STAMFORD – The debate is roiling on social media, in community forums, in newspaper opinion columns, and on street corners where “vote yes” signs battle with “vote no” signs for the attention of passers-by.
Proposed changes to the city charter will appear on the ballot on Tuesday.
Confusion is brewing beneath the brouhaha, say voters who are struggling to make sense of what the proposed charter revisions mean. State law says each municipality must review its foundational document every 10 years, a process involving a commission of volunteers who comb through it with the assistance of hired attorneys.
To help voters navigate the legalese, the Stamford Charter Revision Commission has posted a seven-page explanation of the changes here.
A version of the full charter showing the proposed changes in red is here.
As voters prepare to decide whether the proposed changes should become law in Stamford, here is a summary based on the explanation provided by the 19th Charter Revision Commission:
Preamble: The introduction to the charter has been revised to include recognition of the diversity of the people of Stamford, confirmation of equal opportunity for all, condemnation of prejudice, and commitment to a healthy environment for residents and “our coastal community.”
Organization: These revisions clarify certain legal terms to make them consistent throughout the charter. The terms include meeting notice, public hearing, resolution, board, commission, and special act. Some of the revisions expand requirements for public hearings on budgets and other topics, and require more notice of meetings and hearings, taking into account technological changes that allow online notices and virtual meetings.
Legislative branch: These revisions allow the Board of Representatives to hire its own attorney to advise members as they think is needed to carry out the duties of the legislative branch, including acting as a check to the mayoral administration, or executive branch. The expense cap for an attorney would be the cost of the salary and benefits paid to a city staff attorney – about $250,000.
Under the existing charter, the Board of Representatives may hire an outside attorney on a case-by-case basis. Otherwise the board is represented by the chief city attorney, called the corporation counsel, who is hired by the mayor and has a seat in the mayor’s cabinet.
Charter revision commissioners say that creates a conflict of interest for the corporation counsel in cases in which the board and the administration disagree, given that the corporation counsel must represent both sides.
Under the existing charter, engaging the services of an outside attorney requires a resolution presented by the board president, the majority and minority leaders, and the clerk, and approval by at least 31 of the 40 members of the Board of Representatives.
Under the revision, a resolution may be presented by any board member and would require approval by a majority of the entire membership, or at least 21 votes.
Executive branch: The existing charter provides that if the mayor is temporarily absent from office, the president of the Board of Representatives steps in as acting mayor. The revision provides that, if the board president also was unable to perform the duties of the office, the board’s majority leader would become acting mayor. The next in succession would be the board minority leader.
The charter now says that the acting mayor is not paid for the first 30 days. Under a revised charter, the acting mayor would be paid for the first 30 days if the board passes a resolution. The acting mayor would be paid an amount not to exceed a per diem rate based on the mayor’s salary. If the mayor is absent more than 30 days, the pay would be equal to a per diem rate based on the mayor’s salary.
The revision also requires that the mayor inform the Board of Finance and Board of Representatives about any bills introduced in Hartford or Washington, D.C., that could affect Stamford.
City departments: This revision would increase the standard of employment for the lead city attorney, or corporation counsel, from five years of practice in Connecticut and membership in the state bar to at least 10 years in practice with at least five spent in Connecticut. The revision requires the corporation counsel to publish an annual report on the number of legal cases pending in Stamford, the number of cases that were resolved, completed transactions, Board of Education expenditures, staffing levels in the legal department and other items as requested by the mayor, Board of Finance or Board of Representatives.
The existing charter requires that top city officials live in Stamford, but the provision has come under scrutiny from the courts and may not be enforceable.
The revision would apply the residency requirement to eight officials — the police and fire chiefs, the assistant police and fire chiefs, the director of public safety, the director of operations, the corporation counsel, and the director of human resources. The Board of Representatives could waive the residency requirement by a majority of the total membership, or at least 21 votes. If the requirement isn’t waived, any non-resident appointed to one of the positions would have six months to move to Stamford. Those now serving in those positions would be exempt.
Another revision would require the director of administration to file twice-a-year reports on the status of the city’s surplus or deficit; expenditure estimates; revenue estimates; debt service, the cost collective bargaining agreements; and any other information requested by the Board of Finance or Board of Representatives.
Boards and commissions: This proposed charter change modifies the process for nominating people to serve on boards and commissions. It would give the mayor 120 days to nominate appointees. If the mayor fails to make a nomination, or a nomination is rejected by the Board of Representatives, a second 120-day period would apply.
During that period, the mayor and the president of the Board of Representatives could both submit nominations. If neither the mayor nor the president makes a nomination, or their nominations are rejected, the members of the Board of Representatives may submit nominations, and the mayor may still do so.
Throughout the process, the Board of Representatives would retain the power to approve nominees. But, throughout the process, if the board fails to act within 60 days of the nomination and the mayor has named a candidate, the mayor’s candidate would be automatically approved.
Under the existing charter, if the mayor fails to submit a nominee or the nominee is rejected during the first 120 days, appointment authority shifts to the president of the Board of Representatives. Under the revision, the mayor and the board president would share the appointment authority for the second 120 days.
After that, appointment authority reverts to the mayor under the existing charter. The existing charter would not force a mayor to act at this point.
In the current government, under the existing charter, nearly half the seats on Stamford boards and commissions are occupied by “holdovers” — people whose terms have expired.
The revision proposes to address holdovers by requiring the mayor to appoint or reappoint people to expired seats by Feb. 15 of each year.
Under the existing charter, if at any time the Board of Representatives fails to act on a mayor’s nomination within 90 days, the nomination is automatically approved. Under the revision, the board must act more quickly – 60 days.
The charter revisions would also place the Harbor Management Commission under the governance of the charter. And it would create three all-volunteer commissions — one on diversity, equity and inclusion, and the needs of the disabled; one on housing; and one on mental health.
The revisions would also require the superintendent of schools to keep fiscal control records — a task that is currently only discretionary. It also would require the Board of Education to file twice-yearly reports on all contracts.
Pensions: Revisions would create protections for the pension plans of retired city employees, and require that distributions from certain retirement funds are returned to the city if they are unclaimed for more than a year.
Budgetary provisions: Revisions would expand taxpayer engagement in budget decisions by making information more accessible on the city’s website, through social media, through emails to community organizations, and by publishing a calendar of meetings and other public discussions on the budget.