NB Politicus

Attorney Geragosian Remembered As Passionate Defender, Advocate For Social Justice

Posted in Hard Hittin' New Britain, In Memoriam, New Britain, New Britain history by nbpoliticus on August 3, 2022


Attorney Harold J. Geragosian, 94, whose “one-man general law office” served scores of New Britain clients and organizations from the 1950s to 2018, died on August 1.

Long before the creation of Neighborhood Legal Services Attorney Geragosian’s civil and criminal law office, located for many years on West Main Street, served public employees, churches, unions and other organizations with an unfailing and tenacious commitment to justice and helping those in need. “Harold was devoted to legal aid and represented countless individuals regardless of their means,” stated his obituary. Geragosian’s cases and appeals included representing clients on up to the Connecticut and United States Supreme Courts if necessary. Respected by his peers Attorney Geragosian was elected President of the New Britain Bar Association in the 1970s.

“Harold was a believer and a fighter,” wrote Attorney John King, formerly the City Corporation Counsel and former New Britain Democratic Town Chairman upon Geragosian’s passing. “He kept me up all night one more than one occasion during the Civil Service hearings nearly 40 years ago as he passionately defended his clients.”.

In the community Geragosian served on the boards of Connecticut Legal Services, New Britain EMS and supported progressive candidates and causes at local, state and national levels. Geragosian’s son, John, served the city’s 25th District in the Connecticut General Assembly and is the state Auditor of Public Accounts.

For Geragosian, alongside his wife, Realtor Harriet Geragosian, social and economic justice work have lasted a life time. In 1957 Geragosian, proud and recognized for his Armenian heritage, offered his law office as a meeting place to members of the city’s Puerto Rican community. In addition to helping Puerto Rican residents fight discrimination, Attorney Geragosian helped draft the charter to establish the Puerto Rican Society. His contributions to founding the group were honored in July 2007 when the Society marked its 50th anniversary.

Attorney Harold J. Geragosian and Realtor Harriet Geragosian at a 2011 campaign fundraiser for former Alderwoman Shirley Black. (courtesy of New Britain Democratic Town Committee)

On more than a few mornings Harold and his wife Harriet (Unique Realty) would start their work days as octogenarians with breakfast at New Britain Diner. If you were ever lucky to get a seat at his table Harold could regale you as he did me with stories of his days as a law student at Boston University, lawyering before city commissions and courts and offering wry takes on politics and politicians past and present.

Harold Geragosian, to borrow from a famous quote by the Methodist John Wesley, “did all the good he could, for all the people he could, in all the ways he could, for as long as he could” in his native city of New Britain. He was one of those extraordinary citizens and neighbors who made you a better person for having known him.

Condolences to Harriet, his son, John (Audrey) Geragosian, his granddaughter, Molly, and his grandniece, Terra Michalowski and the many friends of the Geragosian family Services and Obituary

Donations in Harold’s memory may be made to Connecticut Legal Services, 62 Washington Street, 4th Floor, Middletown, CT 06457. https://ctlegal.org/

John McNamara

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COO Patronage Job, End To Elections Of Clerk and Tax Collector Are On The Nov. 8 Ballot

Posted in City Charter, city politics and government, New Britain by nbpoliticus on July 20, 2022

Fuzzy Charter Question Will Keep Many Voters in the Dark

by John McNamara

New Britain voters will be deciding much more than who should be the Governor and making their picks for other elective offices on November 8th. City charter revisions will, if approved, make the biggest changes in a generation as to how Connecticut’s eighth largest city is governed.

On June 22nd the Common Council accepted the recommendations of the Charter Commission whose five members held hearings and meetings this year to amend the charter for the first time since a 2016 referendum was held. The Commission, chaired by former Alderwoman Sharon Beloin Saavedra, straightforwardly proposed four major changes for referenda that could be considered by voters on their merits and that would take effect next January.

On the composition of the Common Council the Commission called for ending the five at large seats on the 15-member council and electing three members per ward under the minority representation law. That resulted in the Council approving one of the two questions adopted: “Shall the Common Council be comprised of fifteen (15) members, consisting of three (3) members elected from each of the five (5) Common Council Districts, with the minority party requirements of the Connecticut General Statutes applying to each of the five (5) Common Council Districts separately?

City Charter Amendment Excerpt published in New Britain Herald July 19th

On other significant changes the Charter Commission specified three specific questions for the ballot:

2) Shall the positions of Revenue Collector and the Town and City Clerk be changed from elected to civil service, appointed positions? (effective 2025)

3) Shall an appointed Chief Operations Officer, who shall report directly to the Mayor, be responsible for the daily management of certain City functions?

4) Shall the remainder of the changes to the Charter as recommended by the Charter Revision Commission be approved, which changes include a provision requiring periodic Charter review every five years at a minimum?

