NB Politicus

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

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


School Building Committee Resolution Curtails Checks and Balances on School Construction Projects

By John McNamara

A controversial resolution that removes Common Council and Board of Education approval of all contracts and spending on school construction projects came back to the Common Council April 28th meeting and was approved on a party line vote.

The resolution, authored by Republican caucus members Daniel Salerno and Sharon Beloin-Saavedra and revised at the April 15th Consolidation Committee meeting, removes key language that requires that contracts and expenditures on multi-million dollar school projects are “subject to the approval of the board of education and common council.” Instead, it vests control of School Building Committee (SBC) appointments to the Mayor, leaving the Council with two members on the seven-member committee.

According to the new resolution the SBC will “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.”

Salerno and Beloin-Saavedra, acting on behalf of Mayor Erin Stewart and willingly diminishing the Common Council’s role, cite mayoral powers in the City Charter granting appointment power for all “boards and commissions” to the Mayor as a justification for the sweeping changes that hand the purse strings and contracting over to the SBC for school renovations and construction. They say they are just cleaning up the language in accordance with the charter.

CITY HALL WATCH

As if trying to obscure the intent of the resolution, the revised ordinance has a preamble that implies Common Council members would continue to have a say in SBC meetings and deliberations or, for that matter, any other board or commission using general ordinance language on the access any common council member has to go to a public meeting: “Alderpersons may attend any meetings. The members of the council, or any of them, may attend the regular, special, or other meetings of all boards, commissions, and agencies when, in their discretion, their presence would best serve the interests of the city.”

Unlike boards and commissions mandated by the City Charter, however, the School Building Committee is created by ordinance with purposes and conditions set by the Common Council in accordance with powers granted to the legislative branch (the Council). The mayoral powers justification for ending all BOE and Council oversight on school building projects is both exclusionary and unwise given the large amounts of taxpayer money involved on these projects which are heavily reimbursed by the state and its bonding authority. Most recently makeovers of the Smalley and Gaffney schools have cost upwards of $80 million.

Although the lion’s share of funding for any school construction comes from the state, Connecticut law is silent on local school building committees, their powers and composition, according to a legislative analysis on SBCs and school construction. What the analysis does say, however, is that boards of education are ultimately responsible and must “make a continuing study of the need for school facilities and of a long-term school building program.” State statutes do no specify how local school boards must carry out their responsibility for maintaining school buildings. Nothing either requires or allows a board to, or prevents it from, establishing a permanent committee to oversee school maintenance.”

The revised New Britain resolution makes the Superintendent of Schools an ex-officio member of the SBC which is to say the BOE’s representative is an observer without a vote.

Democratic Alderman at Large Chris Anderson opposed the revised ordinance asserting that it “consolidates power, reduces transparency and eliminates checks and balances.” He was joined by five other Democrats on the Council opposing the move to usurp Common Council and Board of Education authority over public monies they appropriate and are responsible for in the school district’s buildings.

A consequence of the new SBC resolution is that it contributes to a bigger divide between City Hall and the BOE. New Britain’s close to last ranking in how much the municipal government contributes to public schools is a perennial and contentious issue at budget time every year and this year is no exception. Politically, it serves the Mayor and her Council cohorts well to disparage the BOE by implying it wastes money as they engage in tax-cut demagoguery. During the Common Council’s discussion of the SBC resolution, for example, Alderwomen Beloin-Saavedra, a former BOE President, didn’t help BOE-City Hall cooperation. She disparagingly pointed to the BOE and school administration as the place where more oversight is needed,asking: “Who’s watching the henhouse over there?”

And as with most issues to come before the Council the nine members of the Republican caucus remained rubber stamps for Mayor Stewart, ceding absolute control over the school construction process and the opportunities it presents the city administration for patronage, favors and picking contractors.

Related Post https://nbpoliticus.com/2021/03/08/stewart-seeks-to-exclude-boe-common-council-from-approving-use-of-school-construction-money/

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.

 

Republican Candidate For 26th District Stirred Social Media Controversy in 2015

“Racially Divisive” Posts Sunk Ceglarz’ Council Candidacy In The ’15 Municipal

By John McNamara

The New Britain Republican Town Committee’s (NBRTC) slate of legislative candidates for the November 3rd Election includes a nominee who stirred controversy in 2015 that forced his withdrawal from the Councillor-At-Large race that year.

Piotr (Peter) Ceglarz, a member of the NBRTC from Ward 4, is making his second run at incumbent Democrat Peter Tercyak for the General Assembly District that includes John Paul II, Pulaski Middle School, Saint Francis Church and Holmes School polling places.

