STAMFORD – Municipal elections are often quiet.
Usually in Stamford, only one out of five voters bothers to cast a ballot.
This November would seem to fit the bill.
Five seats on the Board of Representatives are open because of resignations. Three of six members of the Board of Finance are running for re-election. Three of nine full-term seats on the Board of Education are up for grabs, plus an incumbent is running unopposed to continue filling the term of a member who resigned. Someone is running for constable.
The election, however, is shaping up to be anything but sleepy.
It’s because, besides candidates, the ballot includes a proposal to change Stamford’s governing document, its constitution – the city charter.
State law mandates that municipalities review their charters every 10 years. The law lays out deadlines, requirements for public hearings, and a set of procedures that includes formation of a Charter Revision Commission made up of citizen volunteers who must decide whether and how the charter should be revised.
Stamford’s commission proposed changes, the Board of Representatives approved a number of them, and now, 0n Nov. 7, they go before the voters to decide whether they become law.
But charter revision has left the sphere of the procedural and is swirling in the sphere of the political.
Accusations are flying, Democrat against Democrat, in a battle among members of Stamford’s dominant party.
It’s about development
On one side are the establishment Democrats. They play leading roles on the Democratic City Committee, support Mayor Caroline Simmons, and include prominent members of the elected and appointed boards and commissions that help govern the city. Among them are at least 13 members of the 40-member Board of Representatives who regularly vote to support Simmons’ pro-development policies.
On the other side are Democrats who challenge the party leadership, calling for more prudent development in Connecticut’s fastest-growing city. They have the support of neighborhood groups and residents who contest zoning decisions that they say allow powerful developers to do what they want, without regard for overcrowded blocks and traffic congestion, or for the need for community centers, green space, and improved quality of life.
On the Board of Representatives, the challenger Democrats, which number at least 17, frequently out-vote the establishment Democrats, particularly on zoning and development matters.
Now, with election day less than a month away, each side has lawn signs. “Vote no November 7th on Stamford Charter Revision,” reads one. “Vote yes for a smarter charter,” reads the other.
Each side is organizing meet-ups. Establishment Democrats, who call their group Stamford for Fair Government, have one planned for 10 a.m. Saturday at Humbled, a Hope Street coffee shop.
Challenger Democrats, who call themselves Yes to Stamford Charter 2023, have a meet-up scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday at the Ferguson Library.
Members of each side are writing opinion pieces published in newspapers, or posted on social media sites.
Each side has a website promoting its campaign. Establishment Democrats at www.stamford4fairgov.com appear to be well-funded. In an Oct. 13 email to supporters, Chairman Tim Abbazia writes that the group is distributing more than 100 “Vote No” lawn signs, mailed fliers to residents, and sent more than 800 “Vote No” postcards to people who are voting by absentee ballot. Stamford for Fair Government also appears to be behind a survey emailed to Stamford residents a couple of weeks ago, according to Arthur Selkowitz, a prominent city Democrat and member of the group.
Like their opponents, challenger Democrats at www.yestostamfordcharter2023.com are soliciting donations and volunteers for their campaign. “You are going to hear from the opposition, a group with power and influence including many who benefit financially from loopholes in the existing charter,” their website states. “Real estate developers and other special-interest groups have been given special access to our city government. For the last 10 years while this happened, our city budget has ballooned to almost $650,000,000, a 30 percent increase. Who pays for this? You do … because all of the administration’s focus has been on large development.”
The group is “not against all development. We just want smart development, and we want you to have a say,” the website says.
Who’s grabbing power?
In a large yellow flier that landed in voters’ mailboxes this week, establishment Democrats say the challengers’ success in passing the charter proposals is a “power grab by a self-interested political faction” within the Board of Representatives.
“You are being asked to vote on a ballot question that is covering up a hidden agenda,” the flier reads.
There is a hidden agenda, but that’s not it, city Rep. Nina Sherwood, majority leader on the Board of Representatives, wrote Friday on the social media site NextDoor.
The mailer “must have cost close to $20,000 and was professionally designed to deceive you,” wrote Sherwood, leader of the challenger Democrats. “The charter revision was not a power grab by a few; it was passed by an almost super-majority of your city elected legislative body. It will not increase your taxes, cause government dysfunction or raise housing costs. These are all lies, every one of them. They are using fear tactics to get you to vote against what is in your best interest so that they can continue business as usual.”
