STAMFORD – An 18-month-old email is adding to the controversy over Democratic Mayor Caroline Simmons’ role in creating a state law that blocks changes to the city charter.
The Jan. 15, 2022 email written by Simmons’ chief of staff, Bridget Fox, shows that the administration requested that the Charter Revision Commission eliminate residents’ ability to petition the Board of Representatives if they disagree with a zoning decision.
“Please see attached for items from the mayor’s office for consideration and review for the Charter Revision Committee,” Fox wrote to Board of Representatives President Jeff Curtis and city Rep. Bradley Bewkes, who co-chair the committee.
Item 3 on the administration’s list of recommended charter changes for the Land Use Bureau states, “Remove the ability to appeal Planning and Zoning Board decisions to the Board of Representatives.”
A state statute “already provides for relief” when property owners wish to appeal a zoning decision, states the email, publicly available on the Board of Representatives website. According to the statute, residents may appeal in state Superior Court provided they serve notice of legal action within 15 days of a Zoning Board decision.
“As appeals to land use board decisions usually end up in court,” the petition provisions in the charter “add unnecessary procedural steps without any positive effect on the resolution of land use conflicts,” the email states.
The email runs counter to what Simmons, a former state representative, has been saying since she moved to block zoning-related proposals drafted by the Stamford Charter Revision Commission and presented to the Board of Representatives for deliberation on June 7.
On that day in Hartford, lawmakers scrambling to end the session for the year passed a multi-billion-dollar capital projects package as part of the state budget. Tucked inside it was a law prohibiting towns from changing their charters on zoning matters concerning petitioning, the taking of private property for public good, selling public land, and planning and zoning procedures.
Such laws are known in Hartford as “rats” because they pass when they are slipped into big must-pass packages, usually at the last minute as a political favor. Simmons has said she did it to safeguard the precepts of the city charter, the city’s governing document.
‘Preserve existing tools’
Simmons wrote in an opinion piece for Hearst media that she went to Hartford to call for the law “to preserve existing tools” in the charter, which must be revised every 10 years.
“Under the framework of our current charter, we have the processes in place to ensure Stamford grows in an equitable way over the next decade and gives residents a participatory voice when projects impact their neighborhoods,” Simmons wrote.
One of the processes in the charter allows Stamford residents to appeal Zoning Board decisions by petitioning the Board of Representatives.
To do it, residents must gather signatures from 20 percent of the landowners within 500 feet of a proposed project, or 100 residents, whichever is less. When changes affect several zones, residents must gather 300 signatures from landowners anywhere in the city.
Simmons wrote that she wanted to keep that right for residents, and that she only opposed the looser petitioning standard recommended by the Charter Revision Commission.
But Fox’s email shows that, from the start of the charter revision process, the administration wanted to remove residents’ ability to petition altogether.
According to the email, the original petition provision “favor(s) owners of large properties,” though it didn’t explain the reason.
The email also says the original petition provision “disenfranchise(s) renters,” though state law, which gives charters their authority, speaks only about property owners in addressing petitions.
Fox, and Simmons’ policy and legislative affairs director, Lauren Meyer, did not return a request for comment Monday.
Petitions vs. lawsuit
Members of the Charter Revision Commission have said they wanted to make it easier for residents of the neighborhoods most affected by development to petition, since it is difficult to gather signatures in areas where many property owners are limited-liability companies or absentee landlords. They also wanted residents to be able to weigh in when they would be affected by traffic congestion a new project could create, even if they don’t live immediately nearby, commissioners have said.
Their proposal would have allowed residents to appeal by gathering 300 electronic signatures from anywhere in the city, regardless of how many zones are affected. They said petitioning is needed because most people cannot afford to take the city to court.
Democratic city Rep. Anabel Figueroa, who represents parts of three congested Stamford neighborhoods – Glenbrook, East Side and the Cove – said Monday she didn’t know Simmons originally wanted to eliminate appeals to the Board of Representatives.
But “I’m not surprised,” said Figueroa, who has been outspoken in condemning how the law was passed. Figueroa also is a state representative from Stamford’s District 148.
“So this was brewing right from the start. The administration knew exactly what they wanted to do,” Figueroa said. “As the Charter Revision Commission was working on their proposals, the administration was working against the proposals.”
Simmons has said the charter revisions would have discouraged development, economic growth, job creation, and private investment, and would have added to the housing shortage.
Figueroa said the mayor should have debated the proposals with the Board of Representatives instead of pushing for a state law that killed them before they were aired. Charters in Connecticut cannot be changed unless a town’s legislative body approves a commission’s proposals then places them on the ballot for voters to decide.
“Instead,the mayor brought this to the state and used her friends in Hartford. It’s so disrespectful to the Stamford delegation in Hartford. The mayor said she worked with the delegation, but who? Most of us knew nothing about it,” Figueroa said.
‘Stop doing favors’
Besides Figueroa, members of Stamford’s legislative delegation – Democratic state representatives Hubert Delany, David Michel, and Corey Paris – have said they voted for the bond bill without knowing the charter prohibitions were inside. Republican 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 law when the bond bill came out on June 7. Democratic state Sen. Patricia Billie Miller of Stamford did not return a request for comment.
On the final day of the legislature, state lawmakers go from one room to the next, including between the House and Senate, to advocate for bills that are in danger of dying before the midnight deadline, Figueroa said.
Democratic state Rep. Minnie Gonzalez of Hartford, deputy speaker of the state House of Representatives, said it’s the case every year.
“Bills with hundreds of pages are given to you at the last moment, when you don’t know what’s in it and you don’t have time to read it,” Gonzalez said. “It happens all the time.”
Democratic state Rep. Hilda Santiago of Meriden, assistant deputy speaker pro-tempore of the House, said Meriden’s city manager and attorney are still looking at the charter prohibitions, which affect all of the 110 or so Connecticut towns with charters.
“A precedent has been set, so there is a lot of fear about this. It takes away power from the local level,” Santiago said. “You have a charter and you’re trying to run your city by the rules, then you have the state coming along and saying, ‘Your charter is no good; we’re going to do what we want.’ If that’s the case, then why have city governance? These charters govern the towns and need to be respected.”
Figueroa, who is new to the state legislature, had a message for her colleagues about “rat” laws.
“This is about the people,” she said. “This is not about your friends. Stop doing favors. All of this has to stop.”