STAMFORD – City representatives agreed that they liked Mayor Caroline Simmons’ pick for a seat on the all-important Zoning Board.
But that was all they agreed about, and the mayor’s nominee was rejected.
During the Board of Representatives’ January meeting, some members said Simmons should have nominated Bianca Shinn for one of the Zoning Board seats occupied by a member whose term has expired.
Instead, Simmons left the three expired Zoning Board members in place and nominated Shinn for the vacancy.
At issue was a longstanding practice among Stamford mayors, including Simmons, to allow favored appointees to remain on boards indefinitely, rather than reappoint them when their terms expire and send them before the Board of Representatives, which may or may not approve them.
The city Charter mandates that mayors put nominees or re-nominees before the Board of Representatives each January to fill expired terms on the volunteer boards that help govern Stamford.
City Rep. Nina Sherwood, majority leader of the Board of Representatives, explained during the meeting why she voted against Shinn.
“The Zoning Board has a tremendous amount of power; I think it touches people’s lives more than the Board of Representatives, the Board of Finance, and even the mayor,” Sherwood said. “I don’t have any issue with the candidate, but I have a grave issue with the way our charter is being abused.”
Now three of the five Zoning Board members are serving on expired terms. The term of the chair, David Stein, expired in 2017. After the term of Bill Morris expired in 2019, former Mayor David Martin put him up for reappointment and the previous Board of Representatives rejected him. But Morris stayed on the Zoning Board anyway. Most recently, the Republican Town Committee voted no confidence in Zoning Board member Rosanne McManus, whose term expired in 2018, hoping to replace her with another Republican. So McManus quit her party and re-registered as an unaffiliated voter. McManus remains on the Zoning Board.
The three continue to deliberate projects proposed by developers and homeowners, whether to rezone neighborhoods or allow demolition of buildings, and decide parking requirements, conversion of office parks, whether to allow accessory apartments in single-family homes, whether marijuana dispensaries may operate in mixed-residential areas, and many other matters.
Six months and you’re out
The city Charter stipulates that, when a term expires, the person may stay in office for six months or until they are replaced, whichever comes first. But years ago a city attorney issued an advisory saying mayors didn’t have to adhere to the stipulation because it’s difficult to fill seats.
Now, among the roughly 250 seats on dozens of appointed boards and commissions, nearly half are occupied by people whose terms are expired, according to information from the city.
In the view of city Rep. Sean Boeger, that has to be corrected because the appointees are political and not accountable to voters, yet their decisions affect the entire public.
“You either respect your guiding document or you don’t,” Boeger said during the meeting. “It says the mayor shall produce a list of nominees for expired terms. It’s black and white. I asked the Simmons administration in June 2022 if they had the intention of removing expired persons … and the answer was no. No other explanation; just no … and there is no repercussion.”
He was voting against the Shinn appointment “because the process is broken, and I am not going to be a part of it because I took an oath,” Boeger said.
Shinn supporters balked at the characterization.
It’s not about the charter, city Rep. Eric Morson said. It’s that some city representatives think the alternate Zoning Board member, Racquel Smith-Anderson, who has been filling the vacancy for a year, should be named a full board member.
“To hold a vacancy hostage and call it a manipulation of the Charter is purely political. Just because someone is there doing the work, doesn’t give you higher priority for consideration,” Morson said. “There are too many expired members but vacancies have to be filled quickly when we have candidates ready to go … this is hostage-taking of this position.”
A matter of ‘gamesmanship’
City Rep. Jonathan Jacobson said some representatives don’t want Shinn because of a topic that made headlines throughout 2023, when Stamford officials deliberated changes to the city charter, the city’s governing document.
The most significant change had to do with expired terms on city boards, particularly Zoning. But Simmons, a former state representative, went to Hartford to get a law passed that now prohibits towns from changing their charters on many zoning matters.
