STAMFORD – City representatives spent two hours Wednesday debating a resolution asking Gov. Ned Lamont to call a special session of the General Assembly to repeal last-minute legislation that prohibits towns from changing their charters on zoning matters.
Before the meeting ended, members of the Board of Representatives voted, 24-14 with one abstention, to urge the Democratic governor to reconvene the legislature this month to get rid of 24 lines of text inserted into a massive, must-pass bond bill just as the regular session ended on June 7.
But Julia Bergman, deputy communications director for the governor, said Thursday there will not be a special session.
“The General Assembly approved the two-year bond package on a large bipartisan vote,” Bergman said. “Lawmakers can re-examine the legislation during the next session if they choose.”
City Rep. Nina Sherwood, Democratic Majority Leader of the Stamford Board of Representatives, said Thursday that the issue should at least be debated in Hartford.
“It’s disappointing that the fastest-growing city in the state is begging to let their residents vote on how planning and zoning is done in their city, and Governor Lamont is refusing to give the voters of Stamford that opportunity,” Sherwood said. “We are supposed to be the party of expanded ballot access and voting rights, and here we have the establishment of the Democratic Party in Connecticut saying they’re OK with taking away the voting rights of the residents of 110 municipalities in the state, on arguably the most important issue facing municipalities, which is land use.”
Roughly 110 of Connecticut’s 169 towns abide by charters rather than just state statute. The state Office of Legislative Research describes charter towns as having “more flexibility to change the structure of their government, and the powers, duties, and terms of office of their officials.”
Wednesday’s debate and subsequent vote during the Board of Representatives’ special meeting reveal that the incident has strained relationships among the 36 Democrats on the 40-member board, as well as the relationship between a majority of board members and Democratic Mayor Caroline Simmons.
Simmons, a former state representative, has said she “advocated” for the legislation negating Stamford’s charter proposals. She has refused to say who in Hartford had a hand in crafting it.
Such legislation is known in Hartford as a “rat” because it quietly appears in a bigger bill at the last minute to serve a specific interest.
Democratic Speaker of the House Matt Ritter has told CT Examiner that responsibility for the “rat” inserted into the multi-billion-dollar bond bill is “hard to pin on one person.” Asked whether Simmons requested the legislation, Ritter said, “Caroline is a dear friend.”
The General Assembly passed the bond bill, “rat” included, on June 7, the same day the Stamford Charter Revision Commission handed its proposed changes over to the Board of Representatives for deliberation. Many of the proposals centered on zoning, a hotly contested issue in Stamford.
For the proposals to become law, Stamford voters would have to approve them. But the tucked-in text, which mirrored zoning changes proposed by the Stamford Charter Revision Commission, makes such changes illegal in all towns in Connecticut.
City representatives who approved Wednesday’s resolution said they did so because voters now will not decide on election day whether to change the petitioning requirements for appealing zoning decisions; whether to change regulations governing public hearings, public notices and other zoning procedures; and whether to change the vote count needed for the city to seize private property or sell public land.
The new law “took away residents’ rights to vote on charter changes,” said Sherwood, who helped write the resolution.
The authors of the state statutes laying out the revision process “felt so strongly about it that they didn’t say mayors or legislative bodies could change the charter – it has to go to the people to decide,” Sherwood said during the meeting. “It has to do with our sacred ability to self-govern.”
‘A Pandora’s box’
Democrats on the Board of Representatives who voted against the resolution Wednesday supported the mayor’s position in various ways. Democratic city Rep. Carl Weinberg tried to end a discussion about how the legislation was created, saying “it’s not the point of the resolution.” Democratic city Rep. Amiel Goldberg agreed, saying such a discussion would open “a Pandora’s box to an emotional and nonproductive line of reasoning.”
Democratic city Rep. Jonathan Jacobson said the fault lies with state representatives from Stamford who voted for the bond bill not knowing all that it said.
