Latest Filings Show Strong Interest in Quashing Stamford Charter Revisions by Development Interests

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STAMFORD – The orchestration was extraordinary for a non-mayoral municipal election, the kind that historically attracts, perhaps, one in five voters…

  • A Washington, D.C., company was hired to design and print tens of thousands of full-color brochures and send them to voters’ mailboxes in waves.
  • Another Washington, D.C., company was hired to text messages to voters.
  • A third Washington, D.C., company supplied voter contact software.
  • A Florida company delivered get-out-the-vote robo calls.
  • An Atlanta company was hired to process credit card fees for campaign contributors.

The campaign that purchased those services was not for a candidate for Board of Finance, Board of Education, or to fill five vacated seats on the Board of Representatives.

Instead, the campaign – run by a political action committee, Stamford for Fair Government – raised a total of nearly $140,000 to persuade voters to reject changes to the city charter — that’s according to campaign finance disclosures filed Jan. 10 with the State Elections Enforcement Commission.

Stamford for Fair Government, which out-raised an opposing grassroots political action committee by nearly $100,000, succeeded. Residents rejected the charter revisions, 11,101 votes to 8,485.

It was about development

The changes to the charter would have affected development in Stamford, the fastest-growing city in Connecticut. The new rules would have allowed city representatives to choose members of Zoning and Planning boards if the mayor did not, and would have required more public notice before zoning matters were decided.

The January campaign filing shows that Stamford for Fair Government spent all of its contributions, and then some, to ensure that the charter changes would fail. As of the filing, the PAC had about $5,900 on hand, but nearly $11,400 in expenses still not paid.

The filing also shows that Stamford for Fair Government’s effort, fueled by large contributions from developers, wealthy Stamford Democrats, and business executives from Greenwich and New York, raised more than three times the amount raised by the grassroots PAC, Yes to Stamford Charter 2023.

According to the January filing, Yes to Stamford Charter 2023 raised a total of nearly $42,000.

The grassroots PAC spent all of the money raised, had $0 on hand as of Jan. 10, and $0 in outstanding expenses, the filing shows.

The contrast in funding between the PACs was apparent from the start. 

The initial filings showed that Stamford for Fair Government had raised about $100,100. The January filing shows that the PAC then raised almost $40,000 more. 

Nearly all of the recent contributions, $37,500, came from six individuals: 

  • $15,000 from housing developer Richard Freedman, president of Garden Homes Management, chair of the Stamford Board of Finance, and member of the Stamford Democratic City Committee. (It means Freedman’s household gave a total of $25,000, since an October filing shows that his wife, Nancy, gave $10,000.)
  • $10,000 from the James M. Grunberger Revocable Trust on Dec. 20. Grunberger, a Democrat on the Board of Representatives, is a builder and property manager. (Grunberger contributed $10,000 in October, according to that filing.) 
  • $5,000 from the estate of Mario Lodato, who founded MarLo Associates, a Stamford construction and real estate firm.
  • $5,000 from Richard Cohen, founder of Capital Properties, a New York City real estate development and management company.
  • $1,500 from Alan Cosby of Greenwich, a partner with AC Real Estate in Stamford.
  • $1,000 from Democratic city Rep. Dan Sandford.

Stamford for Fair Government’s pre-election campaign disclosures showed that the 26 top contributors gave 92.5 percent of the then-total of $100,100. The filings also showed that contributors who do not live in Stamford gave one-third of that.

Among the biggest contributors in the Stamford for Fair Government previous filings were:

  • $13,547 from Catalyst for Connecticut, a nonprofit advocating pro-growth policies headed by former Stamford Democratic City Committee Chair Josh Fedeli.
  • $13,547 from Peter Duncan of Rye, N.Y., an executive with New York commercial real estate company George Comfort & Sons.
  • $10,000 from Thomas Rutledge of Greenwich, chairman of Charter Communications, headquartered in Stamford.
  • $5,000 from Carmody Torrance Sandak & Hennessey, the law firm of Bill Hennessey, a land-use attorney who represents developers before the planning and zoning boards.
  • $5,000 from Anthony Gaglio, head of Stamford’s Viking Construction.

In contrast, a January filing shows that the competing PAC — Yes to Stamford Charter 2023 — added only $3,700 to its earlier total of about $38,200.

The largest recent contribution, $2,000, came from Maria Aposporos of Stamford, owner of Curley’s Diner downtown. The other individual contributions were for $250 or less.

October contributions to Yes to Stamford Charter 2023 included:

  • $10,500 from Steve Garst, owner of Promotion Consultants in Stamford and a founder of the Stamford Neighborhoods Coalition.
  • $5,000 from attorney Steve Loeb, a member of the Stamford Charter Revision Commission.
  • $2,050 from attorney Josh Esses, a Republican member of the Stamford Board of Education.
  • $2,200 from Marc Moorash, who helped lead opposition to a city plan to sell the Glenbrook Community Center.
  • $2,000 from Stamford police Sgt. Sean Boeger, a Democratic member of the Board of Representatives.

The January filing shows that the grassroots PAC spent $33,400 in the most recent period. They paid $2,100 to Spectrum Marketing of New Hampshire for social media advertising, and $1,400 to Proforma Promotional Consultants of Cincinnati to print mailers. The rest was spent on postage, print materials, mailing supplies, and election day signs and poll standers.

For the same period, Stamford for Fair Government paid $79,900 to GDA Wins of Washington, D.C., for political mailers; $8,000 to Custom Sign Solutions of Stamford; $1,300 to Get Through of Oregon for get-out-the-vote texting; and $2,900 to technology provider NGP Van of Washington, D.C.