The Mayor and her Council majority, however, abandoned the Commission’s language in favor of an imprecise, “housekeeping” ballot question that gives no hint on what changes are proposed: “Shall the remainder of the changes to the city charter, as recommended by the charter revision commission be approved?”

Transparency and directness have been thrown out by Mayor Stewart and her Council caucus in the wording of the second charter referendum question and voters will be deprived of a clear idea of the big changes they will be asked to approve when they get in the voting booth or vote absentee notwithstanding the opportunity to read the little noticed fine print. The situation is akin to the tactic used by the Stewart administration in the 2016 charter referendum when multiple changes were made to the charter in a “housekeeping” question that went far beyond language changes. In a separate question that year a four-year mayoral term was comfortably rejected by voters.

Hidden in the “remainder of the changes” question is making the tax collector and town clerk jobs appointive rather than elected through a civil service process. More controversial is the creation of a six-figure Chief Operating Officer (COO)– the equivalent of a city manager – to handle executive duties that by charter are now the responsibility of the Mayor with the Mayor having appointment (patronage) powers in filling the position. It’s debatable whether such a post belongs in the city charter when a Council resolution could accomplish the same thing. The move by the Stewart administration also comes shortly after the Mayor’s annual salary got a double digit percentage increase and a process was established to hike elected officials’ pay on a regular basis. The COO job amendment, like appointing Clerk and Tax Collector via Civil Service, needed a separate ballot question just as the Charter Commission stated in its final report.

Assurances, of course, have been made that the city will fully disclose the content of all the charter changes with explanatory literature for voters at the polls and in public notices. State law (Sec.9-369b) requires the Town and City Clerk to print and disseminate “concise explanatory texts or other printed material with respect to local proposals or questions approved for submission to the electors at a referendum.” Each explanatory text, says state law, shall specify the intent and purpose of each proposal or question.

The City is not off to a very “concise” start in fulfilling the public’s right to know. In the July 19th New Britain Herald the city, in conformance with the law, published the charter amendments and strike throughs (deletions) in a small-type, two-page spread. For those of a certain age or visual acuity a magnifying glass will be needed to identify amendments buried in the text. Town and City Clerk Mark Bernacki will presumably do better in preparing posters for the polling places.

Two City Charter questions will be on the ballot on November 8th to vote up or down. While changing the Common Council to 15 district representatives is clear in the first question. The Mayor and Republican caucus are deliberately keeping voters in the dark on the second question. This warrants a “No” from any voter wanting to vote on the merits of each major proposal.

Remembering April 4, 1968 In 2022

Posted in 1968, civil rights, In Memoriam, national politics, Poverty by nbpoliticus on March 31, 2022

By John McNamara

On Saturday, April 2nd the City will observe the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr with a 10 a.m. program at Smalley Elementary School that will be followed by wreath laying at MLK Park hosted by the Mary McLeod Bethune Club at 12 noon.  Anyone of age in 1968 probably remembers where they were that year on that day as I do in this re-posting from NBpoliticus.

I remember exactly where I was on April 4, 1968.

That sunny and warm Thursday, like many others in my senior year in high school, I drove to Bradlee’s Department store on the Lynnway in Lynn, Massachusetts after school to punch in for the evening shift, earning some money before entering Boston University in the fall.

News spread quickly into the evening that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was dead at the age of 39.

It didn’t take long to realize that my shift as a retail clerk would be different from all the others. The store quickly emptied out. Not a customer in sight all night. No need for Mr. Silverman, the shaken and somber store manager, to send me out on outside carriage control. The bullets in Memphis were enough to bring a normal business day to a halt in Lynn and most of the nation as big cities teetered on the brink of a violence that King sought to avoid with acts of non-violent resistance.

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New Britain’s Memorial at MLK Park.

Just five short years before I had come home from junior high on a late summer day to watch King deliver his “I Have A Dream” speech – an event that would inspire so many of us to become community and political activists.

There are many good remembrances of what King said and stood for on his national holiday and at the permanent memorial in Washington every year.

But the nation could stand to be reminded again of the day King was killed and why he was in Memphis a few years after the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts became the law of the land.

By 1968, Rev. King was widening the concerns of his movement. In Where Do We Go From Here?  King, much to the consternation of the more cautious members of his movement and the political establishment, opposed a Vietnam policy that had begun to break the nation further apart. The lunchroom sit-ins and battles over accommodations and voting rights were giving way to a broader agenda. He was planning a new march on Washington – “the Poor People’s Campaign” — when he decided to take up the cause of 1,300 Black sanitation workers in Memphis, a city of southern segregation, where the white power structure opposed the right to unionize and the Mayor vowed never to bargain in good faith in a way that would give the sanitation workers their dignity. The strike and a citywide economic boycott were a cause King knew he could not ignore.

