It was a perfect storm.
2023. Four years into the pandemic. People were working from home.
In defiance of sound planning principles, developers were rapidly applying for and receiving map and text changes from Stamford’s land use boards despite mounting community opposition. Petitions against incursionary projects were being submitted to the Zoning Board, resulting in additional litigation expenses incurred by the city. Being local now, people observed the increased traffic, parking congestion and adverse effects on the environment, including flooding. And they didn’t like it.
The year 2023 held much promise for Stamford, as 15 dedicated, community-minded individuals from all walks of life came together as members of Stamford’s 19th Charter Revision Commission to hold the City to a standard of municipal excellence.
That promise was defeated via a barrage of expensive and misleading flyers by the monied and political interests of Stamford who have controlled the city’s direction for decades. The Political Action Committee they formed for the express purpose of controlling the vote was inaptly named Stamford for Fair Government. Its purpose was to maintain the status quo, keep expired land use board members on those boards to continue to ransack the zoning code to enrich themselves.
The defeat of the revised Charter was a smack in the face to those residents of Stamford who wanted participation, accessibility, accountability and transparency from their government as well as control over their living conditions.
It is interesting and instructive that even with an all-encompassing omnibus question like Stamford’s, the Charter revisions of both Norwalk and New Haven passed easily. What was/is different in Stamford?
The mayors of those other cities endorsed the proposals, while Stamford’s mayor, even before the Charter revisions were finalized, initiated covert action in Hartford to deny Stamford’s residents the opportunity to vote on important land use provisions that would have given a more defined voice to residents to petition the ubiquitous map and text changes throughout the city and to tighten the approval process for the taking of residents’ properties. The alliance of the mayor and these development interests were key forces determining the fate of Charter revision. Meanwhile, the addiction to the permit fees and additional tax revenues generated from these projects is nowhere to be found in the maintenance of our wasting streets and buildings.
Here is a sample of what the city and its residents lost with the efforts of the mayor/developer cabal:
- clear reporting and accountability for legislative, legal and fiscal matters” together with “reorganiz(ing) the budget process to permit residents to voice their opinions and concerns in a pre-budget meeting. Requir(ing) publication of a budget calendar and ensur(ing) compliance with state law”
Ask yourself: What would be the reasons for hiding important financial information from the taxpayers of the City?
Currently, Stamford’s tax collection system is broken, leading to the historic inability of the City’s auditors to finalize the City’s audits in a timely manner. This has caused the City to violate repeatedly its Continuing Disclosure Agreements in connection with the issuance of its bonds.
The City is also not hewing to best municipal practices in the confusing presentation of its annual debt service schedule in its bond offering statements in which total annual principal and interest is hard, if not impossible, to discern. The City’s decision, unlike that of the City of Danbury, not to disclose outstanding major litigation and its likely cost is also hidden from taxpayers . Instead of a transparent litigation listing, the City states that the likely cost will not exceed 5% of the City’s annual revenues.
Furthermore, the Charter Revision Commission also attempted to institute municipal best practices by removing the Rainy Day 5% cap based on total general fund expenditures in the prior fiscal year, allowing the City to move towards the recommended 15% standard set by the bond rating agencies. Because of opposition from multiple parties, this amendment was not included in the final Charter submittal.
The proposed changes required very specific financial reporting from both the city side and the board of education side of the city’s budget, including costs of labor agreements and pension and benefit funding, debt service costs and capital expenditure and grants monitoring with periodic comparisons to budget.
Stamford taxpayers are on the cusp of multiple financial demands on their financial resources all at once: new fire and police contracts with retroactive settlements, a multi-million Board of Education fiscal cliff, the expensive school construction program, burgeoning legal and audit expenses and the full phase-in of the home revaluation payments. Without this detailed financial information available simultaneously, decision making at the level of the Mayor’s office, the Board of Finance and the Board of Representatives cannot be optimized to ease the burden on taxpayers and taxpayers will not have the information they need to discuss their concerns at public hearings.
- “End the practice of allowing members of decision making boards and commissions to remain in office beyond the expiration of their term”
Many previously appointed board and commission members have remained in office for many years beyond their respective terms without being vetted again by the Board of Representatives upon term expiration and one in particular was rejected upon reappointment by the Board of Representatives, but still serves. This has highlighted the failure of both the executive and legislative branches and has spanned administrations.
Ask yourself: Why would the executive and legislative bodies want to avoid the accountability of examining the voting records and careful consideration of ramifications of a member’s decisions on behalf of the City?
Also rejected were the following improvements:
- Allowing the Board of Representatives to retain independent counsel to advise them in situations in which the political interests of the mayor’s office conflict with those of the Board and/or the residents represented by the Board
- Attempts to improve the lives for residents dealing with housing. disability and mental health issues via the creation of an all-volunteer commissions to combat these problems
- An effort to cause key emergency employees to live in Stamford with appropriate waiver provisions to assure the selection of the most qualified candidates
- Ensuring that the Brennan golf course received adequate funds to remedy historic underfunding of its capital needs
- Correcting an error that could cause older pensioners to lose access to their pension funds
- Clarification on when additional taxes are due for residents whose homes are connected to the city’s wastewater system
The real losers of their Vote No campaign were the residents of the City of Stamford who are now locked out of important information and more input into how the city operates and the effects on their lives. Nevertheless, the Charter campaign raised awareness of many of these issues and the public is now much more engaged. Going forward, we expect that the decision-makers in Stamford will be more mindful of resident sentiment.
Shelley Michelson was a member of the Stamford Charter Revision Commission