STAMFORD – The COVID-19 pandemic drove many city government functions online, and citizens have followed.
At least they’ve tried to follow.
“You watch one of these government meetings on Zoom, and they can go pretty far into the night. The next day you have a question and you can’t find a person to ask,” said Paula Kelly, an East Side resident. “You can click around the city website all you want. You’re going to have a hard time finding anybody.”
City representatives who say they have heard such frustrations from their constituents are trying to do something about it.
Members of the Board of Representatives’ Appointments Committee put on their September agenda one item for review – how to include contact information and appointment end dates alongside the names of those who serve on the city’s many boards and commissions.
Members of most of those bodies are volunteer citizens who are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the Board of Representatives. They make decisions that directly affect Stamford residents.
Members of the different boards approve developments; determine whether a homeowner can add a bedroom; adjust someone’s tax bill; investigate an elected official for conflict of interest; set municipal golf course fees; preserve historic buildings; hire police officers and firefighters; protect parks and green space; decide whether rent hikes are fair; and much more.
“Constituents should be able to look online and see how to reach the people who sit on these boards and commissions,” said city Rep. Jeff Stella, who submitted the item for Board of Representatives review. “Their email addresses should be there. They can put their phone numbers if they want. I agree with those who say addresses are not necessary for safety reasons. But the email addresses should be easy to see.”
Another bit of information is missing from the websites of the dozens of boards and commissions seated with citizen volunteers, Stella said.
“We should include the dates that appointments expire,” he said. “Right now there’s no way to know when terms end. If someone is interested in serving on a board or commission, how do they know when to apply? But if you can see that a term is up within a few months, you might put your name in. It’s another way to get (citizens) engaged.”
There are, typically, dozens of open seats. Recruiting volunteers is challenging, made more so by a state law mandating that no more than two-thirds of the members of any appointed board or commission belong to the same party. In a city heavily dominated by Democrats, it can be a tough rule to follow.
Politics creates another challenge. Mayors often want members of their own party to have the majority on boards and commissions, as a way to increase chances that their policies are enacted.
Beyond that, political parties get involved in nominating board and commission candidates, even though the city charter says only that mayors appoint and the Board of Representatives approves. That practice often leaves out the large, and growing, number of Stamford voters who are unaffiliated with any party.
There’s one more wrinkle.
Mayors are known to let their favorite appointees stay in their seats long after their terms expire if they fear the Board of Representatives won’t approve reappointment.
By some estimates, half of the seats on Stamford boards and commissions now are occupied by appointees whose terms are expired, some for five or six years.
That’s an important reason to list term expiration dates on the city’s website, Stella said.
“It’s a way to keep tabs on these appointments, and start to make sure the regulation is followed,” he said.
Searching for contact
A review of a dozen boards and commissions reveals why residents looking to contact someone in city government may feel thwarted.
Start the comparison with the three most significant boards – representatives, finance and education – which are elected, not appointed.
The Board of Representatives offers residents the most information about its 40 members. Visitors to the board website who click on the name of a representative will in many cases see a photo, a phone number, an email address, political affiliation, and information about the representative’s education, occupation, board positions and community work.
There is far less information on the web page for the powerful six-member Board of Finance. Members’ names and political affiliations are listed along with their board titles and the names of other boards on which they serve. Beside each name is an email icon that visitors may click to send a finance board member a note. The board office phone number is listed along with the email address of the board clerk, Tracy Donoghue.
The Board of Education lists the names of the nine members and their positions on the board. Clicking on a name launches an email directed to that member. The website shows the phone number for board Executive Secretary Jennifer Gonzalez.
No term expiration dates are listed for any of the three elected boards.
Finding the appointed
Zoning is likely the most consequential of the appointed boards.
A chart on the Zoning Board web page lists the five members, their political affiliations, board titles and the names of other boards on which they serve. Clicking on the names sends you to a different page that repeats the same information. A general email address, StamfordLandUse@stamfordct.gov, is the only one listed. The site offers two phone numbers for city employees who assist the Zoning Board. One is for principal planner Vineeta Mathur and the other for board secretary Tracy Briscoe.
The web page for the related Planning Board is set up the same way.
The Board of Ethics web page offers no way to contact the eight appointed members and alternates directly. Under “administrative support,” it lists a phone number and email address for someone in the Human Resources Department. It also has a box to click to file an ethics complaint.
The web page for the Harbor Management Commission, which regulates waterfront development, offers members’ names and titles but no way to contact them directly. It provides phone numbers for an account clerk and for Harbor Master Yale Greenman.
The web page for the little four-member Affordable Housing Trust Fund is loaded with information – a history of the fund, its purpose, where the money comes from, and how “affordable” is defined. It lists phone numbers for the director of housing and for a service specialist. It includes an office phone number for one member, Land Use Bureau Chief Ralph Blessing. In a move not often spotted on other board web pages, member Frances Lane lists her personal phone number.
‘Give us some way’
The web pages for most appointed panels are like the ones for the Police Commission, Golf Commission, and Parks & Recreation Commission, which offer no way to contact the commissioners, but do list an office staffer’s phone number.
Term expiration dates are nowhere to be found.
The September meeting of the Board of Representatives’ Appointments Committee ended without action because Mayor Caroline Simmons’ special assistant was unable to attend, Committee Chair Denis Patterson said. The discussion has been bumped to October, Patterson said.
“Adding email addresses and term expiration dates is something that needs to happen,” Patterson said. “The mayor’s staff is exploring the technical issue, and we hope it can be done quickly. We will address it at the next meeting.”
Kelly said residents are looking to connect.
“If you are deciding all these things about our lives,” she said, “you have to give us some way to contact you.”