NB Politicus

Stewart Seeks To Exclude BOE, Common Council From Approving Use Of School Construction Money

Posted in Bonding, City Hall, public education, school board, School Construction by nbpoliticus on March 8, 2021

By John McNamara

The Stewart Administration, blocked in recent months by a bipartisan Board of Education (BOE) and city ordinance from filling a political patronage job on a new school construction project, will seek to remove  Common Council and BOE authority on school construction spending handing the final say over to the seven-member School Building Committee (SBC) appointed by the Mayor.

A resolution filed by the Republican caucus Majority Leader Daniel Salerno and Alderwoman Sharon Beloin-Saavedra at the March 10th Council meeting would alter the membership of the SBC, by dropping Common Council appointments.  It would further cede approval to “engage, select, and enter into or continue all necessary contracts with contractors, architects, landscape architects, or engineers, and within the limits of the appropriations made by the council, this committee shall engage and fix the salary of one or more construction representatives ” to the School Building Committee. The existing ordinance requires  approval by the BOE and Common Council.

CITY HALL WATCH

The hiring of a construction representative for the Chamberlain Elementary School renovation project and re-roofing projects at Pulaski and Slade Middle Schools sparked controversy last year when the SBC selected Ray Moore, the former Schools’ facilities director, to be a construction representative at a six-figure salary shortly after he retired from his job at the schools.  Former NBHS Principal and retired School Administrator Paul Salina, who is the Stewart appointed Director of Support Services at City Hall, reportedly pushed hard for Moore, his former colleague, to get the lucrative construction representative’s position. 

BOE members, however, objected to the Moore hiring saying a newly-hired Facilities Director in the School District could handle oversight of the Chamberlain renovation without the added costs. “We try to save as much as city-wide taxpayer money as possible.” BOE Member Violette Jimenez Sims told the New Britain Herald’s Catherine Shen in a November 24th story. “For me, I would rather spend the money that would directly impact the children that they can use forever and ever and not spending it on a redundant service.” 

The Moore hire was subsequently set aside after BOE Attorney Patrick McHale asserted that state statutes and the ordinance gave the BOE the right of approval of the construction manager who answers to the SBC.

For all its clout in allocating and contracting tens of millions of dollars for school construction the School Building Committee is a relatively obscure municipal government committee.  It’s not easily found on the city website’s link to boards and commissions.   Its Chairperson, Frances Wolski, has been a member for multiple two-year terms during the Stewart administrations. The committee has seven members but two seats are vacant as of February.   The Committee’s most prominent member in recent years has been former Mayor Timothy Stewart, a position of influence he held during his daughter’s first two terms until his mysogynistic social media rants ended his tenure on the committee and as head of the Chamber of Commerce.

Last year the Council approved $57 million for the Chamberlain renovation and re-roofing projects contingent on state reimbursements.  State Representative Bobby Sanchez (D-25), the Chair of the Legislature’s Education Committee, has successfully worked to get a 95% reimbursement from the state for a renovated Chamberlain School in the east end and roof upgrades to two middle schools.

The proposed School Building Committee resolution is certain to raise new concerns by Common Council Democrats over the propriety of removing Council and BOE checks and balances on school construction.  School construction projects involve millions of dollars in state bond and local funds that need to be allocated with competitive bidding and full transparency, which is what the existing ordinance ensures.  Ceding all power now to the Mayor’s office and the Mayoral appointed SBC creates a process that will eliminate oversight by elected BOE and Council members.

Related Story:  School Building Committee Pick For Architect of Smalley Academy Renovation Has Its Share of Troubles.

Related Story from New Britain Herald  Construction Bill Will Fund Three New Britain School Projects

 

 

 

 

New Britain Common Council Vacancy: An Opportunity For Bipartisan Cooperation

Posted in City Hall, city politics and government by nbpoliticus on December 5, 2020

By John McNamara

The alderman-at-large vacancy caused by the election of Emmanuel Sanchez to the 24th District House seat is an opportunity for some all too rare bipartisanship on the closely divided City Council of eight Republicans and seven Democrats.

Starting with an endorsement from Rep.-elect Sanchez, a top vote getter in the 2019 municipal election, Veronica DeLandro is the consensus pick by the Democratic Council caucus and Democratic Town Committee to fill the vacancy. The City Charter requires that Sanchez’ successor must be a Democrat for the unexpired term that ends with next November’s municipal election.  The full 15-member Council fills the vacancy and may do so Wednesday, December 9th.

DeLandro, a former District Director for U.S. Rep, Jahana Hayes and Council Clerk of Committees, is part of a new generation of Democrats in the city who has “paid her dues” politically and has long been involved in the community on boards and organizations supportive of women and educational opportunity. She ran for a Ward One Council seat in 2017 and has elevated her voice on municipal and education issues in campaigns and testimony to the Council and Legislature.

