STAMFORD – City Republican leaders say they haven’t liked many of the choices made by Rosanne McManus, who has represented their party on the Zoning Board for 10 years.
As one of five volunteer appointees, McManus helps decide whether to approve developers’ applications to build apartment towers, marijuana dispensaries, doughnut shop drive-thrus, self-storage facilities in mixed residential neighborhoods, and other proposals. Board members set specifications for converting office parks to housing complexes, establish parking requirements for new projects, enact regulations for adding apartments to single-family homes, and more.
In Stamford, rapid growth has increased traffic and housing congestion, and put the Zoning Board under a spotlight.
Members of the Republican Town Committee think McManus too often cast her Zoning Board ballot for projects that benefited developers, not neighborhoods, said the chair, Joseph Andreana Jr. At last month’s RTC meeting, a member moved for a no-confidence vote against McManus.
“It was 21-0,” Andreana said. “Not one person abstained or said no.”
Because McManus’s Zoning Board term expired in 2018, and the city Charter says the mayor must present nominees for expired seats to the Board of Representatives each January, Republicans wanted to consider someone else for her seat, Andreana said.
McManus at first wanted time to consider whether to step down, Andreana said. Then he heard that she had stepped down not from the board, but from the party.
City voter registration records show that, on Dec. 12, McManus, who was a Republican for at least 25 years, changed her political association to unaffiliated, which is no party at all.
It means she is no longer subject to a Republican Party endorsement – she can ask Mayor Caroline Simmons to submit her name directly to the Board of Representatives for reappointment. It means that Republicans, who are far outnumbered by Democrats in Stamford, will lose a seat on the powerful Zoning Board.
State minority representation rules require that no single party hold more than a simple majority of seats, so the dominant Democrats may occupy a maximum of three. Republicans held the other two Zoning Board seats. Now they have one.
In a hot seat
McManus has not returned requests for comment, so it is unclear whether she intends to remain on the Zoning Board.
It has been at the center of a bitter controversy for all of 2023, the year Stamford was required by state law to review its city Charter, or body 0f laws.
A Charter Revision Commission formed to do that work focused on clarifying and updating zoning-related provisions in the Charter that have been called out in court cases, and questioned by residents who have pushed back on development they say threatens their neighborhoods and quality of life.
The Charter Revision Commission proposed changes they said would give residents more of a say in development decisions. An original revision, for example, sought to close a loophole that allows mayors to keep their appointees in board seats beyond the expiration of their terms, rather than reappoint them and risk rejection by the Board of Representatives.
Mayors for decades have left their appointees on boards almost indefinitely, to boost chances that their policies are enacted. Critics have said such appointees act in the interests of the mayor, not the voters.
But that proposed revision and others became moot when Simmons, a former state representative, went to Hartford and, with help from Democratic colleagues, had the revisions outlawed before they could be put before Stamford voters in November.
Simmons said the revisions would hurt development in Stamford which, like the rest of Connecticut, has a housing shortage.
In the run-up to the election, Simmons got behind a political action committee that opposed the remaining zoning-related Charter changes, specifically one that made it easier for the Board of Representatives to appoint people to expired board seats when the mayor failed to do so.
Campaign filings show that McManus contributed $75 to the Simmons-backed political action committee, which raised more than $100,000, mostly from developers, construction companies, wealthy executives, and prominent Democrats.
‘No immediate plans’
CT Examiner asked Lauren Meyer, Simmons’ special assistant, whether the mayor is considering reappointing McManus to the Zoning Board under her new unaffiliated status.
“At this time, the administration has no immediate plans for reappointments to the Zoning Board,” Meyer said in an email.
Meyer said Simmons recently sent out a letter asking appointees serving in expired seats to say whether they are interested in being reappointed, and to respond by Dec. 1. Meyer did not say whether McManus responded to the letter.
Asked to comment on the possibility that appointees may switch party affiliation to gain, or keep, board seats, Meyer did not respond.
Andreana said he is “very disappointed” with the situation.
“To think someone would hold onto an appointed position so much (that) they would switch to unaffiliated raises many questions and concerns for the taxpayers of Stamford,” Andreana said. “Who now will hold this person accountable?”
It’s a question for all appointees who remain in their seats on expired terms, he said. Counting McManus, that includes three of the five Zoning Board members and all five members of the Planning Board, the city’s other land-use body.
City records show that roughly 100 appointees who sit on dozens of boards and commissions are deciding city matters even though their terms have expired, in some cases six or seven years ago.
Then there’s the issue of switching political parties, either because an appointee fails to get an endorsement or wants to skirt the minority representation rule. If, for example, a Democrat wishes to join a board that already has its quota of Democrats, the person may re-register as unaffiliated but still adhere to the Democratic agenda. It would defeat the purpose of the rule, which is to prevent party monopoly.
City in charge of charter
That’s a problem for the city to solve, said Jillian Hirst, press secretary for the Connecticut Office of the Secretary of the State.
“Stamford is governed by a charter,” Hirst said. “If something involves a municipal board, it’s a charter issue. Our office doesn’t interpret charter issues. You would have to ask the city attorney.”
Stamford’s lead attorney, Tom Cassone, said there is nothing in the Charter that precludes McManus from seeking reappointment to the Zoning Board as an unaffiliated candidate.
If McManus chooses to do that, there is no waiting period from Dec. 12, the day she registered as unaffiliated, Cassone said. If she chooses, McManus may go directly to the mayor to seek reappointment and the mayor may submit McManus’s name to the Board of Representatives, he said.
There is no law or regulation that requires a board candidate to be endorsed by a political party before seeking a board or commission seat, Cassone said. That has only been the practice.
Though the city Charter says mayors each January must submit nominations to the Board of Representatives to fill expired seats, Simmons, like other mayors, has not done so.
The Charter also says that when a term expires, the appointee may remain in office for six months or until the Board of Representatives approves a replacement, whichever comes first.
However, a city attorney years ago issued an advisory saying that provision can’t be enforced because it would leave too many empty seats on boards and commissions.
Cassone could not be contacted Friday to answer a question about how the city may legally circumvent the six-month cutoff for expired office holders.
McManus has been a Republican since at least 1999, when she first was elected to the Board of Education, where she served for a dozen years. In 2013, then-Mayor Michael Pavia nominated McManus for the Zoning Board. The Board of Representatives’ Appointments Committee rejected her appointment, saying McManus had no background in zoning, but ultimately the full board approved her. She has held the seat ever since.