing it yourself.”
It affects all 169 Connecticut municipalities, he said.
“If this had had a public hearing in Hartford, it definitely would raise questions — why would the state want to restrict a municipality’s ability to do that?” he said.
Two other prongs of the law inserted in the bigger bill – one that would prevent town legislative bodies from hiring ongoing outside legal counsel, and another that would prevent a town from requiring that its employees live in the town – were dropped, Mednick said.
If they had survived, they would have negated Stamford proposals to allow the Board of Representatives to retain legal counsel in disputes with other branches of city government, and to require that certain city employees, including the police and fire chiefs, live in the city.
“I don’t think anybody knows who introduced this law, how it was introduced, who changed it to drop the fifth and sixth provisions, or why they were dropped,” Mednick said.
Reps say ‘rat’ slipped through
Simmons’ office did not respond to a question about her administration’s involvement in devising the new law, but Simmons’ special assistant, Lauren Meyer, instead issued a more general statement Friday afternoon.
“Mayor Simmons supports and applauds the recent provision relating to municipal charter revisions that was part of the state budget and was approved by an overwhelming bipartisan majority of the General Assembly, including votes in favor from Stamford’s entire legislative delegation. These changes to state law preserve existing municipal practices which have historically been critical in fostering economic growth in Stamford, including making improvements to our transportation infrastructure, safer streets, building school facilities, and bringing jobs and businesses to our community.”
In the statement, Simmons said that her administration “worked with members of Stamford’s legislative delegation and state legislative leadership to voice” her position.
But members of Stamford’s legislative delegation contacted Friday – Democratic State Representatives Hubert Delany, David Michel and Anabel Figueroa – said they voted for the budget package but knew nothing about the charter revision provisions hidden inside.
“I was shocked by the provisions, which seem to undermine what our bipartisan Charter Revision Commission has been working on,” Michel said. “It makes even less sense because the provisions extend the public process and make things more fair for citizens concerned about development.”
State representatives “never got to discuss it,” Figueroa said.
“So we blindly voted for the budget, not knowing what was in it,” Figueroa said. “How can we trust a leader who works behind our backs? There was zero transparency. The mayor went behind closed doors and bypassed every commission and board.”
Figueroa, who also sits on the Board of Representatives, said Simmons perceives some city and state representatives as being anti-development.
“We are not anti-development. We want developers to contribute more housing that is truly affordable housing,” Figueroa said. “How will we ever be able to meet the demand for working people when all the land is being used to build housing that is mostly for people who have money? We are not really creating affordable housing for people as we claim.”
Another Democratic state representative from Stamford, Matt Blumenthal, said Friday he read the charter revision laws when the bond bill came out on June 7.
“I read it before I voted on it. It was a broad-based policy that applies statewide,” Blumenthal said. “As far as Stamford, it preserves the status quo.”
Asked whether he was aware that the new law negated charter revision changes under deliberation in Stamford, Blumenthal said, “I have not been reviewing the deliberations of the Charter Commission.”
Democratic State Sen. Pat Billie Miller of Stamford, who co-sponsored the larger bill, did not return a request for comment; nor did Democratic State Rep. Corey Paris of Stamford.
‘Hard to pin on one person’
Speaker of the House Matt Ritter, a Hartford Democrat, said a lot goes on in the final hours of the session, especially with a budget deal in the balance.
Asked who is responsible for the charter revision law, Ritter said, “It’s hard to pin on one person … it could be that it wasn’t changed just for Stamford … some may have thought it is good policy for any municipality to have.”
Asked whether it’s possible that members of the Stamford delegation didn’t know that something affecting their city was included in the bond bill, Ritter said, “It might be true that no state representative knew.”
Asked whether Simmons requested that the charter provisions be included in the bond bill, Ritter said, “Caroline is a dear friend.”
State Sen. Ryan Fazio of Greenwich, a Republican who represents part of Stamford, said lawmakers received the 800-page bond bill less than an hour before they voted on it.
“I only had time to look at the overall spending, and the spending going to my district. I certainly didn’t know about the provisions overriding some local control. I have heard from several prominent leaders in Greenwich and Stamford who are upset about it,” Fazio said. “I’m the ranking member on Planning and Development and this would have been heard by my committee if it had gone through the legislative process. If it had been a stand-alone bill, it probably would not have gotten out of committee.”
Simmons said in her statement that the law inserted in the budget package restored tools needed for “inclusive economic growth in the City of Stamford.”
The new law avoids “giving an outsized voice to those who have more time and resources to petition the city to stop projects, even in neighborhoods in which they do not live,” according to her statement.
Steve Loeb, who heads the Charter Revision Commission’s Land Use Committee and worked on the proposals that now are illegal, strongly disagreed with the statement.
“It is completely opposite and incorrect. We wanted to give power to the people, instead of five Zoning Board members, several of whom have overstayed their terms,” Loeb said. “There’s nothing more democratic than the process of charter reform – appointing a commission of citizens to review the charter, sending the proposals to public hearing, then to the Board of Representatives, and then to the electorate.”
Simmons “is always talking about diversity, equity and inclusion. This was a diverse commission that took into account the feelings of the minority community about eminent domain,” Loeb said. “They believe eminent domain is a tool used to take their homes and businesses. But the mayor overruled our proposal on eminent domain.”
Out of the hands of voters
Jeff Curtis, president of the Board of Representatives and co-chair of its Charter Revision Committee, sharply criticized Simmons, saying that the new law prevented the people of Stamford from having the opportunity to vote on zoning proposals that commission members spent hundreds of hours crafting after public hearings, reviewing ideas submitted by citizens and elected officials, consultations with lawyers, and other research.
Charter changes ultimately are decided by voters in a November election.
“The mayor has shown no respect for the Board of Representatives, the Charter Revision Commission, and most of all for the people,” said Curtis, a Democrat. “It seems the administration is not willing to let the people speak, because the mayor negated their opportunity to vote these things up or down.”
His committee co-chair, Republican city Rep. Bradley Bewkes, said the move is undemocratic.
“The mayor and her administration must have fully believed that, in November, the public would have voted for the changes that the Charter Revision suggested, otherwise they would have not taken such severe, private, actions to usurp the process which would have played out in full over the next several months,” Bewkes said.
Curtis said the Board of Representatives must now decide how to respond.
“This didn’t happen by chance. It was well-orchestrated,” Curtis said. “It’s very concerning that the powers that be have no respect for the process in Stamford.”