STAMFORD – The fraught process of revising the city charter, a once-a-decade mandate, has ended, save for voters deciding which of the changes will become law.
It was contentious to the end.
In a 24-16 vote, after a fractious five-hour debate, the Board of Representatives decided the charter amendments will go on the ballot on Nov. 7, instead of next year as Mayor Caroline Simmons wanted, and determined that the proposed amendments will appear as nine parts of a single question for voters.
This week’s meeting was the board’s final deliberation on charter revision, a process that began more than 18 months ago. Two hours before the meeting, city attorney Tom Cassone issued an opinion, which he noted was at Simmons’ request, saying that the charter compels the board to schedule the vote on the revisions next year, when the U.S. presidency will be on the ballot and turnout will be bigger.
The Charter Revision Commission’s attorney, Steve Mednick, had already issued an opposite opinion, saying the charter compels the board to “endeavor” to schedule a vote during a state or federal election year, but does not preclude a vote in a municipal-only election year.
Mednick said he raised the question in April, when he realized that members of the commission were operating under the misunderstanding that whatever amendments they proposed could not be adopted unless 15 percent of the electorate, or about 11,000 voters, approve them.
Since turnout at municipal-only elections is often quite low and might not meet that threshold, the commission assumed that their proposed revisions could not go on the ballot until the presidential election of 2024, Mednick said.
But the 15 percent threshold applies only if charter revision is the only thing on the ballot, he said. This year is a general election that includes races for seats on the Board of Representatives, Board of Finance and Board of Education, so the charter changes may be included on the 2023 ballot, Mednick said.
“It usually goes on the ballot at the first general election after completion of the charter work,” said Mednick, who explained he’s done 25 municipal charters in Connecticut. “That’s the regular order for the charters I’ve dealt with – it goes on the ballot while it’s still fresh in the minds of voters.”
Somebody define ‘endeavor’
The charter states that the Board of Representatives “shall endeavor to schedule the referendum on any proposed charter amendments or revisions to coincide with a general election at which either the mayor, state officials or federal officials are to be elected.” Mednick said “shall endeavor” is “not a mandatory provision no matter now you read it.”
In his memo to Simmons, Cassone disagreed.
Cassone wrote that he believes the charter and state laws “compel the Board of Representatives to endeavor to schedule the referendum for the 2024 election, and therefore to so schedule it.”
More importantly, Cassone wrote, he believes “that were the Board of Representatives to schedule the referendum for the 2023 election, any result would be susceptible” to a legal challenge, and “so would pose an unnecessary legal risk” and invite litigation.
“One must keep in mind that the substantive purpose of the Stamford charter provision is to ensure that there is maximum voter participation to determine such a fundamental and constitutional question as the revision of the city government’s foundational document,” Cassone wrote.
Representatives who agreed with Cassone noted that voter turnout in the 2020 presidential election in Stamford was about 80 percent. Turnout in 2019, the most recent municipal election in which a mayor was not chosen, as is the case this year, was under just under 20 percent, they said.
The authors of the charter intended for the board to “make every effort to do all we can to make (the election) happen,” city Rep. Eric Morson said. “We are compelled to make the effort … to ensure the largest turnout possible. … People deserve to have their place at the ballot box.”
Voting is up to the voter
City Rep. Bradley Bewkes said everyone does have a place at the ballot box on Nov. 7.
“People are not inhibited from voting; it’s their choice,” Bewkes said.
Five seats on the Board of Representatives are up for election, four on the Board of Finance, and four on the Board of Education, Bewkes said.
“This is an extremely important municipal election, citywide, with very important positions on the ballot,” Bewkes said, so this year’s election is “exactly suited to voting on charter revision.”
After that side of the debate won the vote, representatives addressed how the proposed charter amendments would be worded on the ballot.
Bewkes, as co-chair of the board’s Charter Revision Committee, wrote the questions, but city Rep. Ashley Ley said she created a rewritten version because she found the original “a bit biased.”
Bewkes said the ballot questions were worded to convey the intent of the Charter Revision Commission’s proposed changes “in generalized terms,” and that the town clerk will create an explanatory handout that will be distributed to polling places, public libraries and elsewhere.
