STAMFORD – Contentiousness around revising the city charter, which has reverberated statewide, continued Tuesday when the Board of Representatives decided which changes will go before the voters.
The 5½-hour meeting began with Democratic Mayor Caroline Simmons laying out her opposition to half a dozen of the proposed charter changes, and ended with the Democrat-dominated board approving most of them anyway.
Now Stamford voters will determine whether to revise the city’s body of laws on multiple fronts, including:
- whether the Board of Representatives can more readily hire an attorney when deliberating matters
- whether to make it easier to replace people who sit on boards and commissions beyond their terms
- whether to require that certain high-level officials live in Stamford
- whether to require that the mayor notify city officials about efforts to lobby for legislation in Hartford and Washington
Because the 6:30 p.m. meeting went past midnight, city representatives voted to put on hold a discussion about whether the charter revisions should go on the ballot on Nov. 7 or next year. A meeting to determine that has been scheduled for next week.
A point of agreement between the board and the mayor concerned the so-called “trigger” provision. Members of the Stamford Charter Revision Commission put in the “trigger” in case the state legislature reconsiders a controversial law tucked into a major bonding bill and passed in Hartford on June 7. The bill prohibits Connecticut towns from changing zoning provisions in their charters.
Simmons told board members they should reject the provision because it is not legal for the zoning proposals to sit on the books to be triggered later by an anticipated change in state law.
City Rep. Nina Sherwood, the board’s majority leader and a proponent of the “trigger,” said the board is “not quite sure if it’s legal or illegal … we want it to be part of the charter but we recognize it puts (other charter changes) in jeopardy.”
A majority of the board agreed, and voted to reject the “trigger” provision, but it did not go down easily.
“The biggest issue in this city is how we use our land, and the rate at which we are developing,” Sherwood said. “It was an opportunity for the voters to change the charter on the most important issue the city faces (and) it was, in my opinion, robbed from them.”
Simmons takes flak for new law
Because of the statewide law, Stamford residents will not be able to vote on proposed changes that would have made it easier to petition the Board of Representatives to reconsider zoning decisions; increase the vote threshold needed for the city to seize private property by eminent domain or sell public land; or change any charter provisions concerning planning or zoning boards.
The law targeted zoning provisions that had just been proposed by the Stamford Charter Revision Commission. After the law passed, commission members had to change or delete nearly three dozen sections of their draft.
“I think we all know where this came from – it’s from the mayor going up to Hartford and having a rat provision inserted in a bonding bill,” City Rep. Sean Boeger said during the meeting. “Let the people make a decision on this” by putting it on the ballot.
City Rep. Kindrea Walston said Simmons “took things in her own hands. It wasn’t right … it was a back-door deal.”
City Rep. Anabel Figueroa agreed.
“When we as elected officials do business behind the backs of the people, democracy starts to die,” Figueroa said.
“This is the most important provision of the entire charter revision document,” said City Rep. Bradley Bewkes. “It happened without any public discussion, after we’d been talking about charter revision for two years. That’s not how laws are supposed to be made. It should not be a fly-by-night taking advantage of the system.”
A ‘nebulous’ proposal
Simmons urged the board to reject the charter change because “there are already ample opportunities for the mayor’s office to provide frequent updates to all city boards about legislative matters.”
City representatives opposed to the change said it is too ill-defined. It says the mayor “shall immediately report to the
Board of Finance and Board of Representatives all legislative items and proposals.”
It’s “nebulous,” City Rep. Don Mays said.
“What do we mean by ‘immediately’ and what is a ‘legislative item?’” Mays said. “It’s just not fully baked.”
The measure would “hobble the mayor” in negotiations with state and federal lawmakers, and “there’s no enforcement,” Mays said. “Nothing happens if the mayor doesn’t comply.”
“It’s an attempt to undermine the mayor,” said City Rep. Amiel Goldberg.
“It’s a gotcha clause because some people are angry at the mayor,” City Rep. Carl Weinberg said.
But now the voters will decide whether mayors must report their legislative efforts, because 21 representatives voted to approve the charter change and 15 voted to reject it. One lawmaker abstained.
Attorneys for all
There was a heated debate on a provision that would allow the Board of Representatives to employ an attorney if a majority of those present and voting agree.
Now the board may be represented by the city attorney, who is a mayoral appointee, or may hire an attorney case by case if 31 of the 40 members vote for it.
Simmons said it would be “inefficient, divisive” and costly to taxpayers if the board has its own attorney. Representatives said the city attorney faces a conflict of interest in cases where the mayor and the board are at odds, and other Connecticut cities have them for that reason.
“It seems reasonable that, from time to time, if there is a difference of opinion between the corporation counsel and the Board of Representatives, the board should have the option of seeking a second opinion, instead of relying on an office that works at the pleasure of the mayor,” City Rep. Phil Berns said.
City Rep. Ashley Ley disagreed.
“We have the ability to appoint outside counsel, so what we have in place today is sufficient,” Ley said.
The proposal to allow the board to engage its own attorney will also go before voters – 25 representatives voted to approve it; 13 to reject it.
The ‘holdover’ problem
The Board of Representatives voted, 25-14, to accept a charter change addressing a problem that has spanned mayoral administrations – positions on the volunteer boards and commissions that help run the city are too often left vacant or are filled by people whose terms have expired.
As it is now, the mayor has 120 days from the time a term expires to send a nominee’s name to the Board of Representatives for approval. If the mayor does not do that, the board president gets 120 days to nominate someone. If that doesn’t happen, the nomination reverts back to the mayor for 90 days. The charter doesn’t say what happens if no action is taken after that.
“There is a void, or an abyss, and no one has the power to appoint until there is a vacancy,” charter commissioners wrote in their transmittal letter to the board.
Half of the seats on the city’s boards and commissions are occupied by people operating on expired terms, Sherwood said. They’re known as holdovers.
“The charter clearly defines three-year terms (but) it has a giant loophole that has been taken advantage of by many mayors,” Sherwood said.
On the five-member Zoning Board, “which has a tremendous effect on everybody’s lives,” one person’s term expired three years ago, another expired five years ago, and a third’s reappointment was rejected by the Board of Representatives in 2021 “and is still making decisions for our city,” Sherwood said.
To fix it, the Charter Revision Commission proposed that any city representative may submit a nomination during “the abyss,” and the mayor could do so, too.
Simmons urged representatives to vote against it.
The charter change “is clearly an attempt to wholly usurp the mayor’s appointment power by allowing the Board of Representatives to simply reject the mayor’s nominees for 120 days, and run out the clock on the mayor’s authority,” Simmons said.
City Rep. Jonathan Jacobson said “there is a problem with holdovers, but this is not the solution …. There is too much potential for abuse … it can stonewall the mayor.”
But City Rep. Virgil de la Cruz said it’s not the mayor’s power that’s in jeopardy.
“The Board of Representatives has lost power when a nominee is rejected but remains in place because of the loophole,” de la Cruz said.
Work here, live here?
Representatives went back and forth on a proposed charter change that would require that the directors of public safety , operations and human resources; the city attorney; and the police and fire chiefs and their assistants live in Stamford, exempting those already in those positions.
An attorney for the Charter Revision Commission said the residency requirement is already in the charter – the revision simply lays out the positions covered by it.
Some representatives said it’s already difficult to find good hires, and the residency requirement will make it moreso. Others said people hired for such important positions are more knowledgeable and engaged when they live in the city where they work.
Representatives ultimately voted, 33-1, with three abstentions, to keep the residency requirement but allow the board to waive it when decided by a majority vote of the entire membership.