In 2014 Tercyak defeated Ceglarz for re-election in an uneventful race with both candidates participating in the Citizen Election Program (CEP) of public financing.  In the 2015 municipal election Ceglarz joined the Erin Stewart slate as one of five at large Council candidates.

His short-lived campaign for city office was anything but uneventful.  Soon after the July nominations racially-charged social media posts attributed to Ceglarz’ Facebook page surfaced spreading white nationalist, hateful memes that have become all too familiar in Trump Republicans’ playbooks and are ever present on Facebook and Twitter.

At issue were Facebook posts by Republican Ceglarz in which he shared and agreed with messages from right-wing groups defending the Confederate flag and referring to such organizations as the NAACP, United Negro College Fund and the Hispanic Scholarship Fund as “racist.” In another post President Obama is linked with Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin over gun ownership rights. Ceglarz also disparaged minimum wage workers in disseminating his views at the time of his candidacy for City Council.

The offensive posts led to immediate calls for Ceglarz to exit the campaign by Democrats and drew in media coverage that eventually caused Stewart, protecting her “socially liberal” Republican brand outside of New Britain, to dump Ceglarz once the television and newspapers came calling.

The social media-savvy Mayor with a constant presence on Facebook professed no knowledge of the Ceglarz posts on the day she asked him to leave the slate. “Earlier today I became aware of several postings on Facebook, made by Peter Ceglarz, that were both ill-advised and indefensible in their nature. While I consider Peter to be a good friend, there is simply no room in this campaign for that sort of divisiveness,” the Mayor responded in a written statement.

Ceglarz complied with Erin Stewart’s order to withdraw but without any apology or remorse saying he was the victim of “a political hit job.”  Reacting to the press coverage back then Ceglarz, in a comment to the New Britain Herald, called the paper “the most biased and liberal paper in the state. Sorry but your recent story about me was the biggest B.S. and P.O.S. NICE way to kiss ass with (former Democratic Chair John) McNamara and (former Councillor David) DeFronzo and then calling things racist. Get your facts straight and cover the truth and not lies.”

Coming off the GOP bench to run a third time, the unrepentant 2020 Ceglarz has scrubbed his social media of any of the publically shared racist taunts that abruptly ended his run for office five Augusts ago.  Of more concern, however, is how his personal views may inform his stances on legislative issues that effect the residents of his district in a multi-cultural, diverse community. 

Unfortunately, Ceglarz’ 2015 posts are an example of the vitriol that has been injected via social media into New Britain politics going back to at least 2009. 

Last year older posts attributed to  Democratic Council candidate Antonio Lavoy, Sr. were widely condemned for vulgar remarks directed at Erin Stewart, transgressions for which Lavoy apologized.  And early in 2019 former Mayor Timothy Stewart referred to Democratic women in Congress as “bitches in heat” in a Facebook post during the State of the Union address, a flip remark that brought his forced resignation as head of the Chamber of Commerce after dodging an earlier controversy with the help of State Senator Gennaro Bizzarro, the city corporation counsel and Chamber Board Chairman. 

“Stewart had already been facing calls that he resign or be removed as the head of the Greater New Britain Chamber of Commerce from a scandal from 2017 in which he made a comment that was widely criticized as racist,” according to the New Britain Progressive. “Stewart had made an online comment that, ‘Unfortunately the inmates continue to run the neighborhood,’ in a discussion regarding the city’s North Oak neighborhood, a neighborhood that has a large Latino and African American population.”

Inflammatory rhetoric, personal insults and racial invective are nothing new in political discourse in New Britain and elsewhere.  But social media — pervasive and unfiltered — accelerates division and does harm to  civic engagement.  There’s no stopping the bigoted and uninformed, egged on by the highest office in the land, to post their rants. But elected leaders and those who aspire to leadership have a special responsibility not to offend nor tolerate those who do so.

(Editor’s Note:  In 2015 I was the Democratic Party Chair and Mayoral candidate and was among Democrats calling for the withdrawal of Ceglarz from the Council race.)

 

 

 

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.

Stewart Penalized For Using Taxpayer Mailing To Boost Her 2017 Re-election Campaign

Posted in Campaign Finance, city politics and government, New Britain Republicans by nbpoliticus on December 1, 2018

Mayor Erin Stewart violated state campaign law by promoting her candidacy through an official mailing of tax bills to city residents during the 2017 municipal campaign, according to a ruling by the State Elections Enforcement Commission (SEEC).

