STAMFORD – Changing the city charter has been such a fraught process that, even though revisions are written and set to appear on the ballot on Nov. 7, the fracas continues.
Members of the Board of Representatives battled for 90 minutes Monday about whether to approve full payment to the contracted attorney who handled charter revision for the city.
Now a group called Stamford for Fair Government is offering lawn signs and seeking donations and volunteers in an effort to persuade voters to reject the proposed charter changes on election day.
Near the end of Monday’s long debate, Democratic city Rep. Eric Morson said the decision about whether to pay charter revision attorney Steve Mednick roughly $77,000 more than the originally contracted $100,000 should be held until Mednick can “answer questions in the interest of transparency and accountability.”
The matter “is not partisan,” Morson said.
The 22-13 vote in favor of paying the attorney immediately was, in fact, not partisan, Democrats vs. Republicans.
But there was partisanship between two factions of Democrats, who dominate the board with 36 of the 40 members.
Both sides agreed that Mednick did not overbill hours or overcharge fees – and in fact discounted fees for the city – and that he submitted detailed invoices documenting costs.
The 22 city representatives who voted to pay Mednick right away were those who have shown in previous meetings that they believe the charter changes will make city government more accessible to citizens and hold officials more accountable. This group supported changes that would give citizens more control over development, Stamford’s hottest issue.
But those changes will not appear on the ballot on election day because Mayor Caroline Simmons went to Hartford while they were being deliberated and pushed for a law that prohibits towns from changing charters on most zoning matters.
The 13 city representatives who voted to delay payment to Mednick are those who, like Simmons, have said that they believe the charter proposals will shift power away from the mayor. They also agree with Simmons that the original zoning proposals would have stifled development in Stamford, Connecticut’s fastest-growing city.
‘He is not entitled’
Mednick’s contract with the city, signed in October 2022, estimated that the legal fees would not exceed $100,000. If they did, the additional amount had to be approved by the Board of Finance and Board of Representatives, the contract states.
But the additional amount was not approved, said Democratic city Rep. Jonathan Jacobson, who voted to hold off on paying Mednick.
Mednick “did an exceptional job,” Jacobson said, but “he is not entitled to a penny over $100,000 without board approval.”
The mayor could resubmit the request for the additional funding, which would send it back to the Board of Finance and ultimately return it to the Board of Representatives, Jacobson said.
But there would be no guarantee that Simmons would resubmit it, said Democratic city Rep. Nina Sherwood, a supporter of the charter revisions who voted to pay Mednick’s bill.
And there would be no guarantee that the Board of Finance would approve the amount, said Republican city Rep. Bradley Bewkes, who co-chaired the board’s committee on charter revision and supported immediate payment to Mednick.
The Board of Finance chair, Democrat Richard Freedman, “has been very against it,” Bewkes said.
“This is coming up because charter revision has become very politicized,” Bewkes said. “Unfortunately we are politicizing a contract for work already performed.”
Do nothing; it’s approved
The 15-member Charter Revision Commission, not the Board of Representatives, approved Mednick’s invoices from October until early June, and notified Simmons’ administration, including the law department, that the fees were approaching $100,000, Bewkes said.
“We were not directly part of the process at the time,” he said.
The commission turned the charter proposals over to the Board of Representatives later in June, he said.
The Board of Finance took up Mednick’s bill in August, when Freedman chastised city representatives for not keeping tabs on it. Finance board members did not vote on the additional expense, saying they wanted to review Mednick’s invoices first.
But afterward Freedman said he’d learned that the delay had inadvertently OK’d the money, because the purchasing ordinance says that if the Board of Finance doesn’t act on a contract of that size within 30 days, it’s considered approved.
Some city representatives then said the Board of Finance had dropped the ball.
Either way, it wasn’t Mednick’s fault, and he should be paid while the administration and the boards figure out what happened, Democratic city Rep. Sean Boeger said Monday night.
The Office of Administration is supposed to assign a compliance officer to each city contract, Boeger said.
“We have a contracted individual doing what we tell him, and we are responsible for enforcing the contract. Someone is supposed to keep track,” Boeger said. “The administration didn’t hold that person to doing what they were supposed to do.”
City Rep. Virgil de la Cruz, a Democrat, said he wanted to remind the board “that this has been a contentious process and the intervention in Hartford didn’t help things.”
When Simmons, a former state representative, succeeded in getting her former colleagues at the capitol to prohibit zoning changes in charters, Mednick had to take the Charter Revision Commission back through the original proposals and eliminate or alter many of them to comply with the new law, adding hours of work, de la Cruz said.
Charter revision division
With the municipal election a month away, the city is in for more charter revision contentiousness.
Arthur Selkowitz, a longtime prominent city Democrat, is emailing party supporters to rally around a campaign opposing the charter revisions, which would prohibit board and commission members from staying in office after their terms expire; require that certain high-placed city executives live in Stamford; allow more residents to speak at hearings while the city budget is crafted; allow the Board of Representatives to hire its own attorney; and other measures.
Selkowitz said Tuesday that his group, Stamford for Fair Government, is “funded by interested citizens who believe in good government and were alarmed at the power grab taking place in the Board of Representatives.”
Selkowitz said he is “not aware of any formal connection with the Simmons administration; however, I would imagine that our objectives dovetail well with the opposition that the Simmons administration feels towards the amendments” to the city charter.
Lauren Meyer, special assistant to Simmons, said Tuesday that “the mayor is aware that there are citizens across the city who share her concerns about the impacts of the proposed charter revision provisions.”
Simmons “is not actively raising money for the effort,” Meyer said.
“The mayor has been consistent in her public opposition to the charter revision provisions and she will continue to speak publicly on the topic between now and Nov. 7,” Meyer said.
Asked whether Stamford for Fair Government is behind a poll recently emailed to Stamford residents, Selkowitz said, “I am aware that a survey was conducted, and I assume it came from (Stamford for Fair Government,) but I wasn’t a party to the decision.”
The group, headed by former Board of Finance Chair Tim Abbazia, sent an email Monday afternoon saying it has the backing of former Democratic Mayor David Martin, former Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele, former Downtown Special Services District President Sandra Goldstein, and others who are working to urge voters to reject the charter revisions.
So ‘money train’ can go on
Selkowitz said the group is neither pro- nor anti-development, “but we recognize that smart development is how Stamford can continue to meet the demands for housing.”
The concern, Selkowitz said, “is that the charter amendments will significantly weaken the role and responsibilities of the mayor and lead to domination by the Board of Representatives.”
Fellow Democrat Sherwood, majority leader of the Board of Representatives, said Tuesday Selkowitz’ group is focused on development, and the administration is working on power grabs.
“The biggest issue is development and how we deal with land use,” Sherwood said. “One power grab is that the mayor didn’t want residents to weigh in on that, so she went to Hartford and got a law passed that said nobody in the state could change their charter on land use. Why do that? Because she realized there is a good chance that residents will want to change land-use provisions to empower them more than the current charter allows. The administration can’t take that risk because millions and millions of dollars are to be made in development.”
The charter proposals that are moot under the new law would have made it easier for residents to petition Zoning Board decisions to the Board of Representatives, and would have set stricter standards for how the city seizes private property by eminent domain and sells public land.
There’s a second power grab, Sherwood said.
“The current charter allows for the mayor to let people who sit on boards and commissions when their terms are expired stay on in perpetuity, as long as they vote the way the mayor wants,” Sherwood said. “Administrations don’t want the membership of the Planning Board and the Zoning Board to change. It’s so the money train can continue.”