Local residents entering the Stamford Government Center Wednesday for a public hearing on proposals that would change the city charter were greeted by a giant inflated rat.
The claws-out, teeth-bared inflatable was erected by citizens angry that Mayor Caroline Simmons had a hand in creating a last-minute state law that made some of the proposals illegal before they can be debated or put on the ballot.
The law was quietly tucked into a huge spending package that state legislators passed earlier this month, just as they were adjourning for the year. In Hartford, such a law is known as a rat.
The one bobbing in the breeze outside the government center Wednesday evening signaled the strong sentiments among some of those who spoke during the 4-½-hour public hearing.
Most of the nearly 50 speakers, including some who weighed in virtually, fell into one of two camps.
One included Simmons backers, and those who said the proposed charter changes are a “power grab” by the Board of Representatives, or will stifle development, worsen the housing shortage, cost money, disregard renters, or fail to benefit the city in some way.
The other camp included Simmons detractors who said she “robbed the voters” of the chance to decide the proposals for themselves, and those who said the proposals would give them greater say in zoning matters, foster smarter development, make it tougher for the city to take private property by eminent domain, and more.
Readers can view the hearing here.
It shows about 20 speakers in the first camp, two or three more in the second camp, and perhaps a half-dozen in neither camp.
Citizens in the smallest group commented only on specific proposals or said they just want good information.
Nora Geissert was one.
Geissert, who said she put her life’s savings into buying a home in Stamford, wanted to convey “how discombobulating and concerning it is to try and decipher which of my government leaders are telling me the truth.”
R.J. Mercede was another.
“We need more explanation of what these changes really mean,” Mercede said. “I’m hearing a lot of information and misinformation.”
The first to take the microphone during the public hearing in the government center cafeteria was city Rep. Carl Weinberg of North Stamford, who said, “I want to talk about an assertion being made that many of you have heard, that the addendum to the bond bill was done deep in the night, where nobody was aware, and it was slipped in without anybody noticing, and our poor representatives in Hartford ended up voting for something that they hadn’t even read.”
The only part that is true, Weinberg said, is that the representatives voted for something they didn’t read.
“Actually, on June 7, this topic was brought to the floor of the General Assembly – June 7, weeks before the actual vote,” Weinberg said.
June 7 was the final day of the legislative session and voting.
The bill that Weinberg referenced was a 274-page document authorizing $5 billion in bonds over two years, plus $1 billion, per year, for school construction projects. The bill has more than 250 sections, many containing “rats” inserted to address local matters around the state.
Three-quarters of the way into the bill were 24 lines making it illegal for charter commissions anywhere in Connecticut to implement changes on the matters addressed by the Stamford commission.
State representatives from Stamford have questioned why, in the marathon final day of the legislative session, with hundreds of bills pending, a piece of legislation affecting their constituents was not flagged by those trying to pass it.
Four representatives said they did not know the new legislation was slipped into the bond bill; one, Matt Blumenthal, said he saw it on June 7.
‘The political toolbox’
Also on June 7, in Stamford, the Charter Revision Commission submitted its proposals to the Board of Representatives, which by state law must deliberate them, vote on them, and place the approved ones on the ballot. The proposals become law only if Stamford voters pass them.
Members of the Board of Representatives have said they learned about the new legislation June 22 from reading a news story in which Simmons said she “advocated” for the charter restrictions, and that inserting them in the bigger bill is “another tool in the political toolbox.”
Some speakers at Wednesday’s public hearing said they are outraged.
Beth Conrad stepped to the microphone to say she doesn’t understand how the mayor thought “taking the vote away from people and taking it into her own hands … is what should happen.”
Addressing the mayor, Conrad said, “If you were elected to be a democratic leader, then you have to persuade people. If you’re not persuading people, you are ineffectual. So maybe you shouldn’t run again. If you have a certain view, then convince people … but to take a democratic process away is unforgivable.”
Paula Waldman said she watched a June 21 meeting at which the Charter Revision Commission handed off its proposals to the Board of Representatives, taking questions for six hours. The following day, they found out that much of what they discussed was by then illegal.
“Why would our mayor do this while all of this is in process?” Waldman said. “This is not democratic.”
She questioned why Simmons, a former state representative, sought powerful friends in Hartford to bypass charter revision rules in Stamford.