CITY HALL WATCH

As Democratic momentum builds for DeLandro, Daniel Salerno, the Republican caucus leader, intervened last week by saying he “welcomes resumes and cover letters of interested candidates” to fill the the Sanchez seat. Salerno, a registered Democrat who runs with the GOP and is confined to the Republican caucus, boasts that he is the “longest serving Democratic Alderman” on the Council, an assertion refuted by Democratic Councillor Chris Anderson who pointed out the departing Sanchez is the longest serving Democrat on the Council now.

Salerno’s announcement implies that he is the hiring authority with his one-vote majority and that candidates are applying for a job at City Hall with “the requisite experience needed”  as if the voters who elect council members are not a part of the process at all. This not only upends the City Charter but contradicts a longstanding practice of local boards and councils in Connecticut where the council as the appointing authority defers to the town committee, Democratic or Republican, to choose a replacement from their own ranks. That just occurred in New Britain when the Council unanimously appointed Democrat Joey Listro to the Board of Education for Diane Leja who resigned very early in her four-year term. In many towns deferring to town committees has been formalized and is not just an informal tradition.

In New Britain BOE vacancies, which are four-year terms and based on the minority representation law, have cropped up much more than a rare Council vacancy.  But it’s instructive to go back to 2008 when a Democratic Council majority acted badly over a vacancy on the Board of Education. The Republicans’ nomination of former Alderman Jamie Giantonio was tabled and Council Democrats arbitrarily filled the vacancy with Leslie Jacobs, a Republican who was not the choice of her party.  At the time former Republican Town Committee Chair Paul Carver justifiably told the Hartford Courant that the Council majority was “ignoring a city tradition of endorsing candidates nominated by the appropriate town committee for such vacancies.”

The pending Council vacancy is an opportunity to set aside a political power play and partisan grudges that would usurp the will of voters. It would end the year on a note of cooperation as the city deals with the pandemic and before the 2021 municipal election cycle begins. Importantly, it would set a precedent for both political parties and current leaders to follow in the future.  The GOP caucus would be doing itself a favor by deferring to Democrats and seating the well-credentialed Veronica DeLandro for the remainder of Sanchez’ term.

 

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.

New Britain’s Bond Rating Drops From Stable To Negative: Huge Spike In Debt Through 2021 Cited By Moody’s

Posted in city government, City Hall, municipal budget, New Britain, Uncategorized by nbpoliticus on November 4, 2017

By John McNamara

Republican incumbent Mayor Erin Stewart, in her re-election campaign this year and throughout her second term, has touted improving municipal bond ratings for New Britain’s fiscal solvency, claiming credit for budget surpluses of $15 million and pushing spending up at City Hall with no need for an election year tax increase.

Fiscal stability is the cornerstone of her platform and a main talking point in her aspirations to leave the mayor’s job for statewide office. Her campaign’s website points to New Britain “gracing the cover of the Bond Buyer, a trade publication covering the municipal bond market, “not once but twice. The city under her management is a shining example for how to make a financial turnaround work during a difficult economy.”

The November 2nd edition of Bond Buyerhowever, paints a different picture for the city’s finances in the  latest analysis, portending a difficult road ahead for the city’s budget over the next four years.  Moody’s Investor Services, which along with Standard & Poor’s, assesses the borrowing ability and fiscal health of cities in the municipal bond market, has downgraded general obligation borrowing to Baa2 from Baa1. “Moody’s cited New Britain’s reliance on nonrecurring revenues to stabilize its financial position in recent years. The rating agency also revised its outlook on the 73,000-population city to negative from stable,” Bond Buyer’s Paul Burton reported. “The rating also incorporates the city’s elevated debt profile with rapidly escalating debt service and its modest pension liability,’ the rating agency said Tuesday.”

In contrast to Moody’s downgrade four months into the 2018 fiscal year, Standard & Poor’s has previously affirmed  a more favorable A-plus rating for New Britain after upgrading the city four notches through two upgrades.   Moody’s last assessment came in 2014.

According to the Bond Buyer story:

Moody’s said the negative outlook reflects the short-term challenge New Britain will face to match recurring revenues with recurring expenditures while managing its debt service pegged to spike through fiscal 2021. New Britain, said Moody’s, could earn an upgrade through a sustained trend of structurally balanced operations without one-shots, a material reduction in debt burden, growth in its tax base or an improved resident wealth and income profile.  By contrast, continuing reliance on nonrecurring revenues, erosion of its financial position, taking on more debt or deterioration of New Britain’s tax base or wealth profile could lead to a downgrade.