King’s prophetic “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech on the eve of the assassination is his best known from Memphis. But two weeks earlier, on March 18th, King galvanized support for strikers by saying: “So often we overlook the worth and significance of those who are not in professional jobs, or those who are not in the so-called big jobs…..One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive.” Following King’s assassination, the Memphis power structure gave up its intransigence – recognizing the union, awarding pay raises and instituting merit promotions.

Fifty years later Rev. King’s work goes on and is being renewed for a new generation. Led by the Rev. William Barber of North Carolina and others a “moral direct action” campaign is mobilizing a 2018 Poor People’s Campaign  for the same principles  that led Rev. King to Memphis and his last days.

King’s campaign for striking AFSCME sanitation workers reaffirmed his greatness at the hour of his death and resonates today in the cause of social and economic justice. That’s why I’ll always remember 4/4/68 as a day frozen in time not to be forgotten.

Adapted and updated from an April 2007 post.

Campaign dollars soared in ’21 municipal election but voter participation declined

Posted in Campaign Finance, city politics and government, Voting by nbpoliticus on March 27, 2022

28% Turnout Continues A Downward Trend In Voting For Local Office Holders

By John McNamara

“Money is the mother’s milk of politics” goes the observation first coined in the 1960s that applies to almost every state and federal election cycle as all kinds of committees and special interests raise billions in reported and anonymous donations.

That old saying about money in politics applies less frequently to local elections where votes are more easily won (or should be) on the ground and neighbor to neighbor without big outlays for media and consultants. You can’t say that about New Britain’s 2021 municipal election when the money race accelerated, voter participation declined and the status quo at City Hall was overwhelmingly sustained.

Last year marked the first time in memory that turnout dropped below 30 percent while mayoral campaign money for the November 2 election exceeded $30 for every vote cast. New Britain is not alone in a decline in voter participation for local elections, especially in mid- and large-sized cities. Cities across the state and nation continued to register lower turnouts last year. But by bottoming out at 28%, New Britain fell below the already dismal 32.13% statewide turnout.

Last year marked the first time in memory that turnout dropped below 30 percent while mayoral campaign money for the November 2 election exceeded $30 for every vote cast

Incumbent Erin Stewart handily won a fifth term over State Rep. Bobby Sanchez (D-25) and swept a Council majority in with her as a super majority of eligible voters failed to show up.

Because of a Presidential Year bounce in 2020, there were 2,270 more eligible voters in 2021 than in 2019. In her landslide win, however, Erin Stewart received fewer votes than the 2019 totals as the turnout gap widened between municipal and state and federal ballots.

Despite campaign cash aplenty voter turnout continued a decline in the 2021 municipal election. (newbritainprogressive.com)

Four mayoral campaigns involving three Democrats and Republican Stewart reported contributions totaling $384,900 by the end of 2021. The Democratic and Republican Town Committees added another $53,000 to the “off year” election cycle bringing the reported political cash to $437,900 to get out the vote. The totals do not include under ticket slate or candidate committees that drove donations well past $450,000.

Mayor Stewart’s “Re-Elect Erin” Committee raised $178,835 and spent $175,835. Stewart, tapping the advantages of incumbency, outpaced Bobby Sanchez’ fundraising by nearly $60,000. Sanchez’ committee raised and spent $116,518. Democratic mayoral challengers Veronica DeLandro and Alicia Strong raised another $90,000 combined. Strong raised and spent $21,000 in losing to the endorsed Sanchez in September’s primary. DeLandro’s committee raised approximately $69,000 but her committee failed to gather sufficient signatures to get on the primary ballot. DeLandro has subsequently formed her own “Bee The Change” political action committee (PAC), and may have converted a significant treasury into an ongoing PAC.

Last year’s surge in fundraising can be attributed to several factors. Incumbent Stewart did not take the potential of a serious and well-funded challenge for granted. She ramped up her fundraising and leaned into the perks that go with incumbency. “The Democrats showed early signs of political energy, with three determined candidates running for mayor.” observed a post-election story in The New Britain Progressive. “Whether that early momentum will continue into success in future elections remains to be seen, but it certainly did not manifest in the November elections in 2021.”

Stewart effectively pursued a Walnut Hill Park “Rose Garden strategy” in winning a fifth, two-year term. Few sparks flew between Stewart and Sanchez to stir voter interest with the incumbent largely ignoring the Democratic nominee. The incumbent even managed to ungracefully ignore a traditional League of Women Voters debate that would have been the only public forum of the campaign. Her salvos were directed at the school administration over social media related disruptions at the high school last fall making it seem at times that Erin Stewart was running against School Superintendent Nancy Sarra. For his part Sanchez earnestly pointed to his work as the Legislature’s Education Chair in delivering record amounts for school construction and school aid and called for a City Hall more responsive to neighborhoods. Stewart, meanwhile, cut the ribbon on renovations at the Chamberlain School and other developments in romping to a low-turnout victory.

