NB Politicus

Under the Cover of Covid: Four Democratic Councillors Excluded From July Meeting

Posted in City Charter, city government, City Hall, city politics and government, Public Health by nbpoliticus on July 11, 2020

Mayor Pulls Plug On Remote Access For Common Council Members

By John McNamara

Four Democratic City Councillors, expecting teleconference access because of the state-mandated COVID 19 social distancing order for public meetings, were shut out of participating and voting at the July 8th Common Council meeting.

At Large Alderman Richard Reyes, Ward 2 Alderperson Colin Osborn and Ward 3’s Aram Ayalon and Iris Sanchez were muted for this month’s only Common Council meeting. The remote system used for council debate and voting was turned off.

Three other Democrats, Manny Sanchez, Chris Anderson and Francisco Santiago, were present along with the eight members of the Republican caucus. Councillors meet in a semi-circle in close proximity to one another in the Council chambers. Holding remote meetings with call in public participation has been the routine during the pandemic.

Close to 40 residents spoke via telephone about a civilian review board and the Christopher Columbus statue amid the waves of protest and concern over police violence and racism since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

COVID protocols were in force for public participation in accordance with Governor Lamont’s Executive Order on holding public meetings remotely and avoiding person to person contact.

“I was told that the Mayor expected the council members to be present,” Iris Sanchez said in a Facebook post. “I did it remotely and the whole time I and some of my colleagues were muted the whole meeting.”

While public participation took up over an hour, the regular meeting took less than 15 minutes. On the roll call Town and City Clerk Mark Bernacki hesitated but appeared to record Ayalon present when he heard Ayalon’s voice over the public participation line. Iris Sanchez, Osborn and Reyes were counted as absent. Ayalon is responding with a Freedom of Information complaint that his own open meeting rights may have been violated.

It may be that the failure to let four Democrats in on the July 8th Council meeting was just a mix up. But that seems unlikely. Mayor Stewart’s reopening of the Council Chambers without a recourse to participating remotely fits a pattern of minimal, nonchalant responses to the pandemic at City Hall.

Using her eight to seven majority, Stewart derailed Council discussion on dealing with the pandemic aside from her “proactive steps” that included a 10 p.m. curfew and the closing of municipal facilities. A resolution calling for the city to consider a work from home policy for non-essential city employees was hastily rejected on a party line vote at the April 8th Common Council meeting one day after Stewart closed City Hall to the public.

Stewart and her obedient eight-member caucus squelched any talk of looking into a work from home option, a policy that 60 percent of municipalities are allowing across the nation in the interest of continuing city operations without interruption and ensuring the safety of the work force.

The GOP caucus pushed through its own resolution without any questions falling in line with whatever the administration wanted to do. Amid criticism that the Council was doing its business remotely but requiring city workers to show up, GOP caucus members claimed Council Democrats were attempting to usurp the powers of the Mayor, ignoring completely what the City Charter mandates about legislative powers.

“City employees do not have the capability to work from home,” Stewart told the New Britain Herald on March 24th. “I’m not sure how you would fill a pothole working from home or how you could obtain a copy of a birth certificate or file a death certificate, working from home. Employees who are worried about their health have every opportunity to use their accrued time and stay home.”

Telling employees willing to work but with health concerns to take their sick or vacation time would seem to open up the Mayor to a labor law violation. Her management indifference, however, drew no response from local AFSCME or other municipal union presidents who enjoy cozy ties to the Mayor. The rank and file be damned.

Thankfully the spread of coronavirus has considerably ebbed across the state because of strong and continuous public health measures. But it’s not over. That is especially true in municipalities where rates of infection are higher. 

The prudent thing to do on July 8th was to give all elected Common Council members the remote option and follow the Governor’s executive order “to permit a public agency to meet and take action without permitting in-person, public access to such meeting, and to hold such meetings or proceedings remotely by conference call, video conferencing or other technology.”

