DeFronzo on City Charter Referendum: “No Thank You”

Former Mayor Sees Less Accountability, Conflicts At City Hall If Ballot Questions Are Approved

Don DeFronzo said “no thank you” to city charter revisions on this year’s ballot at a public forum on Nov. 2 in a cogent takedown of the most sweeping changes to municipal government in a generation. He found a receptive audience who filled the community room at the public library.

A former Mayor and the Governor O’Neill Chair in Public Policy at CCSU, DeFronzo took particular issue with appointing instead of electing the Tax Collector and Town Clerk and the creation of a mayoral appointed chief administration officer (the equivalent of a city manager) to do the full time mayor’s duties.

NB Politicus Notebook

In prior letters to the New Britain Herald editor and in his talk at the library DeFronzo called inclusion of these fundamental changes in a “housekeeping” question “insulting” to voters. The ballot question (Question 3) hatched by Mayor Stewart and approved by her rubber-stamp Council caucus last June undermined the work of her own charter commission chaired by Sharon Beloin Saavedra. In making the recommendations the commission’s four specific ballot questions were dumped in a not so subtle move to hoodwink the voters.

DeFronzo called it “appalling” that no one on the Yes side, including the Mayor, her staff, 12 members of the Common Council and not one member of charter commission agreed to debate the questions despite good faith efforts to hold a moderated discussion. The Vote Yes Committee led by Norm Dorval held an October 18th discussion at City Hall and encountered strong opposition from most of the attendees who were as troubled as DeFronzo. There would be no more information sessions from the Yes crowd. Proponents have gone into hiding and responded with a slick citywide political mailer and a robo call from Mayor Stewart in a campaign most likely financed by her cronies and those who seek to do business with the city. “Their refusal to debate is prima facia evidence that these proposals can not stand up to public scrutiny,” observed DeFronzo bluntly calling Question 3 “disrespectful to New Britain voters.”

A two-term mayor and four-term state senator, DeFronzo had no problem with Question 2 because it clearly asks for a change in the way the Common Council is elected from an at large/ward system to 15 members from five wards chosen under the minority representation law. He noted that Council composition has been a perennial issue for 40 years going from all at large to the hybrid system adopted in 2002.

In his remarks DeFronzo focused criticisms on eliminating direct, popular election of the Town Clerk and Tax Collector, the creation of the COO (city manager) in the full time Mayor’s office and moving the Water Department administrator into Public Works.

“There can only be one reason for lumping all these items into one general question with no information. That is to facilitate approval of the question by shielding the controversial issues from public view through a lack of transparency,” DeFronzo said. “If these questions were presented separately voters would have the opportunity to view each one on its merits and to vote in favor of the Town Clerk and Tax Collector changes and against the new half a million dollar COO position proposed for creation as an appointed office,”

“The first part removes from voters the power to directly elect the Town Clerk and Tax Collector as has been done for decades. Direct elections will be replaced by giving the current and future mayors the authority to appoint these positions adding to the growing number of patronage positions being established in City Hall. Interestingly enough, over the years, there have been few complaints about the conduct of these elected officials and the current incumbents perform their duties competently. Do we really need this change and the additional level of appointed patronage?

The second part of the proposal would create a Chief Operations Officer (COO) who will again be appointed by the mayor, further increasing the number of patronage positions. The COO will have the authority to run the City’s day-to-day operations – powers which are currently assigned to the mayor.Now there are no changes, or reductions in the mayor’s powers being proposed so, as a result,if approved, you would have two high priced positions with nearly identical powers and duties. What is being created is “strong mayor”, “strong manager” form of government something I have never seen before.This proposed change creates a series of important conflicts and questions?

First, who is really in charge?

The powers assigned to the COO are virtually identical to the powers of mayor. So how will this work?

A resident calls the mayor’s office about a pot hole. That complaint, under this new structure, is now sent to the COO’s office who filters it down to the appropriate city agency for action. This is clearly duplicative and confusing. It blurs the lines of authority, needlessly increases the bureaucracy and the size and cost of government.

This interchange is further confused by the role of the mayor’s chief of staff (COS) who routinely would do exactly what the new highly paid COO will do. More duplication and more confusion. As a result, day to day administration, which now squarely sits with mayor, will be fragmented into three different positions. What possibly could go wrong?

In many communities that opt for a COO or City Manager clear lines of authority are maintained, and costs contained, by reducing the role the mayor from a full time to a part time ceremonial position. This type of change would avoid the duplicative and confusing process that is now being proposed in NB by clearly vesting the COO with primary administrative authority. In addition, model city charters, discussed by the National Civic League, make reference to strong city managers in the context weak mayors and strong city councils. It seems NB is headed in the wrong direction.

A second question is how much will all this cost?

Voters should know in advance of voting how much this new office of COO will cost. The Council conveniently failed to address that issue and no estimate of cost has been provided, but I’m going to give you one. A modest estimate for a COO, office staff required to carry out his/her functions, equipment, travel cost and associated expenditures will easily exceed half a million dollars annually.Voters should know that.

A third question is, will the COO, as supporters of the COO position claim, provide a greater continuity in government when there is a change in the mayor’s office? Unfortunately, this is a false claim. The Connecticut landscape is littered with the unemployed Town and City mangers who were fired or replaced immediately following a change in administration. Continuity in government is not provided by elected officials or highly paid appointed officials, it is provided for by mid level career civil servants who devoted the programs they run. Personally, I place no value in the continuity argument.

Another question is what other implications does this “strong mayor” “strong manager” have for NB?

One particularly important issue is the matter of crisis management. There is no provision whatsoever, in the proposed charter changes that clearly defines who has operational authority should a true crisis condition exists in the city. The confusion that could result from this omission could be horrific as department heads receive potentially contradictory directions from either the mayor, the mayor’s COS or the COO. The spectical of 400 armed police officers in a state of paralysis in Uvalde Texas as three different levels of police administration– state, city and border – were seemingly confused in determining who was actually in command should be a concern for all of us. Crisis management demands the establishment of clear and unambiguous lines of authority. The current Charter proposals fail to provide that. In todays world failure to be prepared for a crisis is just not acceptable.

There are several other administrative proposals such as eliminating the Water Department and merging its functions with the Public Works Department. This is historically significant as the Water Department has always been an autonomous agency established to protect water as a precious natural resource. No reference to this change, or justification for it, has been produced by the City Council raising questions as to why its being done. This is a proposal that deserves a lot more attention.

It is important to note that we all want professional management of city resources and we all know changes in city government are inevitable, but what we don’t need are half baked ideas that have been shielded from public scrutiny by elected officials who clearly have chosen not to talk about, or defend, these important proposals. Until a meaningful debate on these proposed charter changes and their impact can take place, voters should simply say no thank you on ballot question 3.”

Former Mayor and State Senator Don DeFronzo, November 2, 2022

End Quote: Inspiration from Election Day 2018

“I drove 93-year-old Alice Cap to New Britain’s Slade Middle School just after 8 this morning in a misty rain. She wanted to get out early to vote.  She reminded me of that old superstition that rain means good luck for the Democrats. “The sun was out when Trump was elected two years ago,” she said before going into the polling place.

A big concern for Alice are the blatant attempts to deny African Americans and others the right to vote and all the coarseness and divisiveness she sees from the current occupant of the WH.  POTUS, she said, reminds her of the  “emperor with no clothes” and she had something to say and do about it today. Thanks Alice.”

(Alice Cap, a Stanley retiree, passed away in 2021 but the memory of her citizenship as a member of the “greatest generation” lives on.)