The SEEC, at its November 14th meeting, fined Mayor Stewart $500, citing a violation under state law (9-610) that prohibits incumbents “during the three months preceding an election in which (she) is a candidate for reelection or election to another office” from using “public funds to mail or print flyers or other promotional materials intended to bring about his (or her) election or reelection.”

Using her campaign slogan “Leading The Way” in the taxpayer-funded brochure, Stewart cited saving the city from fiscal ruin, good bond ratings, reorganizing city hall departments “to find efficiencies and improve customer service and “a continuous commitment to provide our teachers and our children with the proper tools for learning and exploring.”  The official message was a carbon copy of what could be found at the time on Stewart’s campaign website.  The mailing with the brochure was sent by Tax Collector Cheryl Blogoslawski’s office and paid for by the city. Although the mailer came directly from the Tax Collector’s office, Ms. Blogoslawski was absolved of any wrongdoing by the commission.

During the SEEC inquiry Mayor Stewart, through an attorney, defended her use of the mailing at the height of the municipal election season. “The pamphlet is issued annually and is sent in the same envelope with our property tax bills. Given the lack of a timely issued state budget and the commensurate uncertainty surrounding final municipal aid (and, therefore, our tax rate), New Britain joined many other municipalities across Connecticut in electing to post the property tax bills later than normal this fiscal year,” Stewart argued. She contended that the “message from the Mayor to taxpayers” and “a section discussing progress made by the City in numerous areas” contained “nothing of a political nature.”  The mailing at issue was first reported in September 2017 in an NBPoliticus post  and in a story published by The New Britain Progressive

Rejecting the Mayor’s argument on a complaint brought by Democratic Town Chair Bill Shortell,  the SEEC found that Stewart’s “message from the Mayor” and the citing of New Britain’s accomplishments “are irrelevant to the tax bill and therefore their inclusion in the mailer is violative of 9-610. The Commission finds that the mailer plainly could have been limited to the mill rate and various other information regarding motor vehicle taxes in New Britain, without including favorable references to the budget and past performance  of the Mayor of New Britain and her administration.”

Car Tax

Brochure advancing Mayor Stewart’s campaign sent with motor vehicle tax bills at the height of the municipal election campaign in 2017. State law bars use of public funds for candidate promotions within three months of elections.

Related Posts

Did Stewart Get A Prohibited Campaign Freebie In Mailing of Car Tax Bills?

Will Erin Stewart Get Another Off The Books Push From An Absentee Landlord in 2017?

 

Will Erin Stewart Get Another Off The Books Push From An Absentee Landlord in 2017?

By John McNamara

On the eve of  the 2015 municipal election scores of  tenants in New Britain got a notice about a possible rent increase from their landlord.

It wasn’t an official increase but a not so subtle endorsement of Mayor Erin Stewart who at the time was cruising to re-election for a second term.

The unsigned communication in English and Spanish read:

“To our residents: In order to help keep your rent from increasing we suggest that on Election Day, Tuesday, November 3rd, you vote for  Mayor Stewart and her entire Row B Team.  It’s important that we all work together to keep rents from increasing by electing responsible leaders like Mayor Erin Stewart  as she has restored New Britain to a place where people can afford to live.”

If anyone thought this message  — mailed first class by The Carabetta Companies of Meriden —- was  a civic-minded promotion of voter turnout by a major out-of-town landlord they were mistaken.  Carabetta’s  tenants were being warned in intimidating fashion: Vote for the Republican Stewart or your rent will go up.

carabetta

Bilingual letter to tenants of Carabetta properties mailed on the eve of the 2015 municipal election.

The “To Our Residents” note amounted to an unreported  corporate contribution with promotion of  the Stewart re-election phone number for a ride to the polls and offer of help on getting registered to vote.  “A Team Stewart member will assist you,” said the notice not attributed to any political committee as it should have been.

State election law spells out the kind of violation that could be involved here (see below).  Moreover, penalties could potentially  apply to the Stewart committee for “coordinating” activities with their off the books landlord friends.

Sec. 9-613. (Formerly Sec. 9-333o). Business entities. (a) Contributions or expenditures for candidate or party prohibited. No business entity shall make any contributions or expenditures to, or for the benefit of, any candidate’s campaign for election to any public office or position subject to this chapter or for nomination at a primary for any such office or position, or to promote the defeat of any candidate for any such office or position. No business entity shall make any other contributions or expenditures to promote the success or defeat of any political party, except as provided in subsection (b) of this section.