While voter turnout in the 2020 Presidential Election was close to 70 per cent in the year of the pandemic in New Britain, the 2021 municipal race continued the widespread slide in the number of voters who elect local office holders. Some reformers at think tanks that study voting patterns have proposed aligning all elections from dog catcher to President to even numbered years for bigger turnouts. Legislatures or localities, however, show no signs of taking that step which involves a lengthy process of changing statutes and charters.

For New Britain it will surely take more than campaign dollars that were so plentiful last year to reverse that decline in voting in 2023.

Voter Participation In Last Three Municipal Elections In New Britain

  • 2017 Voter Participation 30% | 31,899 Eligible and 9,684 Voting
  • 2019 Voter Participation 32% | 31,205 Eligible and 9,945 Voting
  • 2021 Voter Participation 28% | 33,475 Eligible and 9,333 Voting

The fictional “Bob” in the new commercial is the same “Bob” who ran for Guv in 2018

Posted in Governor, Money in Politics, Republicans, state budget, state government by nbpoliticus on February 2, 2022

by John McNamara

Bob Stefanowski’s story is the stuff of hardscrabble immigrants making it to America in the 20th century to raise their families and realize the American Dream.

That is the narrative in Republican Stefanowski’s re-branding to voters in his first television commercial for Connecticut’s GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2022. No doubt that Mr. Stefanowski’s parents worked hard, played by the rules and got a piece of that American Dream for their son to attain wealth gained in a career in financial services at GE Capital, UBS and a London-based investment and private equity company. Bob ’22 wants you to know he is just a son of hometown North Haven who can make Connecticut more affordable with the business acumen he acquired in those investment banker jobs.

Surrounding himself with working folks in the commercial (if you watch television only a little you’ll see the ad multiple times) Stefanowski pledges to cut sales taxes and keep cutting taxes after he forensically takes state spending apart to identify all the waste that he implies exists. State Comptroller Natalie Braswell can save the Bob campaign the trouble by pointing out the forensics on the state budget already exist. They are continually updated at the “Open Connecticut” website created by former Comptroller Kevin Lembo where every payroll, contract and purchase in state government can be found at the click of a mouse.

Once Stefanowski gets “under the hood” it follows that he will then be able give voters specifics on where the waste is and exactly what state government should be spending tax dollars on in his first biennial budget.

The race for Governor is shaping up as a re-run of Stefanowski versus Lamont

Don’t count on it. Even Chris Powell, the very conservative Journal Inquirer columnist with a disdain for anything liberal, points to the empty rhetoric of Bob ’22: “Stefanowski’s critique of government in Connecticut was fair enough – that the state has become less affordable for the middle class and less safe. But he did not offer a detailed platform. While he noted that Connecticut can’t cut taxes without cutting spending, he didn’t specify where this should be done.”

Stefanowski is not likely to offer that “detailed platform” of draconian cuts and lower taxes before November 8. He’ll continue to serve up slogans within a make-believe, trickle down economics policy that leaves middle income and working families behind every time.

In 2018 Stefanowski bought the Republican nomination, bypassed a convention of party regulars and won a plurality in a crowded primary field to take on Ned Lamont. He edged out candidates such as Mark Bouton, the multi-term Danbury Mayor, who many observers thought would have been a more formidable general election foe against Ned Lamont. Boughton is now Lamont’s Tax Commissioner in charge of doling out federal infrastructure money. With the departure of former legislative leader Themis Klarides for GOP Governor, Stefanowski’s strategy is likely to work again for the nomination.

At issue is whether the CT Republican Party, its identity frayed by the wrath and authoritarianism of 44, can serve up a wealthy businessman for a fourth time. Tom Foley lost to Dannel Malloy twice and Stefanowski lost a close race to the self-financed Lamont in 2018 as Lamont bucked a trend of candidates of the same party not succeeding the incumbent.

The path for a wealthy Republican or any Republican to take back the Governor’s office won’t be easy. The 2018 Election was a better opportunity at the end of Governor Malloy’s two terms. Democrats are hoping a Republican nominee who demonizes government and has no public service record will fail a fourth time.

Governor Lamont, touting his moderate’s socially liberal and fiscally responsible brand, enters the 2022 gubernatorial race with a record of managing the mother of all crises (the pandemic) competently, a growing surplus and new federal help to address infrastructure and transit needs that didn’t exist four years ago. He’ll use those incumbent tools to offer targeted tax cuts of his own that will likely blunt the empty bromides from Bob Stefanowski who despite the new branding and pledge to cut taxes (it’s the sales tax not the income tax this time) is the same Bob who ran in 2018.

