STAMFORD – In the middle of a contentious debate over changing the city charter, the League of Women Voters of Stamford did something it doesn’t usually do.
It weighed in.
The 100-year-old league “normally does not advocate ‘yes’ or ‘no’ votes for anything,” said Patricia Rossi, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Connecticut. “We say, ‘Here are the issues. This is what a ‘yes’ vote will do, and this is what ‘no’ vote will do. You decide.’”
But now the league is part of the fray.
On Oct. 23 the league issued a statement telling Stamford residents to vote “no” on the charter revisions that will appear on the ballot Tuesday.
Rossi said the league does not support or oppose candidates, but takes positions on policies when voter participation and education are challenged.
If a local league wants to take a position, they consult with the state league, Rossi said. The state league felt that, in Stamford, the charter questions “were not clearly elucidated” and “voters are voting on something they don’t understand,” Rossi said. Beyond that, the questions will be on the ballot in an election that likely will have low turnout because there are no races for mayor, governor or president, she said.
“We are not really thinking of it as ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on the merits. We do not approve of the process,” Rossi said. “We are not pro-development or anti-development. That sort of fight is not our thing. We are pro-democracy. We are very careful about this.”
But the League of Women Voters is nonetheless caught up in the political fight over Stamford charter revision.
‘That’s not our issue’
In encouraging the electorate to vote no, the league took the position of the Democratic City Committee, Democratic Mayor Caroline Simmons, the city’s largest developer, and a political action committee that is inundating voters with mailings, phone calls, emails, lawn signs and banners.
The well-funded political action committee, called Stamford for Fair Government, issued an email Sunday saying that, over the past few weeks, they sent 14,000 text messages; mailed 2,100 “vote no” cards to voters who were sent absentee ballot applications; handed out more than 500 lawn signs; continue to mail large full-color brochures – seven so far; and are knocking on doors and contacting voters by phone.
Stamford for Fair Government is supported by developer Building and Land Technology, which is remaking the South End into a luxury apartment high-rise community called Harbor Point. BLT Executive Vice President Brian Carcaterra has posted a note on LinkedIn imploring Stamford residents to vote no, and the developer placed large banners throughout Harbor Point urging the same.
Those who favor the charter changes include a majority of the members of the Board of Representatives, members of the Charter Revision Commission, the Stamford Neighborhoods Coalition, and residents who say they want a prudent plan for the rampant development happening in Stamford. They formed a political action committee called Yes to Stamford Charter 2023.
The “vote yes” group has reportedly raised enough money to buy a number of lawn signs and mail one brochure, which should reach voters in the coming days. This group is also sending emails, holding forums, posting on social media and knocking on doors.
The league’s “vote no” statement now is advertised on the website of the Stamford for Fair Government political action committee.
“We are not joining that coalition,” said Kristine Goldhawk, president of the League of Women Voters of Stamford. “They have published our statement, but we have not joined that coalition. The way they are talking about content is not truly educating the public.”
Rossi said the same.
“If a ‘no’ vote happens to be something that another group is advocating for, that’s not our issue or concern,” Rossi said. “Our issue and concern is whether the voters had a fair chance of hearing the issues.”
The concern is development
Asked whether voters are fairly hearing the issues now, when one side has money to get out its message and the other side does not, Goldhawk said the fact is that good information is not reaching voters.
“The ‘yes’ side may not have the money to get its message out, but that’s an issue for the city. There should have been more information put out by the city to publicize what was happening with charter revisions,” Goldhawk said. “There are some very good things in the charter revisions. There are things that are confusing. Voters need more time to understand.”
The revisions on the Stamford ballot include:
- Requiring that certain city executives live in Stamford
- Allowing more residents to speak at hearings as the city budget is decided
- Allowing the Board of Representatives to hire its own attorney
- Creating commissions on housing, mental health, and diversity
- Clarifying some charter language
- Requiring more reporting of city finances, lawsuits and contracts, and state laws that affect Stamford
- Prohibiting board and commission members from staying in office after their terms expire
The last one has stirred most of the contentiousness.
It’s because the mayor appoints people to boards and commissions and the Board of Representatives approves them. Nearly half the appointees in Stamford now are serving on expired terms, which mostly happens when mayors don’t want to risk bringing their appointees before the board for appointment or reappointment, fearing they will not be approved.
The concern centers on the Planning Board and Zoning Board, which decide development matters. About 60 percent of the members of those boards are operating on expired terms. The charter proposal would close the loophole that lets holdovers stay in their seats, and would allow city representatives to nominate people if the mayor fails to do so within a certain timeframe.