 

No doubt the tactic from one of the city’s absentee property owners was a throwback to the 2013 municipal campaign when Stewart and the Republicans teamed up with outside landlords to wage a scorched-earth, months-long campaign against Democrats pouring as much as $100,000 of dark money into the election.

At issue was a controversial  ordinance that set fees for non-owner occupied properties to pay for housing and code enforcement — a policy subsequently repealed that can be found without controversy in hundreds of communities across the country.  Ironically — aside from concerns about blight and raucous parties in rentals around CCSU — the issue that caused the vitriolic campaign in 2013 never surfaced in 2015.

Team Stewart and friends just couldn’t help themselves go low when they could have taken a pass on intimidating tenants into voting a certain way in 2015.   In the era of Citizens United and the anonymous corporate money throughout the political and legislative system it’s easier to make the calculation that any judgment on blatant violations of the law would come months later when the State Elections Enforcement Commission rendered a decision.  And any SEEC fine levied would be worth the  investment to get away with messing with tenants about how they should vote.

As Election Day 2017 approaches consider this a cautionary tale.  Team Stewart — now in an increasingly tight race for City Hall — won’t hesitate to use all manner of 11th hour mischief to stay in power like the tenant notice of two years ago.  Voters need to know that their franchise is personal and private and not subject to influence by their landlord, their boss or anyone else.

Full disclosure: I was the late starting and under-funded Democratic nominee for Mayor and the Democratic Chair in 2015 not willing to see Ms. Stewart go unchallenged. Consequently, any rent increases incurred over the last two years have come on Ms. Stewart’s watch) 

 

 

Did Stewart Get A Prohibited Campaign Freebie In Mailing Of Car Tax Bills?

Posted in city government, city politics and government, ethics, municipal budget, Republicans, Tax Policy by nbpoliticus on September 2, 2017

By John McNamara

New Britain motor vehicle owners finally got their bills on September 1 along with  a glowing missive from Mayor Erin Stewart that makes the case for her re-election.

The city held up auto tax notices this year, blaming the state budget impasse for the two month delay. Uncertain was whether the auto levy would be lowered to 32 mills or stay at 37.  Given the state deficit then and now,  it would have been a safe bet to go with the 37 mill rate in July rather than wait.  The $241.5  million municipal budget for the year that began July 1st is based on what New Britain got from the state in the 2017 fiscal year.

In a city election year the delay in mailing tax bills is giving incumbent Stewart a prohibited taxpayer-funded freebie — an expensive city-wide mailing to everyone who owns a car or truck — to boost her campaign closer to the election.

Don’t expect Stewart and her full-time image team in the Mayor’s office  to miss an incumbent’s prerogative of using public funds to deliver a not so subtle piece of campaign promotion. Normally there’d be nothing wrong with it.  It’s done here and in many places all the time — an advantage to incumbents in local races with no public financing

Brochure advancing Mayor Stewart’s candidacy sent with motor vehicle tax bills this week. State law bars use of public funds for candidate promotions within three months of elections.

The issue usually arises over “franking privileges” for state and federal lawmakers who send their own positive mailers back to their districts on accomplishments and legislation.

At issue here is whether Stewart used the good offices of the Tax Collector to promote her candidacy within three months of an election.  That’s where the Connecticut General Statutes come in. State law prohibits any use of taxpayer money by incumbents within 90 days of an election for self promotion.

From Connecticut general statutes 9-610

(d) (1) No incumbent holding office shall, during the three months preceding an election in which he is a candidate for reelection or election to another office, use public funds to mail or print flyers or other promotional materials intended to bring about his election or reelection.

Using her campaign slogan “Leading The Way” in the taxpayer-funded brochure, Stewart cites saving the city from fiscal ruin, good bond ratings, reorganizing city hall departments “to find efficiencies and improve customer service and “a continuous commitment to provide our teachers and our children with the proper tools for learning and exploring.”  The official message is a carbon copy of what can be found on Stewart’s campaign website.

Any and all of the Stewart’s tax mailer assertions, of course, can be challenged in an election year.  A closer look at the  municipal budget shows higher spending  trumps efficiency at City Hall. A hefty jump in interest payments looms on short-term borrowing because Stewart and the Common Council deferred on paying bills coming due last year. And that  “continuous commitment” to education?  It’s  hard to find in a Stewart budget that continues to spend more at City Hall but didn’t add a dime to schools in the current budget.

In politics timing can be everything and can determine what is allowed and what isn’t under the law.

By incorporating her campaign promotion in the late auto tax notices , Mayor Stewart ignored the law that bans incumbents from using public funds “to mail or print flyers or other promotional materials” for reelection.

 

 

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.