Behind Mayor Stewart’s War On Supt. Sarra and the BOE

By John McNamara

The vandalism and trouble that occurred at New Britain High School in September needlessly escalated the rift between Mayor Erin Stewart and New Britain School District leaders.

Incidents of student misbehavior fueled by social media have not been limited to New Britain as districts in CT and elsewhere re-opened this fall.

Mayor Erin Stewart, however, used the disruption to immediately berate School Superintendent Nancy Sarra and educators for not cracking down enough on youthful offenders. The call to meet and work together came second only after Erin Stewart got her licks in on the campaign trail. Harsh criticism of educators is a central theme of Ms. Stewart’s re-election campaign. The NBHS incident was just an opening for the incumbent mayor to score political points at the expense of school officials dealing with Tik Tok-related misbehavior and parents wanting assurances that their children would be OK.

The Mayor’s social media response to the high school incident could be forgiven if it was a one off dispute between City Hall and the School District. The dialogue gets predictably contentious every year over local funding for schools as New Britain has ranked near the bottom on school spending during the Stewart years.

Mayor Stewart maintains that the schools need to “operate differently” before she’ll support additional city dollars for education. When Council Democrats proposed a meager $1 million increase in this year’s municipal budget Stewart and her Council Caucus opposed it. A $500,000 boost was OK’d but the City is holding onto that money four months into the fiscal year claiming that it has increased local aid to education without giving up a dime.

Stewart skewers the school district for being “dead last” in student achievement while her budgets give New Britain almost dead last ranking in how they support public education. Previously, the Mayor has expressed little concern or no concern over school achievement as she denies BOE requests each year. “In recent years, educators have said they need at least $5 million more than their regular budgets to catch up with similar districts. The nonpartisan School and State Finance Project last year reported that only Danbury spends less on each student than New Britain does, with even deeply impoverished systems like Bridgeport, Waterbury and Windham spending more,” according to a story by The Hartford Courant’s Don Stacom.

In her escalating feud with Sarra and the bipartisan Board of Education, Stewart employs Paul Salina, who has held a $90,000+ patronage job (interim director of operations) at City Hall since 2018. A former NBHS Principal and band leader who retired in 2003, Salina, 72, later returned to the public schools as an administrator before and after Kelt Cooper’s superintendency holding down a $146,000 operations officer job. When Superintendent Sarra reorganized and reduced administrative overhead, she reduced Salina’s role and salary. Salina retired again but quickly joined the Stewart administration with a vague and largely undefined strategy and policy role.

Erin Stewart and Paul Salina in a recent campaign mailer.

Within the last year the Stewart-Salina duo has ramped up the fight with the BOE on a range of issues from the hiring of a football coach to school funding to control of school construction leaving no space for any kind of cooperation.

The fight over the last year has primarily involved the School Building Committee (SBC) and the attempted hiring of another retired school official and colleague of Salina for an oversight job on the Chamberlain School renovation project.

“Relations between the Mayor’s office and the BOE, contentious over budget issues in most years, have become even more adversarial over the SBC’s move late last year to hire Ray Moore, a retired school facilities director and a colleague of Paul Salina, as a consultant or “construction representative” on the Chamberlain School project at a six-figure annualized salary. BOE President Merrill Gay, Vice Chair Nick Mercier and Dr. Violette Jimenez-Sims criticized the attempted hiring with “no request for proposals or bidding for this position,” asserting that the role could be filled with existing school staff to save money for other education needs. Intervention by the BOE’s attorney averted a full appointment of Moore at that time to the consultant post. Republican Mercier’s public opposition to hiring a consultant without BOE input and questioning the Stewart-controlled SBC also led to the Republican Town Committee’s ousting of Mercier in July for a nomination to a third term on the BOE. A longtime Republican activist and music teacher, Mercier will stand for re-election to the BOE as a petitioning candidate for his efforts at accountability on school construction issues. ” from New Britain Progressive, August 22, 2021;

‘The Return of Tim Stewart: Ex-Mayor Chairs SBC As $50M School Project Begins”

The flap over the hiring of a Chamberlain project consultant demonstrates what is behind the barrage of attacks against Sarra and the school board which have become fodder for Team Stewart’s campaign of misinformation.

At issue is power, patronage and the special favors that Stewart and her cronies want and used to get but are not getting anymore. Nancy Sarra won’t have any part of the political games Stewart and Salina want to play. She and the current BOE’s Democratic and Republican members who have her back are resisting inappropriate power grabs from City Hall as they focus on the challenges of educating in a chronically under-funded urban school system.


The Return of Tim Stewart: Former Mayor Chairs SBC As $50 Million School Project Begins

Former Mayor Tim Stewart is the new Chairperson of the School Building Committee, gaining reappointment by his daughter, Mayor Erin Stewart, just as the seven-member committee moves forward with expenditures on the $50 million major renovation at the Chamberlain Elementary School on the city’s East Side.

