This Charter Revision Commission consists of 15 members, the maximum allowed by State law, the most inclusive in Stamford’s history, made up of members with diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, work experience, disabilities, religious beliefs, and socio-economic classes.
This group of our peers, with no personal stake in the results, spent countless volunteer hours, under the guidance of two experienced charter revision lawyers to ensure compliance with applicable laws, studying and debating the charter to arrive at a set of recommendations that in their unbiased judgment would make Stamford government more transparent and efficient. I see value in their recommendations and trust their judgment.
RIGHT TO PETITION, VOTE, and the HARTFORD INTERVENTION
Right to Petition: Our US constitution, as well as our State’s, grants the unfettered right to petition government. “Congress shall make no laws…abridging the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Neither constitution stipulates that the people must be property owners, assemble in certain numbers, or within a stipulated number of days, or live in certain areas.
The current charter imposes, clearly unconstitutional, onerous restrictions abridging the right to petition Planning Board and Zoning Board decisions. Our peers on the commission proposed changes to facilitate your right to petition.
This triggered such panic in the “vote No” crowd that an amendment was secretly inserted in Hartford into a “must pass” voluminous bonding bill, on the last day of the legislative session, in the late hours of the night, which prohibited the proposed changes. Hardly anyone knew such amendment was inserted, not even the Governor. The maneuver was exposed in the newspapers weeks later. Such amendments are called “rat” legislation because they would not pass on their own merit. Done in such haste, that not only Stamford residents right to change land use charter provisions will remain abridged, but also as an unintended consequence, the right to change land use provisions was denied to all residents across the state.
Right to Vote: Born in the Dominican Republic under the dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, for me the right to vote is sacrosanct. To deny this right is an egregious abuse of political power. State law intends that residents vote on proposed changes to the charter. The Hartford intervention precluded your right to vote on the change to facilitate the petition process.
The Hartford Intervention was the real power grab!
The proposed charter revisions will make our city government more transparent, democratic, and accountable. The revisions would require more public outreach, public hearings on major city decisions, and public disclosure, not currently available, of how the city and Board of Education money is spent. This alone may bring about a reduction in taxes.
The Corporation Counsel is expected to provide unbiased advice and decisions to both the Mayor and the Board of Representatives. However, there is a fatal flaw in this arrangement. The Corporation Counsel serves at the pleasure of the Mayor; it is in reality the Mayor’s counsel. Given this conflict, it simply cannot render unbiased advice and decisions; to deny this is to deny human nature. In my years on the Board, whenever points of view differ, Corporation Counsel has always leaned to favor the Administration; it simply cannot equally serve two masters. Practically every municipal legislative branch in our State has access to its own independent counsel.
Contrary to misinformation on the “vote No” flyers, claiming a blank check or unlimited budget for the proposed counsel, the reality is that the budget is to be capped at the city’s cost for a deputy counsel position, currently about .038% of the entire city budget.
The “vote No” group resorts to the scare tactic of predicting that taxes will go up, the safest prediction to make in Stamford. Taxes have been going up ever since I can remember, in spite of intensive development that was expected to contribute so much to the grand list that the mill rate, and therefore taxes, would go down
The city’s budget, which ultimately determines taxes, is prepared and proposed by the Mayor; the Board of Representatives can only subtract from it. Tax increases, as always, originate from the Mayor’s budget.
As reported in previous OpEds, there is a troublesome loophole in appointments to unelected Boards and Commissions. Mayors have exploited this loophole to keep favored appointees on board.
This loophole leads to 47% of all board and commission members sitting on expired terms, and on the critical land use Boards, more then 60 % sitting, unaccountably, well beyond expired terms.
Unaccountable members may over time become much too familiar with and susceptible to the influence of special interests; the perennial problem of the regulator being subliminally co-opted by the regulated.
VOTE NO FLYERS
The “vote No” crowd, many of whom have financial interests on the outcome, is spending astronomical sums flooding your mailbox with slick flyers spouting unsupported, outlandish, claims and scare tactics. This alone should give you pause.
The following are my observations on these claims:
They say: “Higher Taxes- Larger city government and unchecked spending will drive the up the mill and result in higher property taxes.”
I say: The city’s budget, which ultimately determines spending and taxes, is prepared and proposed by the Mayor. Per the charter, the Board of Representatives can only subtract from the budget, and usually does to check spending. Tax increases, as always, originate from the Mayor’s budget.
They say: “ELIMINATE NECESSARY CHECKS AND BALANCES- New, unchecked power will be given to an unaccountable faction within the Board of representatives.”
I say: Unlike members appointed to Boards and Commissions, all Board of Representative members are elected by and accountable to the people.
The recommended changes, through greater public engagement, transparency, reporting, and access to independent counsel by the Board of Representatives, strengthen checks and balances.
They say: “GOVERNMENT DYSFUNCTION- The chaos created by these changes will grind city government to a halt, slowing the rebuilding of our schools and other infrastructure priorities.”
I say: Chaos, what an emotionally charged word, really? How does more public outreach, public hearings on major city decisions, and public disclosure, not now uniformly available, of how the city and Board of Education money is spent, lead to chaos?
They say: “HIGHER HOUSING COSTS- The new bureaucracy will stop efforts to make housing more affordable and raise housing costs for Stamford residents.”
I say: Another outlandish claim; housing costs for Stamford residents have been going up for years. If one looks at the composition of the commission, its members are advocates for affordable housing, not luxury apartment buildings. Some have expressed concern about their children not being able to afford to live in Stamford. One member actually lives in an affordable housing unit. As far as I know, the entire Board of Representatives supports affordable housing. Do you really believe that anyone “will work to stop efforts to make housing more affordable”? This is an over the top accusation.
I hope you consider my reasons for voting YES, and find them persuasive enough to join me.
Virgil de la Cruz
Representative, Waterside, District 2
Deputy Majority Leader