STAMFORD – Bianca Shinn explained how her work as a public health practitioner would help her on the Zoning Board.
Michael Larobina said his background as the city’s former legal affairs director and a university law professor would be a good fit for the Board of Education.
Democrat Shinn and Republican Larobina are seeking appointments to two of the city’s most significant boards. They were interviewed Tuesday night by the Appointments Committee of the Board of Representatives.
Shinn’s name was submitted by Democratic Mayor Caroline Simmons, and Larobina’s name was submitted by Republican city Rep. Mary Fedeli, minority leader of the Board of Representatives, according to the meeting agenda.
Both candidates scored points with the Appointments Committee, but the members could not vote on their approvals because they didn’t have a quorum. Five of the nine members were absent.
Still, the committee chair, city Rep. Denis Patterson, told the candidates that the Board of Representatives may vote on their nominations at its Jan. 2 meeting.
Patterson explained on Wednesday. He said that, after the meeting, notes were sent to all 40 representatives saying that the Appointments Committee interviewed Shinn and Larobina, as well as two candidates for seats on the Stamford Golf Authority.
“I asked representatives to please review the interviews online so they can make up their own minds,” Patterson said. “Then, during our January meeting, the board can vote on whether to take action on the nominations.”
If the full board votes not to act on the nominations, they will go before the Appointments Committee again later in January, Patterson said. If the board votes yes, the city will have two new people helping to make decisions on topics central to life in the city – development and schools.
‘I am for Stamford’
Shinn would fill a vacancy on the five-member Zoning Board, which city Rep. Virgil de la Cruz described as Stamford’s most important board because of its effect on quality of life.
The Zoning Board regulates property use and decides which projects get built. The mayor appoints the members but they don’t take a seat until the Board of Representatives approves them.
The Appointments Committee is the first step. Members interview candidates then vote to recommend whether the full Board of Representatives should approve them.
During her interview, Shinn was asked how the Zoning Board could incentivize developers to produce housing units that are more affordable without discouraging them from building in Stamford at all.
Shinn, whose experience is in social services, public health and education, responded from that perspective.
“We have to push developers to be more socially responsible,” Shinn told city Rep. Jim Grunberger, who asked the question. “Stamford has that mosaic fabric that attracts developers – we can’t be afraid to push the envelope. I am not pro-development or anti-development. I am for Stamford.”
Shinn has a bachelor’s degree in political science, a master’s degree in urban studies, and two master’s degrees in public health. She is a doctoral student in the educational leadership program at Sacred Heart University, and works as director of family advocacy at Domus Kids, a Stamford agency that works with young people facing adversity.
Shinn was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Board of Representatives in March, but in last month’s election lost her bid to keep the seat.
An outcry flags an issue
Grunberger asked Shinn her opinion of the city’s Below Market Rate program, which requires that developers of projects with at least 10 housing units set aside 10 percent to rent at more affordable rates. Shinn said the requirement should be increased to 20 percent or 30 percent.
Grunberger asked whether she would understand the complex financials developers use to determine whether a project will be profitable.
“I don’t have the ability right now,” Shinn said. “It is more about my lived experience, what I see on the ground. I was born and raised in Stamford and lived in affordable housing … people don’t just want to live in Stamford; they want quality of life.”
Grunberger also asked about Section 8 federal vouchers, which help low-income persons afford safe housing in the private market.
Shinn said she knows from serving on the commission for Charter Oak, Stamford’s housing authority, that there are problems with the Section 8 program. Landlords “are not accepting the vouchers in this hot housing market,” Shinn said. Even with a voucher, a low-income person may have to put down a deposit of $3,000 or $4,000, and “a voucher doesn’t always get you good-quality housing,” Shinn said.
De la Cruz asked Shinn about the powers and duties of the Zoning Board. According to state law, two of the duties are to “lessen congestion in the streets ” and to protect “tribal, cultural and environmental resources.” De la Cruz asked Shinn how she would carry that out as a member of the Zoning Board.
“A single-family zone should stay single-family because you have to look at the environmental stresses,” Shinn said. If there are outcries from the public, “it means there is an issue … a low-density area should stay low density, especially with climate change. As a public health practitioner, I would be looking at the social determinants of the quality of life. But the key thing is, what are the people of that neighborhood saying?”
School board bid
Appointments Committee members then interviewed the Board of Education candidate, Larobina, an attorney and former city representative who served as Stamford’s legal affairs director under former Mayor Michael Pavia.
Larobina now is general counsel for Sacred Heart University, where he also has served as corporate secretary, a professor in the College of Business, and an associate dean.
Committee Vice Chair Ramya Shaw asked Larobina why he wants to serve on the school board.
“As I’ve been in the classroom over the years, I have seen a decline in student preparation for higher education,” Larobina said. “There is a lack of reading comprehension, a lack of critical thinking. Stamford is a premiere city … I have a long history of service here … and I know we have to get education right. If we don’t get it right, nothing that we do matters. … Employees want to live here because they have confidence in our school system. It’s central to our continued economic success.”
His experience fits the work that school boards do, Larobina said.
“I’m an attorney, a tenured professor, I’ve been a dean and an assistant dean. I’ve been in a classroom for 35 years. I have done faculty and curriculum development, and school assessment and accreditation,” he said. “I have a lot of experience with governance, so I think I can bring that to the table.”
Get out the good
He has been reviewing the Stamford Board of Education’s strategic plan and plan for self-improvement, Larobina said.
“There are good things in there. If you are doing this assessment and monitoring it quarterly, where are the results? Put them on the website,” he said.
He learned from talking with Superintendent Tamu Lucero, for example, that the school district works with trade unions, bringing them into the high schools to recruit interested students.
“They are finding pathways for children who are not going to college to have a successful life. I never knew that until I spoke to the superintendent,” Larobina said. “If you are not getting out what the good things are, then individuals with bad experiences who are very vocal will take over communications.”
Larobina was asked about conflicts between district administrators and teachers. Most recently, they are at odds over a plan to require high school teachers to take on a sixth class without increasing pay.
“When you are tackling problems like that, leaders can bridge the gaps. A lot of times it’s about poor communication,” Larobina said. “People seem to go to their corners and dig in. I have had that experience as a dean … I’ve had similar experience with unions … (and) I’ve been in the classroom. I know how much work teachers have. I’m sensitive to those experiences, and perhaps I can help bridge those gaps.”
A committee member asked about cultural wars concerning book bans and parents’ opposition to the teaching of controversial social topics.
“There are state requirements that parents be involved in certain school board decisions. Legislation lays out for us that parents have a voice,” Larobina said. “I would not want to take an extreme position on social issues. I want to focus on life skills for kids headed to college or a trade. I believe in moderation in general, not extremes in either direction.”
The meeting ended with committee members expressing support for candidates who interviewed for two seats on the Stamford Golf Authority, the nine-member board that operates the city’s Sterling Farms Golf Course.
The candidates are Democrat Matt Stendardi, a financial advisor with UBS Financial Services, and Democrat Carlton Thompson, general counsel for a hedge fund.