The former four-term Mayor resigned from the SBC and the Mattabassett District Commission in 2019 under pressure and at the behest of his daughter, over offensive, misogynestic social media posts that referred to Democratic U.S. representatives in Congress, including 5th District Rep. Jahana Hayes, as “bitches in heat.” The controversy also forced Stewart out of his job as President of the New Britain Chamber of Commerce. Stewart currently works as a commercial realtor. In 2017 Stewart came under fire for disparaging and racially charged remarks about the North Oak neighborhood, but he held on to his municipal appointments and Chamber job.

His return to the SBC comes after the Common Council on April 28th approved by a party-line vote a resolution to increase the powers of the SBC, designate the Mayor as the sole appointing authority and to diminish oversight by the Common Council and Board of Education.

The city is receiving a higher than usual 95 percent reimbursement for the Chamberlain school project for which a groundbreaking occurred August 10th. Representatives of Kaestle Boos Associates and Newfield Construction, the major contractors on the two-year project, were joined by Stewart administration officials. State Representative Bobby Sanchez (D-25), the House Chair of the Legislature’s Education Committee, led efforts to secure the state bonding for Chamberlain and previously worked to secure state financing of Smalley and Gaffney school projects. Neither Sanchez, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for Mayor in the September 14th Primary to run against Stewart, nor BOE members were reported as participants at the groundbreaking.

The revised ordinance , authored by Republican Caucus members Danny Salerno and Sharon Beloin-Saavadra, has drawn bipartisan protests. It gives the SBC absolute authority to “engage, select, and enter into or continue all necessary contracts with contractors, architects, landscape architects, or engineers.” Those powers also extend to hiring “construction representatives” on projects, positions that have been known to turn into lucrative patronage jobs. The ordinance retains board of education and common council approval of preliminary and final plans but everything in between, including change orders and expenditures in design/build and construction phases, is left up to the SBC.

News of Stewart’s low-key return to the SBC appeared on the August 18th agenda of the SBC in a terse statement: “Chairperson Fran Wolski stepped down and Tim Stewart is the new elected Chairman.” Last February SBC Chair Wolski announced her resignation as the Chair, according to the SBC committee minutes. According to the city’s website, Wolski remains a member with Stewart as Chair and Peter Smulski as Vice Chair. Other members include Robert Ames, Michael Cassella and Angelo D’Alfonso. Paul Salina, the Stewart-appointed Director of Support Services and a former school administrator, oversees the SBC for the city.

In his prior time on the SBC in 2016 Stewart with Wolski supported the selection of a troubled Bridgeport architectural firm with a less than stellar, litigious track record for the $53 million Smalley School project, a decision that was subsequently set aside when New Britain-based Kaestle Boos Associates challenged the selection process. State Senator Rick Lopes (D-6), then the 24th District State Representative, alerted the SBC to the problem but the committee chose the “beleaguered” Bridgeport firm anyway. That action resulted in delays and cost overruns on the Smalley project.

Relations between the Mayor’s office and the BOE, contentious over budget issues in most years, have become even more adversarial over the SBC’s move late last year to hire Ray Moore, a retired school facilities director and a colleague of Paul Salina, as a consultant or “construction representative” on the Chamberlain School project at a six-figure annualized salary. BOE President Merrill Gay, Vice Chair Nick Mercier and Dr. Violette Jimenez-Sims criticized the attempted hiring with “no request for proposals or bidding for this position,” asserting that the role could be filled with existing school staff to save money for other education needs. Intervention by the BOE’s attorney averted a full appointment of Moore at that time to the consultant post. Republican Mercier’s public opposition to hiring a consultant without BOE input and questioning the Stewart-controlled SBC also led to the Republican Town Committee’s ousting of Mercier in July for a nomination to a third term on the BOE. A longtime Republican activist and music teacher, Mercier will stand for re-election to the BOE as a petitioning candidate for his efforts at accountability on school construction issues.

By bringing back her father to now lead the SBC as another major school construction project starts, Mayor Stewart is doubling down on an adversarial relationship with the Board of Education and school officials which unfortunately is a centerpiece of her campaign for re-election.

At the same time the new School Building Committee ordinance provides fewer checks and balances by the Council and BOE in the spending of public dollars . That means public scrutiny and closer monitoring of the SBC (Monthly meetings occur the third Wednesday of the month at noon) is needed now more than it has ever been as the Chamberlain School project moves forward.

by John McNamara

Remembering Steve Horowitz: Losing One of “New Britain’s Best”

Posted in CCSU, In Memoriam, Local History, public education, school board by nbpoliticus on July 10, 2021

Dr. Steve Horowitz, 68, CCSU Psychology Professor and a former President of the New Britain Board of Education, died last December 18th after a brief, sudden illness.