So the battle has gone, even though Stamford’s charter changes are not radical, as charter changes go.
None of the Stamford proposals, for example, set new terms for elected officials, a matter that will go before New Haven voters on Nov. 7, when they will decide whether to expand the terms of the mayor, 30-member Board of Alders, Board of Education members, and registrars of voters from two years to four, plus increase the salaries of the alders.
The Stamford changes aren’t as expansive as the ones proposed in Norwalk, where the introduction to the revisions explains that the charter was virtually rewritten. Over the last 110 years, it states, the Norwalk charter was amended piecemeal, and the proposal on the ballot in November “represents an effort by the city to reorganize our local governance document.”
Some of the Stamford proposals appear to make minor changes, but have elicited major reactions from the factions of Democrats.
The holdover appointees
The most contentious proposal concerns the mayor’s appointments to the many volunteer panels that decide important matters in the city, particularly the two that affect development, the Planning Board and the powerful Zoning Board. Mayoral appointments must be approved by the Board of Representatives.
Information on appointees shows that nearly half are serving on expired terms, sometimes by several years. It largely happens when mayors don’t want to risk bringing their appointees before the Board of Representatives for reappointment at the end of their terms, for fear they will not be approved.
Under the existing charter, the mayor has 120 days from the expiration date to send a nominee to the Board of Representatives for approval. If during that time the mayor sends no nominee or the nominee is rejected, the board president gets 120 days to nominate someone and win approval. 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 during that time, leaving the door open for holdovers.
To end that practice, the Charter Revision Commission proposed this modification, according to an explanation of the changes:
“The mayor has an initial period of 120 days within which the mayor has sole authority to nominate appointees to boards and commissions. If the mayor fails to submit nominations or the mayor’s nominations are rejected by the board during that period, there is a second 120-day period during which the mayor shares appointment authority with the president of the Board of Representatives. If during the second 120-day period the mayor and/or the president … fails to submit nominations or their nominations are rejected by the Board of Representatives, then members of the board … and mayor may each submit nominations, with the board retaining the power to approve. At all times … if the board fails to act within 60 days of the nomination and the mayor has nominated a candidate, the mayor’s candidate shall be automatically approved.”
Simmons and her supporters have called that a power grab, because the board could conceivably reject a nominee until the mayor’s initial 120 days are up, then members could pick their own nominee.
Her challengers say the mayor wants the charter revision to fail so she can continue her power grab, since under the existing charter her favored appointees sit on boards indefinitely if she does not reappoint them after their terms expire.
Such appointees can continue “making decisions for you, forever, without ever going through another interview process where they could be held accountable for their voting history,” Sherwood wrote Friday on NextDoor.
That happens most on the zoning and planning boards, she wrote.
Tax hikes and housing supply
Establishment Democrats also write on the Stamford for Fair Government website that a proposed charter revision will increase taxes because it would give the Board of Representatives “unlimited power to hire inside and outside legal counsel with unlimited spending powers.”
Not true, according to the Yes to Stamford Charter website.
If the Board were to hire an attorney full time, the maximum cost would be about $250,000 a year, or .038 percent of the city budget, and savings could be found elsewhere to cover it, the website states.
The board can’t always use the city attorney – a mayoral appointee and cabinet member – when the board and the mayor disagree, the Democratic challengers say. Towns across Connecticut have independent counsel to maintain the check-and-balance between the legislative and executive branches, according to the website.
Establishment Democrats say on their website that “the charter revisions will choke off the housing supply, which will raise housing costs, making the city less affordable.”
Their opponents say that is not true because housing-related charter revisions were killed when Simmons went to Hartford while the revisions were being deliberated in Stamford and got a law passed prohibiting towns from changing charters on most zoning matters.
“Unchecked overdevelopment,” challenger Democrats write on their website, “has not led to more affordable homes” but to “an explosion of luxury rental apartments” that has driven rental prices up citywide. The type of development that has proliferated in Stamford “creates a rental-only option for residents which doesn’t allow financial gain for anyone — except the luxury developers.”
For voters, the back-and-forth is all too much.
“I don’t know who to believe on this charter thing,” said Marie McGrath of the Cove neighborhood. “And I don’t know what to believe.”