In Party Split, Stamford Reps Block Simmons Choice for Zoning Seat


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STAMFORD – In the state’s fastest-growing city, development has again divided the Board of Representatives, and revealed the depth of a rift between city lawmakers and the mayor.

It resulted Tuesday in defeat of Mayor Caroline Simmons’ choice for a seat on the Zoning Board, which decides development matters.

In a 21-16 vote, with two abstentions, representatives rejected Simmons’ nominee, Keith Walker, a real estate executive specializing in property management and development.

The defeat came even though Simmons and 36 of the 40 members of the Board of Representatives are Democrats, and despite endorsement from prominent members of the Democratic City Committee.

Differing views of development have split the party. 

Simmons and some city Democrats want developers to continue building more projects to fill the housing need, and they back zoning amendments that support redevelopment of corporate parks, selling public property to private developers to build housing, allowing accessory apartments in single-family homes, and more.

Other Democrats say Stamford, where roughly 8,000 units have been built since 2008 and hundreds more are planned, is creating the wrong kind of housing. Nearly all of it has been high-priced luxury one-bedrooms and studios when people need larger, more affordable units, they say. Beyond that, they say, streets are filling with traffic and neighborhoods are being squeezed.

Before the vote on Walker Tuesday night, the Board of Representatives opened the floor to members of the public.

One of the speakers was Richard Freedman – a member of the Democratic City Committee, chair of the Board of Finance, and a developer. Freedman said that though Walker works in the development field, he has “no local clients, no conflict of interest.”

Among past Zoning Board appointees, “some provide excellent feedback, some none, some provide feedback of no benefit,” Freedman said. But Walker “has decades of experience with development and zoning and zoning boards … he can cut through the fog … he can protect the city’s interests.”

Roslyn Nesin, chair of the Democratic City Committee panel that handles appointments, said Walker won unanimous party approval.

The party committee interviewed Walker in July and found him to have “a calm and respectful demeanor and extensive real estate experience,” Nesin said. Walker told her committee that if he were named to the Zoning Board he would consider each proposed development individually and base his decisions on the regulations and community input, and he would “get the most out of developers,” Nesin said.

‘Elephants in the room’

City Rep. Jonathan Jacobson said the party’s backing of Walker “is very important here.” 

Some Democrats have “no problem getting endorsed by the Democratic Party, have no problem accepting money for their campaigns from Democrats who contribute to the party,” Jacobson said. “But when there are nominees, it seems that there are some on this board who thumb their nose and don’t care what [the party] has to say.”

Politics has no place in choosing a Zoning Board member, city Rep. Sean Boeger said.

There are “elephants in the room that no politician wants to discuss. There is money at play, special interests at play, power struggles and control at play over these issues,” Boeger said. “Representatives exercising their judgment should be paramount over any political allegiance. I do not put the party before the people, and I never will. We had several members of the [Democratic City Committee] come on and say what they want. These are longstanding members who have been in control of … this city for a very long time. I’m not weighing that … I’m weighing how this affects the city.”

Boeger and other representatives questioned why Simmons, who champions diversity, equity and inclusion, didn’t nominate Racquel Smith-Anderson, an alternate on the Zoning Board and the only person of color. Because there is a board vacancy, Smith-Anderson, a property and construction manager, has been voting on issues as an alternate for a year.

“We need someone on the Zoning Board who is aware of the issues, and Mrs. Anderson is very active on that board,” City Rep. Nina Sherwood said. “It doesn’t make sense to replace her with someone else at this time.”

Failed compromise

Sherwood and other representatives said they would not support Walker because during his interview before the board’s Appointments Committee he did not appear knowledgeable about a new state law limiting towns from changing their charters on zoning matters; a unique right in Stamford that allows residents to petition zoning decisions; a development proposed for Wire Mill Road; setting limits on marijuana dispensaries; and a zoning change that allows accessory apartments. 

City Rep. Eric Morson, a Walker supporter, said Walker is more than qualified, and “advocacy for another candidate should not be part of the discussion on this candidate.”

The mayor nominates candidates and the Board of Representatives approves or rejects them, Morson said.

“It’s not proper for us as representatives to reject candidates until we get the one we want,” Morson said.

At one point the pro-Walker side of the 90-minute debate offered a compromise, though the anti-Walker side said it was because their opponents realized they didn’t have the votes to approve Walker.

The compromise concerned a longstanding problem with the Zoning Board – mayors sometimes won’t put up members they like for reappointment when their terms expire for fear the Board of Representatives will not approve them. 

Now, for example, two Zoning Board members are operating on terms that expired years ago, during the administration of former Mayor David Martin, and one member keeps a seat even though the Board of Representatives rejected Martin’s reappointment of him in 2021. 

City Rep. Lindsey Miller suggested that representatives hold the vote on Walker and ask Simmons to nominate Walker and Smith-Anderson in time for the board’s October meeting. One candidate could fill the vacant position and the other could fill an expired position, Miller said.

“If you truly want to compromise, let’s see if we can get both at the same time,” Miller said.

Morson made a direct plea to the mayor.

“Please consider the alternate [Smith-Anderson] for one of the holdover positions,” Morson said.

But the motion to hold the vote on Walker failed.

The ‘rat’ rises again

In voting no, some representatives cited legislation slipped into a larger bill shortly before the end of session on June 7 — what is called colloquially know as a “rat” by state legislators.

Simmons, who was a state representative before becoming mayor two years ago, enlisted the help of former colleagues at the Capitol and slipped a law through the legislature that blocks towns from changing their charters on a host of zoning matters. The law was geared toward stopping changes proposed by the Stamford Charter Revision Commission that were under discussion at the time.

The charter commission’s local zoning proposals are now blocked by the state law and are prevented from appearing on a ballot and allowing voters to decide.

Some representatives said Tuesday they could not agree to Miller’s compromise because of that.

“It pains me to say this, but when the mayor said she was using ‘a tool in her political toolbox’ to pass that law, I can’t say I trust her anymore,” City Rep. Rob Roqueta said. “One of the biggest problems we have now is the actions of the mayor. I don’t think we should forget what she did.”

City Rep. Bonnie Kim Campbell said people of color, including Smith-Anderson, are too often held back.

“When you don’t have a voice at the table and everybody is telling you, ‘Just wait, just wait. Your time will come,’ you may not believe it,” Campbell said. “There are people in Stamford who don’t want to wait anymore. I don’t know if I trust this compromise.”

There is no trust, Boeger said.

“The trust is broken between the legislative branch and the executive branch in Stamford. I don’t trust we will get something back in the spirit of compromise,” Boeger said. “This is an administration that went to Hartford in the middle of the night and without giving us a head’s up. If the mayor wants to come back next month and nominate both Zoning Board candidates, I will vote for both. But I’m not about to put myself in a position to get railroaded again.”

They then held the vote and the Walker nomination was defeated. Simmons is allowed to renominate him one more time.

By contrast, Simmons’ nomination of Ben Barnes for director of administration sailed through, 31-3, with three abstentions, after little discussion.

As a member of Simmons’ cabinet, Barnes, who worked under former Stamford mayor and Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy, will oversee the departments that handle city finances, payroll, tax revenue, budgets, and risk management. His role does not include development.

Angela Carella

For 36 years prior to joining the Connecticut Examiner, Angela Carella was a beat reporter, investigative reporter, editor and columnist for the Stamford Advocate. Carella reports on Stamford and Fairfield County. T: 203 722 6811.