STAMFORD – Municipal elections are not known for attracting voters, but two political action committees battling over whether to change the city charter may ramp up Tuesday’s turnout.
It could be that voters respond to the outbreak of dueling mailers, lawn signs, emails, community forums and social media postings that began about six weeks ago.
Or maybe they won’t.
If turnout holds true to form, about 20 percent of the city’s roughly 72,800 voters will cast a ballot.
That would mean that about 14,600 voters will weigh in on what has divided residents of Stamford, Connecticut’s fastest-growing city, for more than a decade – development.
The PAC that wants people to vote “no,” Stamford for Fair Government, is funded by developers, their attorneys, builders and corporate executives from Greenwich and New York, according to the October campaign finance disclosure.
That PAC has raised nearly triple the money raised by the PAC that wants people to vote yes to charter change, according to the filings.
Yes to Stamford Charter 2023 is funded by small business owners, city representatives, members of the Charter Revision Commission, and neighborhood activists.
Though the “yes” PAC listed more contributors in October than the “no” PAC, the dollar amounts per contribution were smaller.
The charter question has dominated the election, shortchanging the attention on candidates running for education and finance board seats, and for those seeking to fill slots resulting from five Board of Representatives resignations.
The absent factor
Absentee balloting often plays an out-sized role in municipal elections, where vote totals tend to be small.
As of Monday afternoon, 1,698 Stamford residents had already voted by mail, Town Clerk Lyda Ruijter said. Another 882 absentee ballots were issued but had not yet been returned.
“We’re collecting them every hour” from the drop box in the parking garage of the Stamford Government Center, Ruijter said.
Connecticut sets specific limits for those who wish to vote by mail. It is restricted to active members of the armed forces; those who must be out of town on election day; those who cannot vote in person because they are sick or disabled; those whose religious beliefs prevent them from engaging in secular activities on that day; and election officials working at polling places.
But the regulations have changed slightly since Gov. Ned Lamont loosened them to allow people to vote during the coronavirus pandemic, Ruijter said.
“The way I understand it, there are two changes that the state legislature has made,” Ruijter said.
“It used to be that you could vote by absentee ballot only if you were going to be out of town during all the hours of the day,” she said. “They changed it to say you can vote absentee if you are going to be away ‘during the day’ – it doesn’t have to be all hours of the day.”
The second change redefined “sick,” she said.
“It used to be that the voter had to be sick to get an absentee ballot. Now it can be the voter’s spouse or parent or other family member who is sick, and the voter is the caregiver. People also can vote by absentee if they have a fear of getting COVID. I just had someone on the phone who said she would not go to the polls because she has not been able to get her COVID shot. So the ‘sickness’ reason for voting absentee is more open-ended.”
If all 2,580 of the ballots that were issued by Ruijter’s office are returned, 3.5 percent of the total Stamford electorate will have voted by absentee.
It’s a small number of ballots but it can decide a race. In the low-turnout Sept. 12 primary, for example, one Board of Representatives candidate won by two votes, and another by nine votes.
Contributors, and contributions
A tight vote would add to the charged atmosphere created over the charter battle.
Campaign finance disclosures show that the “ote no” PAC raised $100,069 in October. More than 92 percent of the money reported by Stamford for Fair Government came from contributors who gave between $500 and $13,547, the maximum amount recommended by the PAC according to its reading of state election laws.
Among the 83 contributions listed in the October report for the “vote no” PAC, about 40 percent were $100 or less.
Yes to Stamford Charter 2023 had more contributors, 119, but the amounts were smaller. About 74 percent were $100 or less.
The “vote yes” side of the debate says rules in the existing charter allow mayors to hold over their board and commission appointees long after their terms expire, rather than reappoint them and risk rejection by the deciding body, the Board of Representatives.
About 60 percent of the members of the planning and zoning boards, which decide development matters, are operating on expired terms, city records show.
The “no” side of the charter debate, supported by Democratic Mayor Caroline Simmons and the Stamford Democratic City Committee, says the charter changes would thwart development and transfer power from the mayor to the Board of Representatives, which would be allowed to nominate people to boards and commissions if the mayor fails to do so by certain deadlines.
The other matters
The Stamford Charter Revision Commission proposed further changes for the city’s governing document.
One would clarify some of the language. Another would require more notice of meetings and hearings. Others would allow the Board of Representatives to hire its own attorney; require expanded financial reporting from city departments and the school district; set residency requirements for eight top city officials; and set per diem pay for elected officials who fill in for the mayor during temporary absences.
The candidate races this year have been pushed to the back seat, but voters have more to decide beyond whether the charter proposals become law.
The choices for three Board of Finance seats include three Democratic incumbents – Geoff Alswanger, Laura Burwick and
Mary Lou Rinaldi – and one Republican newcomer, Thomas Kuczyński.
Three seats are open on the Board of Education. Democrat Andy George is seeking reelection, and two Democrat newcomers, Antonia Better-Wirz and Gabriela Koc, are running for seats.
Two Republicans also have their hats in the ring. One is newcomer Michael Arcano and the other is Nicola Tarzia, a former school board member who is running again.
Incumbent Democrat Jackie Heftman is on the ballot to fill a one-year school board vacancy.
One candidate for constable, Democrat Tiffany Pippins, is seeking to fill a vacancy for two years.
On the Board of Representatives, five candidates are running to finish the terms of members who have resigned. Stamford has 20 municipal districts, and each has two representatives. Tuesday’s winners will keep their seats through 2025.
In District 5, incumbent Democrat Dakary Watkins is running unopposed. He was named to fill the vacant seat in May.
District 7 has a race between two newcomers, Democrat Christina Strain and Republican Michael Battinelli.
In District 9, incumbent Democrat Kindrea Walston is running unopposed to keep the seat she filled in April 2022.
In District 18, incumbent Republican Stephen Garst is being challenged by Democrat newcomer Karen Camporeale.
Finally, in District 20, incumbent Democrat Carl Weinberg is being challenged by Republican newcomer Vito Quivelli.
To find your voting district, visit: https://www.stamfordct.gov/government/registrar-of-voters/find-your-voting-location