The city’s dominant Democratic Party, like the PACs, diverged over the charter debate.

Supporters of the revisions said the charter should prohibit mayors from holding over their appointees long after their terms expire, particularly on the important planning and zoning boards. Mayors have allowed favored appointees to remain rather than reappoint them and risk rejection by the deciding body, the Board of Representatives.

Stamford’s Democratic mayor, Caroline Simmons, and the Democratic City Committee opposed the changes, saying they would take power from the mayor and give it to representatives. They also said the changes would thwart development in Stamford where, city records show, more than 13,000 housing units have been built in the last 13 years.

Lingering feelings

More than two months after the election, sentiments about the charter still roil. 

CT Examiner posed four questions to Democratic city Rep. Nina Sherwood, majority leader of the Board of Representatives and leader of the Yes to Stamford Charter 2023 PAC, and Tim Abbazia, who has long been active in the city’s Democratic Party and chaired the Stamford for Fair Government PAC.

  1. Why were Greenwich and New York business executives and developers interested in a charter revision question in Stamford?
  1. Of the city’s 72,798 registered voters, 20,541 cast ballots in November, and the difference between the no’s and the yes’s was 2,616 votes. Is it fair, then, for the Democratic City Committee and the Simmons administration to assert that residents overwhelmingly rejected the charter revisions?
  1. In unusual moves, the planning and zoning boards recently rejected some development projects, even though it was likely the decisions would be contested in court. Do you see that as a reaction to public sentiment over the rejected charter changes?
  1. During the charter debate residents said there is conflict because some Democrats want to use Stamford as a political power base and other Democrats want people to have more say in what happens to their neighborhoods. Will you react to that?

Response from the Yes to Stamford Charter 2023 PAC

Sherwood said Greenwich and New York executives were interested in the Stamford charter question because the revisions “would have closed a loophole that wealthy and well-connected special interests have exploited in Stamford for decades.”

The loopholes need to be fixed, Sherwood said.

“The land in Stamford is some of the most expensive real estate in the country, and the amount of money to be made on housing is astronomical because Stamford is 35 miles outside of New York,” Sherwood said. “All these special interests are using Stamford as an economic engine for their own private benefit.”

The charter revisions would have tightened city government so appointees could not exceed their expired terms, and would have required “more public reporting on city finances, and increased the amount of public input in decisions,” Sherwood said. “If you’re a special interest, you don’t want that.”

It’s not fair to say voters overwhelmingly rejected the charter changes “because the election showed us that a lot of money and a sophisticated, focus-group tested message based on lies was able to manipulate the minds of voters,” Sherwood said. 

“If you talk to voters and say people on boards are serving on terms that expired years ago, or we don’t have as many public hearings as other cities, or how we spend taxpayer money is not as transparent as in other places, voters tell you they want charter change,” Sherwood said. “Yet they went to the polls and voted no. The ‘vote no’ group had a tremendous amount of money and lied to people, telling them development would end, and taxes would go up, when that’s not what the changes would have done.”

The debate has changed attitudes on the zoning and planning boards, Sherwood said.

“I think it’s because of the amount of talk and press about the fact that many members of these boards are serving on expired terms. Now there are a lot of eyes on them. Residents are waking up,” Sherwood said. “Before, board members were just voting yes to everything. Now they are saying, ‘Oh, no, I represent the people.’”

Sherwood said she thinks there is a divide between Democrats who work for the party and Democrats who work for the people.

“In my opinion the Democratic City Committee looks to protect and promote and enrich certain politicians to push them up through the rings of power in the state and at the federal level,” she said. “But there is collateral damage, because when the party puts political personalities first, they put the public in the back seat.”

Stamford for Fair Government PAC

Abbazia said that, because Stamford is the economic engine of Connecticut, it “typically attracts the attention of the surrounding areas,” so it’s understandable that Greenwich and New York executives were interested in the charter debate.

Still, Abbazia said, the January campaign filing shows that “the largest contributions to Stamford for Fair Government were from two Stamford residents, Jim Grunberger and Richard Freedman. Both are elected officials intimately familiar with the charter revisions, who were gravely concerned about their impacts on the future well-being of the city.”  

Stamford for Fair Government’s campaign was needed “to inform and educate all Stamford residents.”  

Abbazia said it’s fair to say voters overwhelmingly rejected the charter proposals.

“The 11,101 ‘no’ votes represent 57 percent … (and) the 8,485 ‘yes’ votes equals 43 percent,” he said. “How the 14 percent difference is described is subjective, but given how close many elections have been recently, it’s certainly appropriate to characterize it as overwhelming.”

Abbazia said zoning and planning board members are making decisions as they always have, regardless of sentiment resulting from the charter debate.

When he served on the Planning Board in the late 1990s, “we voted on each application based on its merits. This is most appropriate, and I have no reason to believe the current members are not acting in this same manner.”

He does not see the Democratic Party divided over service to the party vs. the people, Abbazia said.

“Democrats, Republicans, and unaffiliated voters were all concerned about the proposed changes to the charter,” and his PAC is a “broad-based group” that “simply wanted to make sure that Stamford’s governing document provided for the most efficient and effective management,” Abbazia said.


Angela Carella

For 36 years prior to joining the Connecticut Examiner, Angela Carella was a beat reporter, investigative reporter, editor and columnist for the Stamford Advocate. Carella reports on Stamford and Fairfield County. T: 203 722 6811.

a.carella@ctexaminer.com