Open meetings and transparency should not become a casualty of the pandemic at any level of government.  As social distancing and phased re-openings continue, the situation warrants some true bipartisanship in governing the city. It’s unfortunate that there has been very little of that coming out of the Mayor’s office or from her loyalists on the Council. Their brand of bipartisanship only works if you set aside transparency, dialogue and agree with them 100 percent of the time.

Referendum Question 3 Obscures Charter Change On Granting Pay Raises To Elected Officials, Accelerated Water Bill Payments

Posted in City Charter, city government, city politics and government by nbpoliticus on August 26, 2016

By John McNamara

The Common Council’s Republican Caucus Leader, Daniel Salerno, likes to preach to citizens who speak at public participation that they ought to stay, not leave after speaking on an issue, to watch the councilors “make the sausage” on selling city assets cheap, adopting a new policy or making budget decisions.

CITY HALL WATCH

CITY HALL WATCH

Salerno’s invitation to stay carries with it a strong  undertone of condescension:  the implication being that he and his GOP caucus know more and care more than any of the residents coming in to voice their concerns.  When it comes to city charter change and one of the  questions on November’s ballot, however, Salerno and his GOP caucus don’t want you to see the sausage being made at all.

Two of the three ballot questions are straightforward: Shall the terms of office for Mayor and Tax Collector go from two years to four years in 2017? Question 3, however, asks voters to adopt 11 separate changes.  Not to worry, says Salerno, Q3 is only about “housekeeping” and”technical” alterations.  There’s always the rarely noticed small print posted on the wall before going into the polling booth that you can read.

In an August 13th Sunday editorial, the New Britain Herald saw through the Stewart Administration- Salerno obfuscation for what it is. “And, if the question goes forth in its approved form, we can’t help but wonder what a voter who agrees with some of the changes but not others will do. Do voters swallow hard and say yes, ignoring objections to some proposals? Or do they vote down all of the changes, rather than approve one they find objectionable? Alderman Emmanuel Sanchez pointed out this very dilemma before he cast a dissenting vote.”

Concerns expressed in the editorial are justified. Question 3 is a menu of alterations to the city’s governing document. True. Some are technical and minor. The Board of Public Works, for example, is sensibly put back in the charter when the last charter change removed it. In succeeding years the Council has had to re-establish public works and building commissions by ordinance because the last charter referendum eliminated all but six commissions.

Another change proposes that municipal budgets are to be posted on the city website and published within seven days. This guarantees sunshine in the age of the internet when the city’s website is often weeks and months behind in posting public information. It does, however, change the publication  in a newspaper from four to seven days — a penny-wise and pound foolish move designed to extract minor savings but that may leave daily newspapers out.

Other elements of Question 3  are redundant and pertain to mayoral and tax collector terms already covered in Questions 1 and 2. Arguably they don’t need to be included at all but are loaded onto the ballot question when the issue has already been addressed.

Of greater concern are changes that are fraught with financial implications for taxpayers and practices at City Hall that deserve to  stand on their own.

All are buried  within one broad question: “Shall the City Charter be amended to make changes to conform to state statutes and make technical, administrative and other changes and clarifications?”

On closer examination certain amendments beg for more information for voters to make anything approaching an informed decision on them.  Unfortunately that information is even absent in the explanatory text provided by the Town and City Clerk that voters headed to  the polls to vote for President aren’t likely to ever see anyway.

By way of examples here are several key amendments to the current charter:

  • One fine print change allows the Common Council to “review, establish, and act upon rates of compensation for elected officials in every even-numbered year.  This would replace the current ordinance that establishes a Council compensation committee to periodically review salaries of the Mayor and other elected officials  and that would revise compensation in the next elected term.
  • Another amendment allows pensions for certain elected officials by revising the definition of an elected official to include  a person who was appointed  by the Common Council to fill a vacancy between elections.
  • Two additional amendments empower the Board of Water Commissioners to change the billing cycle from semi-annually to monthly or quarterly payable within 30 days and to add 1.5% per month interest charges on delinquent bills. Arguably the Mayor and Council who should be responsible for approving changes are apparently taken off the hook when accelerating payments and charging interest are mandated in the charter. Voters need to be informed about what’s in place now and the issue deserves to stand on its own in a ballot question.