When the remaining changes were set to go on the ballot for Stamford voters to decide in November, the Democratic mayor and her supporters waged an opposition campaign. Financed by developers, their attorneys, a New York real estate firm, wealthy Greenwich executives, and prominent Democrats, the campaign spent more than $100,000 to defeat the changes. The focus was on a proposal to allow the Board of Representatives to nominate people to boards if the mayor failed to do so. Voters rejected the changes.
Jacobson said some representatives don’t want Shinn on the Zoning Board because she opposed the charter changes.
“This is undemocratic and a power play to hold up this process,” Jacobson said. “It’s political gamesmanship.”
An ‘anti-mayor’ charge
City Rep. Dan Sandford said Shinn is a “fantastic” candidate with knowledge of Stamford and strong concern for the community. Shinn’s work experience is in social services, public health and education, and she served on the Board of Representatives for nine months but did not win a full term in November. Shinn once sat on the board of the Stamford Housing Authority.
“This is a tit-for-tat extortion scheme … because of a personal vendetta” among representatives who want Smith-Anderson named to the vacancy, Sandford said.
Comments by City Rep. Carl Weinberg prompted a strong reaction from other city representatives.
“Every speaker so far believes Bianca Shinn would be a great addition to the Zoning Board,” Weinberg said, but “some want to send a message to the mayor. So let’s vote and find out what is more important to the anti-mayor members of this board.”
“I object to his description of people as anti-mayor, just because they disagree,” city Rep. Jeff Stella said. “Can someone … explain to me how we can keep someone on the Zoning Board who is expired and was rejected by the Board of Representatives? A vote was taken and has not been acted on. Can someone explain why expired terms are still allowed?”
City Rep. Kindrea Walston said labeling representatives as “anti-mayor” serves no purpose.
“I can’t believe names are being hurled. With certain members of this board, because we don’t vote the way they want … we get called names. You have to stop talking like that,” Walston said. “Bianca Shinn is a wonderful person but there are things we can stand on because we believe they are right. Fill the expired seat … and stop using her as a pawn. This is about what’s right. The Charter is not going away.”
City Rep. Karen Camporeale called for a compromise.
“I spent two years working on the Charter, and this circumvents it,” Camporeale said. “I take offense when anyone says ‘anti-mayor.’ I personally knocked doors for the mayor, so it’s really unfair and does not make for camaraderie. I will vote no on this appointment because I think with a little bit of work we can have this candidate and respect our charter.”
Two instead of one?
City Rep. Megan Cottrell suggested that the Simmons administration put Shinn and Smith-Anderson forward together, since there are four seats up on the Zoning Board – three expired and one vacant.
“I feel we should reject Shinn tonight and go to the mayor and say we will approve her, but we would like this compromise,” Cottrell said. “The mayor doesn’t have to do that. It’s her prerogative to leave it as it is. But perhaps that is the best way to go.”
The morning after Tuesday night’s meeting CT Examiner asked Lauren Meyer, Simmons’ special assistant, whether the administration would consider a compromise.
“We have not received a formal request to sit down with members of the Board of Representatives regarding expired and vacant seats,” Meyer said in an email. “Since taking office, our administration has continually expressed and demonstrated a willingness to put forth candidates to serve on our city boards and commissions.”
The administration put forward, and city representatives approved, more than 60 candidates, including Smith-Anderson, Meyer wrote.
She did not reply to a question about whether Simmons would consider Smith-Anderson for the Zoning Board vacancy. Meyer also did not answer a question about whether Simmons will comply with the charter mandate that mayors present nominees for expired seats each January.
Meyer wrote only that, “It’s incredibly disappointing to see the Board of Representatives vote down, for the second time in (four) months, a qualified candidate to fill the vacancy on the Zoning Board. Our priority remains to fill this position so that the Zoning Board is at full membership.”
In September the Board of Representatives rejected the appointment of Keith Walker, a real estate executive specializing in property management and development, saying he was not knowledgeable about zoning cases, and that Smith-Anderson, who they said is more qualified, was overlooked.