For Democrats and political activists in New Britain, Steve’s passing meant the loss of a close friend and one of “New Britain’s Best.” You can be forgiven if you don’t remember where the “Best” tag comes from. It goes all the way back to a 1999 Board of Education primary election when the endorsed slate of Horowitz, Peter Kochol and Juan Verdu, advocating for interdisciplinary teaching, minority hiring and bilingual programs, went up against a challenge slate organized by right-of-center former State Senator Tom Bozek.

The campaign involved nightly phone banking at Harriet Geragosian’s Unique Realty offices where the slate and volunteers would relentlessly dial up voter after prime voter to drive up turnout. It turned out only 19.6% of city Democrats (3,067) voted that September day but “New Britain’s Best”, all of whom served as Board President at one time or another, eked out a 36-vote victory.

Steve, like his running mates Kochol and Verdu, led the BOE as fierce advocates for public education, holding off critics of adequate school spending and acknowledging the inadequacies of property taxes as a way to meet the needs of the city’s children.

Steve leaves his wife, Adrienne Benjamin, a constant partner in progressive politics in New Britain, son Matthew and daughter Zoe. “Those who knew Steve are aware of his dedication to his family,” his obituary noted. “An early riser, he brought Adrienne coffee every morning of 34 years of marriage. He was exceptionally supportive of Adrienne’s career as both a clinical social worker and as an advocate for those with intellectual disability and autism. He was an adoring and proud father to Matthew. His towering compassion was seen in his devotion to his daughter, Zoe, whose special needs require constant care.”

from The Hartford Courant, September 14, 1999: A hard earned triumph for “New Britain’s Best “School Board Slate

The dedication to family and Horowitz’ public service were reflected in what he did in the classroom at CCSU where psych majors faced the rigors of his core courses on research methods to reach their academic goal. “If you really take the time to listen you’ll find that he is extremely intelligent, very passionate and knowledgeable about the subject and really cares about his students,” one student observed. “He is a challenging professor who expects a lot but he is willing to help you every step of the way if you try and make an effort.”

Though Horowitz earned enough political stripes in that 1999 primary and his years on the BOE, I can attest that he never stopped knocking on doors and making calls on behalf of progressive Democrats and causes year after year.

It’s hard to know Steve won’t be walking through the headquarters door to again grab a door-knocking turf. No time for kibbitzing. He knew it was time to get out the vote for the candidates he supported and the causes he cared about.

Let Steve’s life and activism as New Britain’s Best always be remembered for others to follow.

A Celebration of Steve’s Life and tree planting in his memory is being held at Walnut Hill Park at 11 a.m. on Saturday, July 10, 2021. To honor his memory, please consider donating to Harc, which has stepped up to help meet Zoe’s needs through this challenge. To donate, https://harc-ct.org/donatenow/ Or, Harc, Inc. 900 Asylum Ave. MS 1002 Hartford, CT 06105

  • by John McNamara

The Day After: Should fireworks be free or come with a fee?

Posted in city government, municipal budget, New Britain, Parks and Recreation by nbpoliticus on July 5, 2021

The 4th of July Show Tab This Year Was $60K and $10 A Car Load

By John McNamara

No one can deny that fireworks on the Fourth of July brings a community together. It is America’s birthday tradition that can awe and delight children or the child in all of us. And after 15 months of social distancing because of COVID, New Britain’s 4th was a welcome return to normalcy.

The City of New Britain obliged for the pyrotechnics this year putting up $60,000 of your tax money at the June 23rd Common Council meeting. The transfer of funds provided $24,999 for the show and $35,001 in overtime and salaries. Alderman-At Large Chris Anderson was the sole Council vote against the appropriation. His vote, however, was not about being a killjoy. I’m hoping he took in the show from his Buell Street home’s front yard just a block or so from the rockets red glare without paying the $10 fee.

“I voted no because I am concerned about this expenditure given our other budget needs and because the event will not be free,” wrote Anderson in one of his regular Facebook updates on Council business.

New Britain’s regionally popular “Great American Boom”, held at Stanley Quarter Park until last year and free to all, has been raised as a budget issue in years past. Some of the costs previously were met with fees on vendors and private contributions. Insurance man and former Alderman Carlo Carlozzi, for example, led the way a few years back in securing a major grant from Liberty Mutual to cover expenses. For the most part the bulk of expenses, however, depend on public appropriations.

New Britain was one of a handful of communities that went on with the show last year despite COVID concerns. Like this year the “drive in fireworks show” at Willow Brook Park near the baseball stadium required pre-registration at $10 per car load, a nominal fee that raised some but not a lot for the city’s Fireworks Fund. It’s been one of several public events that the Parks and Recreation Department assesses for admission. The fireworks fee undoubtedly had more to do with social distancing than revenue but it should be said that it could have been made free to city residents.