It’s different in Norwalk
Goldhawk said Norwalk, which is also revising its charter this year – a once-a-decade state mandate – did a better job of educating voters.
Norwalk, unlike Stamford, is electing a mayor on Nov. 7, when Harry Rilling is running for a sixth term. Like Stamford, Norwalk has a single inclusive question on the ballot, which Rossi and Goldhawk said the league doesn’t like because it forces voters to approve all the proposed changes or none of them.
Still, the League of Women Voters of Norwalk issued a statement encouraging that electorate to vote for charter revision in that city, said Laura Smits, a member of Norwalk’s Steering Committee and a former state league president.
“Charter revision is very local. Each local league makes its own decision based on the politics of their town, and how their government works,” Smits said. “We are basing our ‘yes’ recommendation on the fact that it has been a transparent procedure, we’ve been talking about it a long time with the Charter Revision Commission and the Common Council, and we feel people had enough time to educate themselves about it.”
Stamford’s charter changes are less extensive than those in Norwalk, where the introduction to the revisions states that the Norwalk charter was virtually rewritten.
But neither city can compare to New Haven, where changes are substantive.
New Haven’s big list
Voters in New Haven will decide Nov. 7 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. Voters will decide whether to give the Board of Alders 90 days to approve appointments to board and commissions, up from 60 days; whether to require that the board approve all city contracts of $100,000 or more; and whether to remove rules governing city departments, boards and commissions from the charter and put them into the code of ordinances.
All of those changes are included in one question for New Haven voters: “Shall Charter changes as recommended by the Charter Revision Commission and adopted by the Board of Alders be approved and adopted?”
New Haven officials have been criticized for making the documents difficult to find on the city website. And the charter changes were approved in early August, about three weeks before Stamford’s changes were approved, so there was not much difference in the amount of time voters had to learn about them.
Still, the League of Women Voters of New Haven did not weigh in on how the electorate should vote on that city’s charter, Rossi said.
“We did not take a position in New Haven,” Rossi said. “I don’t think it’s the same as the situation in Stamford. We felt that it wasn’t as clear-cut for us in New Haven because we could have given the appearance of being partisan. We didn’t think it rose to the occasion of asking people to vote one way or the other. That’s a New Haven decision.”
‘Surprised’ by league stance
The league should not have interfered in Stamford, either, said Shelley Michelson, a member of the Stamford Charter Revision Commission who wrote the league an email on Oct. 13 explaining proposed changes “that enhanced government accessibility, accountability and transparency.” Michelson asked the league board to give the commission “a fair hearing before you make a final endorsement.”
The league board declined, saying members were making a statement on process, not content, and they didn’t like “how voters have been educated about the proposed changes and how they are being asked to vote up or down” under one question.
“If they recommend that voters vote ‘no’ and they’re not concerned with content, how can they possibly recommend anything?” Michelson said Monday.
Tom Lombardo, chair of the Stamford Charter Revision Commission, said Tuesday he was surprised that the League of Women Voters took a stance.
“They used to hold neutral forums and debates,” Lombardo said. “I’m disappointed they did what they did without seeking information from the Charter Revision Commission.”
City Rep. Nina Sherwood, the Democratic majority leader of the Board of Representatives and a leader of the “vote yes” side of the charter question, said she asked for a debate with those on the “vote no” side and they refused. Goldhawk confirmed that that happened.
“And yet the league is still encouraging people to vote ‘no.’ Why wasn’t that a red flag?” Sherwood said Tuesday. “Why is the league taking a stand now when they never take a stand? They never reached out to anyone from the ‘yes’ side to hear the other perspective, when that is what the public entrusts them with – to be impartial. Why did they do that? Who is influencing them?”
Sherwood said people in the league have close relationships with people on the Democratic City Committee, including the chair, Robin Druckman, who opposes the charter changes.
Asked about it Tuesday, Druckman said there was no influence.
“This is categorically false,” Druckman said by email.
Goldhawk said the Stamford league made the decision “on consensus.”
She also said “there is nothing to prevent the Charter Revision Commission from bringing these issues back next year. They can split the question into multiple questions, and allow for more education.”
It’s possible but not probable, said Steve Mednick, the attorney for the Stamford Charter Revision Commission.
“Another commission would have to be created by the Board of Representatives and it would require a two-thirds majority vote. Then the board would have to appoint members, and the board leadership would have to vote unanimously to hire a lawyer to help them,” Mednick said. “Based on the political atmosphere in the charter debate, I think it is highly unlikely that would occur.”