New Era of Cooperation in New Britain, as Council Members Aim for Bipartisanship

New Britain City Hall (CT Examiner)


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NEW BRITAIN — Will the bickering and infighting among New Britain Common Council members cease after the latest election? Members of both major parties say that political partisanship might be a thing of the past.

Residents reelected Republican Mayor Erin Stewart to a sixth two-year term on Nov. 7 and gave Democrats the council majority 8-7. Republicans had held the council 12-3 since 2021. 

It’s an open secret that there was occasional bad blood between council Democrats and Republicans, members of both parties told CT Examiner this week.

“The last time [Democrats had a council majority from 2017 to 2019], they would vote ‘no’ on anything she [Stewart] wanted,” said Republican council member Willy Pabon, who has served 14 years on the council. “It doesn’t matter how good a policy she promoted, they voted no.”

Democrat Francisco Santiago, the new president pro tempore of the council, said “there was a lot of bickering going on,” when the Democrats and Republicans had control in the past. “I saw how the bickering and pettiness was for both sides. It was definitely contentious.”

Council members will still fight for their preferred policies and projects, Republican Council Minority Leader Robert Smedley said, but added he’s happily surprised by what he heard from Democrats during a joint meeting of leadership on Tuesday.

“Last night [Tuesday], for instance, during a leadership conversation, they said they had no desire of rattling the cage and that they’d work with us on moving the city forward,” Smedley said.

Santiago said he told Republican leadership he’s “open to discussions and debating, like the old-fashioned way of doing things right. Yes, I am a Democrat and, yes, I was endorsed by the Democrats, but 100 percent of what I’m doing is for the people, not because of the party.”

Democratic Council Majority Leader John McNamara, who ran against Stewart for mayor in 2015, said, “Those councils are gone. It’s a new day now, and I’m all for cooperation where the outcomes and benefits to the residents can be proven.”

In a statement to CT Examiner this week, Stewart wrote, “I am honored to have been re-elected and am excited for the challenge. The people of New Britain have spoken, and, in their wisdom, have encouraged cooperation and bi-partisanship. The make-up of the council may be different, majorities have moved back and forth over the years, but our bi-partisan, results-driven agenda moves forward. The makeup of the council, being so evenly split, will force relationships to be built, encourage open discussion, and will limit obstruction. We must all work together to keep moving forward — after all, I’m not veto proof. If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.”

While council members said they are hoping for less vendettas and less contentiousness, they all agree there will be policy differences 

“There is going to be a discussion of budget priorities where Democrats will come from a different perspective than where the current administration has come from,” McNamara said. “We think, for example, that education should get a fair shake. I mean, we ran on that issue.”

McNamara, who served as the city’s Democratic Town Committee chairman from 1994 to 2016, said there have been “10 years of stagnation” as far as providing local adequate support to the city’s schools and Board of Education.

McNamara said another concern is the city’s infrastructure, specifically as it relates to water and flooding.

“My campaign this last year called for an accelerated approach to the city’s infrastructure with regard to drainage and sewage,” he said. “Instead of pushing projects further into the out years, we need that accelerated approach and not a long and drawn out process.”

Pabon noted that many Democrats ran on issues related to drainage and sewage, as many parts of the city are in a flood zone, but warned against using the city’s Rainy Day Fund for projects unless it’s absolutely necessary.

“If they go after the money in our Rainy Day Fund, then we are in trouble,” he said. “We are supposed to have a certain amount of money there and if we go below that amount, then that could hurt things like our bond ratings, which are now at A+.”

According to city Finance Director Jonathan Perugini, there is currently $24.1 million in the Rainy Day Fund. To keep the city on strong fiscal footing, the council has said the fund should not go below 5 percent of the city’s general fund operating budget, or about $13.3 million. 

Pabon said he plans to continue supporting the administration’s economic development plan. 

“Some of the things we did when we were in the majority was give tax breaks to developers,” he said. “That is why there is a lot of development going on. That’s a big thing. Look at all of those buildings that used to be empty. Now, they are part of new developments.”

Pabon pointed to downtown projects such as The Brit, a 107-unit apartment building, and The Strand, an ongoing project involving the construction of a 100-unit complex at the former Strand Theater. It is slated to include mixed-use including retail and restaurant space.

Santiago, who has lived in the southwestern part of the city since 1999, said as the new leader of the council, he will push for a community center in his ward.

“Right now, everything is downtown,” he said. “A lot of my friends, especially in my area, don’t have the means of transportation to go to a Boys and Girls Club, for example. I think it’s needed, especially in a heavy residential area with a lot of kids and families. It would be nice to not have to travel across town to be able to get services.”

Smedley said a major goal for him is to “maintain our stable budget,” which currently stands at $265.8 million. Due in large part to a revaluation phase-in, the city saw its first tax increase in four years.

“We have been responsible with our spending,” Smedley said. “We [the administration and council Republicans] don’t make erroneous decisions or purchases. There are no gimmicks. We know that our revenue is our revenue and that our expenditures are our expenditures.” 

Robert Storace

Robert Storace is a veteran reporter with stints at New Britain Herald, the New Haven Register, the Connecticut Post, Hartford Business Journal and the Connecticut Law Tribune. Storace covers the State Capitol for CT Examiner. T: 203 437 5950