“Not to justify what took place in Hartford or how it took place, but the focus is not being properly placed,” Jacobson said. “Whether it was done surreptitiously, I don’t know, but it seems to me any blame should be placed on lawmakers who voted for it without understanding what they voted for.”
Members of Stamford’s legislative delegation – Democratic state representatives Hubert Delany, Anabel Figueroa, David Michel, and Corey Paris – have said they knew nothing about the charter revision prohibitions tucked inside the bond bill. State Sen. Ryan Fazio of Greenwich, who represents part of Stamford, has said he also did not know.
Only one state representative, Democrat Matt Blumenthal of Stamford, said he saw the charter revision prohibitions when the bond bill came out on June 7. State Sen. Patricia Billie Miller of Stamford, co-sponsor of the bond bill, did not return a request for comment.
Democratic city Rep. Virgil De la Cruz, who voted for the resolution Wednesday, disagreed with Jacobson that state lawmakers are to blame.
“It’s not that they didn’t read it — it was inserted at the last moment with no opportunity for them to read it,” de la Cruz said.
Jacobson also faulted the Board of Representatives, saying he “did not feel that the composition of the Charter Revision Commission was appropriately undertaken.” Board members interviewed about 60 citizen volunteers and chose 15 to sit on the commission.
“Why did political maneuvering at the state level have to take place? In my view it was to combat the political maneuvering that had already taken place on this board,” Jacobson said. “I am not comfortable with how things happened in Hartford, but do the ends justify the means? I don’t know. To the extent the mayor was involved in more than just advocating, I think the mayor under those circumstances felt she had to bring herself down to our level.”
De la Cruz responded.
“The maneuver deprives the people of Stamford from voting on proposals in accordance with state law,” de la Cruz said. “The Board of Representatives and the administration are equal branches of city government that provide checks and balances. I have never understood it to be that the mayor is at a higher level and would have to bring herself down to engage with us.”
One-minute video clip
Democratic city Rep. Cara Gilbride, who opposed the resolution, said the Stamford delegation to Hartford dropped the ball.
Gilbride said a tape of state House of Representatives proceedings on June 7 shows State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, a Republican from East Lyme and ranking member of the Finance, Revenue & Bonding Committee, mentioning the legislation inserted into the bond bill.
“If you watch the video, Holly Cheeseman says this pertains to the Stamford charter,” Gilbride said. “If you’re going to support voting rights, they voted for it, you have to accept it.”
The House video shows state representatives asking about multiple bills on June 7, the closing day of the session. About 8.5 hours into a discussion that went on for nearly 12 hours, Cheeseman asks Democratic State Rep. Maria Horn of Salisbury, chair of the Finance, Revenue & Bonding Committee, about Section 226.
“It appears to resolve an issue with the Stamford charter, am I correct on that?” Cheeseman asks.
“This is a change of statewide applicability, so it does address charters but it’s applicable statewide,” Horn replies.
“Can you explain the local zoning issue that is now applicable to the whole state?” asks Cheeseman.
Horn looks down, saying she has to reread the language. “I believe … for planning and zoning generally, it’s not aimed at a particular issue,” Horn replies.
The exchange takes just under a minute.
It was far from a deliberation, Democratic city Rep. Sean Boeger said during Wednesday’s meeting.
“Let’s not try to give the illusion that it was a fully debated matter on the floor of the House of Representatives,” Boeger said. “If it was all on the up-and-up, why was it stuck on line (6569) on a 10,000-line bill? We’re getting lip service from the Simmons administration, and we still haven’t heard from her.”
Democratic city Rep. Kindrea Walston said that has to happen.
“Our leader has not addressed us. She’s hiding behind her words,” Walston said. “I don’t understand how the mayor doesn’t address the Charter Revision Commission or the Board of Representatives to explain what happened.”
The board’s special meeting to vote on the resolution was immediately followed by its regular monthly meeting, at which Simmons delivered her 2023 State of the City address. Simmons did not mention the charter revision controversy in her address.