Provisions that relate to the compensation of elected officials, the granting of public pensions  and the manner and method of how citizens pay their water bills, among other issues,  are all fair game when it comes to revising the City Charter.    But they constitute more than “technicalities” and “conformance”  to state statutes. They should have been put on the ballot with greater clarity — a clarity  that will be missing on the November 8th ballot when you get to Question 3.

 

 

 

 

 

 

City Hall Watch: Rep. Sanchez Condemns Charter Change Eliminating City Council Districts

Posted in City Charter, city government, city politics and government, civil rights by nbpoliticus on February 10, 2016

 

 

By John McNamara

The Common Council is set to create a Charter Commission at its February 10th meeting to consider sweeping changes in municipal government at the behest of Republican Mayor Erin Stewart.

The Stewart administration, taking advantage of a Republican Council majority, seeks to eliminate neighborhood representation on the city council in favor of an all at large system that would replace the current 15-member council composed of two members from five council districts (wards) and five at large members.

Proponents of the ward system, who fought a long battle to gain neighborhood representation on the Council, maintain that the current make up of the Council provides geographic and racial diversity in the legislative body in a city that is increasingly diverse.

Rep. Bobby Sanchez

Rep. Bobby Sanchez

Council districts give residents accessible voices on the Council for every area of the city, not just the west side whose upper income residents dominated city councils under the at large system to the exclusion of other parts of the city and the city’s growing Latino and African-American citizenry.  Republicans, led by Registrar of Voters Peter Gostin, have sought a return to the at large system in which five members of the minority party are guaranteed seats whether or not they receive a majority or plurality of votes.

State Rep. Bobby Sanchez (D-25) is taking strong exception to Mayor Stewart’s move to end ward councillors and opposes the call for charter change to eliminate neighborhood representation on the Council. At the same time Sanchez linked the charter proposal to a plan drafted by Republican Registrar Gostin to eliminate polling places in his district.

“I’m very disturbed but not surprised that Republicans would try to suppress the vote by their attempts to close polling places and now, in particular, by opening the charter to eliminate the ward system. In the past, the at large system did not reflect the diversity of our city. With the ward system not only do we have a more diverse council, we also have city wide representation. It is my hope that the people of New Britain will see the injustice and make their voices heard in the coming days and months.”

The Republican Stewart’s agenda for the Charter Commission, in addition to re-establishing an all at large council system, includes other recommendations:

  • eliminating the election of the Tax Collector and Town and City Clerk by popular vote in favor of appointment by political patronage.
  • Increasing the mayoral term from two to four years [ironically the 2015 Democratic Mayoral Candidate John McNamara was the only candidate to support this idea last year]
  • A compensation plan for “non-union” appointed and elected officials including the Mayor and the aforementioned patronage jobs of tax collector and town and city clerk as well as the Registrars of Voters.  The provision for raising the salary of Registrars of Voters raises a potential and immediate conflict of interest since one of Stewart’s Republican picks for the commission is none other than Peter Gostin.
  • the creation of a quasi governmental “Golf Authority” to run Stanley Golf Course removing direct control by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

In addition to Republican Registrar of Voters Gostin, a leading advocate for restricting voter access and closing polling places since his election as the GOP’s chief election official, Republican picks for the Charter panel include Catherine Cheney and Efrain Rosado. Democrats proposed for the charter commission include Attorneys Adrian Baron, Michael Carrier and Mary Pokorski ( a municipal employee whose job security undoubtedly depends on agreeing with Team Stewart).

The resolution to create a charter commission is sponsored by Republican caucus leaders Danny Salerno and Jaime Giantonio. It stipulates that the Commission will issue a report by June 3rd to put a charter change referendum on the November ballot.

The Common Council meeting on February 10th begins with public participation in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 27 West Main Street.