Ley said the ballot questions should be more specific. One of the questions written by Bewkes, for example, read, “End the practice of allowing members of decision-making boards and commissions to remain in office beyond the expiration of their terms.”
Ley changed it to read, “Amend the appointments process for city boards and commissions to include timeframes, and transfer power of nomination to the Board of Representatives if the mayor does not secure an appointment with the Board of Representatives during the specified timeframe.”
The board voted 23-17 to go with Bewkes’ original version.
What did Norwalk do?
The final vote of the meeting was to decide whether to present the questions to voters individually or altogether.
City Rep. David Watkins said he strongly opposed the latter.
It’s “a fundamental question of whether residents get to vote individually or they’re forced to decide on a bundle” of questions, Watkins said. “I think it’s a tremendous disservice to ask people to vote for all nine questions, or none of them.”
City Rep. Nina Sherwood said it makes more sense to bundle the questions because they follow a theme – making city government more transparent and accessible, and ensuring that boards, commissions and officials are held accountable.
Other Connecticut cities proposing more sweeping changes to their charters will pose them as single questions, Sherwood said.
“Norwalk is doing a massive reorganization of their city government, and they used one question. Our changes are not structural; let’s not make this more complicated than it needs to be,” Sherwood said. “Our only controversy comes from political opposition within this body. It’s only controversial here because of the political games being played.”
Inter-party politics often split the 40-member board, which has 36 Democrats, particularly on matters involving development.
Nine in one
After a debate, members voted 24-15 to put a single nine-part question on the ballot.
Here is how it will appear on Nov. 7:
Shall the charter be revised to clarify and make it easier for the public to understand, have access to, and hold more accountable Stamford’s government by the following:
- Create more opportunities for the public to participate in government;
(b) Clarify, define and make more understandable certain common terms in the charter;
(c) Require clear reporting and accountability for legislative, legal and fiscal matters;
(d) Include recognition of diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, as an important goal for the city;
(e) End the practice of allowing members of decision-making boards and commissions to remain in office beyond the expiration of their terms;
(f) Clarify the requirement that certain appointed executive officials live in Stamford, subject to a waiver provision;
(g) Allow the Board of Representatives to obtain legal services, as necessary, as do other local legislative bodies in Connecticut;
(h) Create new charter boards and commissions to promote the goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act, DEI, mental health, housing, and harbor management; and,
(i) Reorganize the budget process to permit residents to voice their opinions and concerns in a pre-budget public hearing, require publication of a budget calendar, and ensure compliance with state law?
A rocky road
The last-minute opinion from the city attorney sparked the latest in a series of disputes that have colored charter revision since a 15-member commission of citizen volunteers began deliberating amendments in March 2022.
First, the work of the commission was delayed when the former city attorney, Doug Dalena, did not agree to allow the members to hire an attorney until October 2022, seven months after they began meeting.
In June, Simmons, who disagreed with many of the proposals, asked powerful friends in Hartford to help her block those that would have made it easier for residents to petition zoning decisions, and would have set stricter standards for how the city seizes private property by eminent domain and sells public land.
The law supported by Simmons, who was a longtime state representative before becoming mayor, blocked the commission’s most significant proposals concerning development, a hotly disputed topic in Stamford. Members of the Board of Representatives and Charter Revision Commission have said they were shocked to learn about the new law, which passed surreptitiously in the final hours of the legislative session, while the charter proposals were under deliberation in Stamford.
Simmons has said the charter proposals would hurt Stamford’s growth, so she used “another tool in the political toolbox” to stop them in Hartford.
CT Examiner has reported that, in a Jan. 15, 2022 email, Simmons asked that the Charter Revision Commission altogether eliminate the petitioning provision, a unique right that the Stamford charter offers residents. Ultimately, Simmons’ law leaves the petition provision as is, but prohibits Stamford and all other municipalities from changing their charters to add or change such provisions.
Simmons also tried to include in the new law a provision that none of the charter proposals could be adopted unless at least 15 percent of voters turn out on election day, Hearst Connecticut Media has reported. Hartford lawmakers dropped it from the final version of the law, however.