“Why did the mayor call it another tool in the political toolbox? Are we pawns? We hadn’t even had the public hearing yet. We were in process,” Waldman said. “Trying to protect our community seems absolutely futile; we often find out about issues too little and too late.”
Waldman said she supports the Charter Revision Commission’s proposal to allow condominium owners to sign petitions requesting that the Board of Representatives appeal Zoning Board decisions on developments.
Who should sign?
The charter proposals killed by the new law that was passed with the bond bill would have allowed Zoning Board decisions to be appealed to the Board of Representatives if 300 property owners from anywhere in the city sign a petition, and would make it easier to gather signatures.
Simmons has said the petition provision should remain as written in the charter, allowing signatures only from landowners within a certain distance of the contested development. Commission members have said developments often affect the whole city, so all should be allowed to sign.
During the hearing, longtime business owner Larry Davidoff agreed with Simmons’ stance on petitions. The charter should stay as it is, Davidoff said.
“We have a petition system that works for neighbors. If you want to move the distance out from 500 feet to 1,000 feet, something like that, fine. But it should still be in the neighborhood where someone is affected,” Davidoff said. “To allow someone in Shippan to complain about a two-lot subdivision in North Stamford isn’t fair to the two-lot subdivision.”
Another commission proposal, also now dead, would have increased the threshold for elected boards to exercise eminent domain, which allows the city to take private property for the public good, to a two-thirds vote. A third proposal would do the same when elected boards seek to sell public land.
A fourth proposal would have required planning and zoning boards to increase the number of public hearings before they make decisions.
‘I stand with the mayor’
Among the Simmons supporters Wednesday was Brett Hillsberg, who introduced himself as a member of the Greater Stamford Young Democrats. He is a renter who has lived in Stamford for five years, Hillsberg said.
“Since then the city has grown and changed so much for the better,” he said. “Stamford needs more development, and not to be at the mercy of a few landowners with too much time on their hands. Our continued growth and collective success depends on it. We can’t attract more business and people if we don’t have enough housing inventory to keep up with demand. I stand with the mayor to reject these harmful changes that will stunt the city’s growth.”
Chris Malloy also thanked all the state representatives and senators who voted for the bond bill containing the restrictions on charter changes.
“The truth is, that is democracy in action,” Malloy said. “It doesn’t happen just at the local level; it happens at the state level. Thank you, Mayor Simmons, for taking leadership and courage to see that having this process would create a huge housing burden to the people that need housing the most.”
Malloy said one charter proposal will raise taxes by allowing the Board of Representatives to hire its own attorney. Commission members said the reason is that board interests sometimes conflict with those of other city agencies, and the law department cannot take both sides in the same case.
Malloy said he disagrees.
“It makes little sense for the Board of Representatives to hire its own legal counsel,” Malloy said. “It will increase the cost to taxpayers by $2.5 million over the next 10 years, when we already have a very competent legal department within the city.”
Other callers included three members of the Board of Finance, who said some of the charter proposals would add bureaucratic incumbrances and delay the city’s ability to fund capital improvements.
Finance board member Laura Burwick said city representatives should not approve a proposal that would require that some top city officials – including the police and fire chiefs, city attorney, and the directors of human resources and the office of operations – to live in Stamford because “it could leave spots open for years.”
The Board of Representatives will deliberate the charter revisions at meetings throughout the summer, and decide whether the ones they approve should go on the ballot in November.
Near the end of Wednesday’s hearing, Alex Martinez of the Charter Revision Commission said he wanted to address comments by speakers who said members are biased, exclusionist, anti-growth, and unwilling to fill the demand for housing.
Martinez, an attorney, said he emigrated to the U.S. when he was 5, and many members of his family have made Stamford home.
“In my experience in this city, always, no matter what side of the fence we’re on, we come together,” said Martinez, a Republican who served on the Board of Education. “My fellow commission members are diverse, we didn’t agree all the time, and I voted against some of the things they proposed. That’s democracy. But I love them all, because we all gave our time, all day Saturdays, four- and six-hour meetings after work, three and four times a month. We researched things, we did site visits. We weren’t paid. We did it for our love of our city, for the future of our city.”
So, Martinez said, “for me to hear people say that we’re ‘cronies,’ we’re ‘politics as usual,’ we’re a ‘packed commission?’ It hurt.”
It hurt, too, he said, that “there is a process, and the process was not respected, and that’s not right.”