The Moody’s downgrade may be related to action taken by the Common Council prior to the end of the 2017 fiscal year at the behest of the Stewart administration when debt payments were deferred in the last fiscal year pushing the debt into this year and succeeding years when interest rates on the city’s borrowing will be accelerating.

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Your Tax Dollars At Work: Erin Stewart Does Politics On Dem. Primary Day From City Hall

Posted in City Hall, city politics and government, New Britain Republicans by nbpoliticus on August 9, 2016

Republican Erin Stewart  is taking time from her  duties at City Hall to jump into today’s Democratic Primary for State Senate and Registrar of Voters,  posting a pitch from her official Facebook page to support the challengers.

Acknowledging she “is not a Democrat” Ms. Stewart urged her social media followers to oppose endorsed candidates State Senator Terry Gerratana and Registrar of Voters candidate Mike Trueworthy.

In an earlier post on her personal Facebook page Ms. Stewart resorted to name calling that was caught by Courant Columnist Kevin Rennie on his Daily Ructions blog.  Rennie has been a chronicler of Erin Stewart’s foul-mouthed rants and drinking episodes that have been an embarrassment to the city and may come back to haunt the young Republican as she seeks higher office.

Stewart Post

Erin Stewart in full campaign mode ripping up a Vote Democrat sign.

In his pursuit of a return to public office Registrar candidate Lucian Pawlak is relying heavily on Republican financial support.  A fellow Democratic supporter of Pawlak’s recently asked the former four-term Mayor if he would co-sign a letter to the editor opposing the controversial sale of the city’s Patton Brook Well in Southington that is up for a vote this week at the City Council.. Pawlak initially agreed but purportedly backed off telling his supporter that the Stewarts offered to get his committee contributions for the Democratic Primary.  Pawlak, in other words, allowed himself to be bought off on a key public issue.

Beloin-Saavedra, touting her advocacy for education and support of the schools in her challenge, has also embraced Stewart but that embrace has come at a price for what Beloin-Saavedra has said she stands for. When Mayor Stewart illegally attempted to cut $4 million already appropriated for the school budget in her first budget  Beloin-Saavedra never said a word in protest,  acquiescing to the raid on school funds. That was a disappointment for those who have always admired her BOE leadership and advocacy for education through the years. It took New Britain’s Democratic legislators  to block the loss of funds for education.

If nothing else in today’s Democratic Primary  Mr. Pawlak and Ms. Beloin-Saavedra are giving new meaning to the acronym  DINO – Democrats In Name Only.   And contrary to Ms. Stewart’s “people not politics” slogan  it’s about politics, pettiness and self aggrandizement on the city’s dime.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inside City Hall: Republicans Seek To Eliminate Polling Places in Center of New Britain

Posted in City Hall, city politics and government, Voting Rights by nbpoliticus on January 27, 2016

By John McNamara

Republican Mayor Erin Stewart and Registrar of Voters Peter Gostin are moving quickly to reduce voter access to polling places for the November Presidential election.

A  plan drafted by Republican Gostin will  come up for a fast-tracked feasibility study vote at the Wednesday January 27th Common Council meeting. right-to-vote1

The feasibility study apparently has the support of Democrat Carlo Carlozzi, Jr., the council minority leader. Consideration of the plan would appear to be a done deal if the Council majority  agrees to look into sudden changes in where the electorate votes in 2016 . Carlozzi, however, maintains that he will oppose sudden changes in polling places despite supporting the feasibility move by Republicans.

Democratic legislators and other Democratic leaders are expected to strongly oppose any changes so close to a primary and the general election especially for its impact on elderly and minority voters.

Facing a tight timeline,  GOP leaders and the Registrars met on Monday to float the plan to reduce the number of polling places in the city from 17 to 13 on the eve of an April 26th presidential primary and the November general election.

The plan takes direct aim at two polling places in the central part of the city — the Graham and School Apartment polling places — where a minority and older population reside.

The GOP plan would eliminate those polling places and residents would apparently be offered a shuttle to the New Britain Senior Center to vote, according to Democratic Registrar Juan Verdu.

Also under consideration is the elimination of two additional polling places including the Holmes School (District 11) and the Armory (District  6). The Armory District is also in the center of New Britain where many minority residents live.

Republican Registrar Gostin has previously floated a plan to reduce polling places in the city from 17 to 10.  Gostin, who lobbied heavily for a pay raise for himself in 2015, is calling for reduced voter access as a way to save the city money,  but apparently not to reduce  the payroll and administrative expenses in his office.

The Common Council meeting on January 27th begins at 7 p.m. with public participation.