The change of venue these last two years also returned the city’s fireworks back to Willow Brook where it once was held. That’s a welcome change that should be made permanent. Holding an event drawing in excess of 20,000 people at Stanley Quarter in the residential Belvedere neighborhood creates a parking nightmare and heightened public safety concerns (Full disclosure: it’s my neighborhood).

Ideally, if the city restores the Great American Boom to a free-to-all event next year it ought to be a Greater New Britain event with costs shared by surrounding towns with a healthy dose of corporate, civic-minded philanthropy.

Alderman Anderson’s points on nickel and diming residents and striking a balance on budget priorities are well taken. Blowing $60K on its own on America’s birthday to light up New Britain night sky is a lot for a financially stressed city government dependent on borrowing.

Landlord Group’s “cage fight between Lamont & Zherka” remark stumps the press, brings apology to Governor

There’s No Mystery About Who Sam Zherka Is In New Britain

By John McNamara

West Hartford-based Connecticut Coalition of Property Owners (CCOPO) had to issue a quick apology on May 19th over its first version of a press release opposing an eviction moratorium and use of $400 million in federal pandemic aid to landlords and tenants, according to a Hartford Courant story by Daniela Altamari.

“The governor needs his ass-kicked,” stated the initial release sent to the Capitol press corps announcing a press conference later in the week, “and we set up a celebratory cage fight between Lamont & Zherka to raise funds for orphaned children.” The “bizarre” statement was followed by CCOPO’s condemnation of the Unite Connecticut program that is meant to provide both tenants and landlords with help paying bills in the recovery from the pandemic.

The January 13, 2013 front page of the now defunct New Britain City Journal that was backed by notorious landlord Sam Zherka at the height of a housing controversy in New Britain.

The reference to “Zherka” left reporters and editors who received the press statement puzzled. At first, news stories speculated that it referred to Jon Zherka, a controversial and banned social media streamer.

But in New Britain there is no mystery as to who CCOPO was referring to in its provocative public statement.

The name Zherka brings back memories of a well organized mob descending on City Hall in 2012 over a proposal to assess fees on absentee landlords to pay for code enforcement. The issue led to scurrilous, months’ long attacks and threats against the Democratic Mayor and City Council during the 2013 municipal campaign. It was a dark money political attack aided and abetted by the Waterbury-based CT Property Owners Alliance and Selim “Sam” Zherka, an absentee landlord who would later be indicted and jailed for mail fraud in New York.

Nine years ago Zherka owned a large apartment complex in New Britain and lent heavy support to the now defunct New Britain City Journal which carried unfounded accusations and personal attacks on Democrats in a well-financed direct mail, free circulation campaign supported by Zherka and out of town landlords, who pledged a $100,000 off the books fund to defeat Democrats. The New Britain Republican Town Committee and Erin Stewart were quick to embrace Zherka and absentee landlord support in her first, successful campaign for Mayor and she’s never looked back.

To clean up the “cage fight between Lamont & Zherka” statement this month, Publicist Ann Baldwin did her best at damage control for the CCOPO, which had also stridently taken issue with the Unite Connecticut program by saying “the people that are not paying never intended to pay so there is no reason for them to apply for the funds, these tenants are most of the 19,000 that try to live for free annually in CT.”

Baldwin’s revision softened the group’s position, according to press reports, by saying the landlords’ goal is just to “keep good people living in their homes” and calling for the Lamont administration to “fully fund” the eviction moratorium.” CCOPO President John Souza backtracked further in an apology saying “I would never condone violence against the Governor or anyone else, even in jest.”

In response to the first CCOPO release the CT Fair Housing Center’s blog responded: “This attitude illustrates both the need for a Right to Counsel for tenants facing eviction as well as why the Governor and/or Connecticut legislature should require landlords to participate in Unite CT. Tenants must be protected from the landlords who believe that the Governor “needs his ass-kicked” because he dared to protect vulnerable Connecticut residents. Please join us as we work to ensure that tenants are protected from the landlords who believe tenants deserve to be punished for being poor.”

The flap over a press release shows that it’s never an easy task for government to fairly balance the rights and responsibilities of landlords and tenants. The pandemic has caused hardships on all sides and made evictions a serious threat to thousands of rentpayers. While the Governor extended an eviction moratorium until July 20, the administration is ramping up the Unite Connecticut program that enables both landlords and tenants to get pandemic aid for their losses.

CCOPO describes itself as a “constructive voice for responsible landlords” for “mom and pop” business people who presumably could benefit from the Unite CT program while keeping tenants in their homes.

But invoking the Zherka name as unintentional as it was shows that some members of the landlord group may not be interested in fairness or playing by the rules at all. Nobody knows that better than folks in New Britain who lived through the Zherka-led, local assault on democracy here that bears a striking resemblance to the assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6th of this year