This is no reflection on the good efforts of the folks who make up the skeleton crews at our dailies. In some respects, Greater New Britain is better off than other places in that we don’t live in a “news desert” entirely. You can still get the spot news, obits, announcements of good works, the high school sports scores and so forth that helps you stay connected. The online and nonprofit Connecticut Mirror is an accessible, statewide source for public affairs, opinion and investigative journalism. For the most part, however, The Herald and The Courant, those legacy sources for all things local, are now “ghost newspapers” with absentee ownerships and diminishing readerships. Gone are the reporters with experience, steady beats and management support for journalists to do their jobs. Gone is the daily dose of information that keeps our town government, businesses and institutions knowable, accountable and transparent.
As an alternative to the fading coverage of the dailies in 2022 The New Britain Progressive, a publication of the New Britain Independent, continued into a sixth year with reporting, opinions and stories of notable individuals and events in the community that otherwise would have been missed. Over the last 12 months more than 190 stories were produced locally from volunteer writers, photographers and contributors. That’s no substitute for what full-time news staffs used to provide but it’s a start at creating a reliable, citizen-run publication for anyone who hasn’t checked out on local affairs and wants to know more about where they live.
The Progressive is just one of many grassroots and upstart projects around the country that are responding to the demise of commercial weeklies and dailies. They will continue to emerge in 2023 to be a source of local news and information. If the New Britain Progressive has its way that will happen in New Britain.
Top New Britain Stories According To The New Britain Progressive
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.)
Mayor, Yes Committee To Hold “Education Session” Tuesday, October 18 at City Hall
by John McNamara
The Yes on Charter Revision Referendum Committee will hold an “educational session” on October 18th featuring members of the charter commission to promote passage of amendments that have far-reaching implications as to how city government will be governed. Tuesday’s session will be held in Room 504 at City Hall, 27 West Main Street, at 6:30 p.m.
Heading into the final stretch of the 2022 campaign, pros and cons are being raised in letters to the editor and campaign literature with absentee voting already underway. Mayor Stewart has been pushing approval in her monthly opinion column in the New Britain Herald. The New Britain League of Women Voters (NBLWV) has been circulating a fact sheet on referenda to appear on the ballot at its voter registration sessions. The New Britain Democratic Town Committee adopted a resolution opposing charter changes.
There are three questions on the November 8th ballot in New Britain.
Question 1 is a statewide referendum on a constitutional change to permit early voting in Connecticut, one of only four states that does not allow voting ahead of election day now. It appears to have broad-based support except for factions in the Republican Party who push the need for “election security” and oppose voter access reforms.
Questions 2 and 3 pertain to the City Charter amendments. In June, the Common Council condensed the separate recommendations into two questions, ignoring specific questions contained in the commission’s report.
Question 2 asks that at large (citywide) representation on the 15-member Common Council end to be replaced by three councilors to be elected under the minority representation law in five wards (council districts). Currently, five council members are elected at large and 10 are elected in the wards. The current hybrid make up of the Council was created after charter changes re-establishing ward representation that was led by Democrats.
Question 3 asks that the remainder of the changes be adopted including the proposed chief administrative officer to perform mayoral duties in January 2023 and appointing instead of electing the Tax Collector and Town and City Clerk in 2025. Another revision sensibly calls for a charter commission review every five years but it is lumped into the question with the more contentious changes.
Question 3 has led to objections from both proponents and opponents because it lumps major changes into a broad question that leaves out what voters are being asked to decide.
The Council adhered to Mayor Stewart’s wishes and eliminated the ballot questions proposed by the charter commission that included:
Shall the positions of Revenue Collector and the Town and City Clerk be changed from elected to civil service, appointed positions?
Shall an appointed Chief Operations Officer, who shall report directly to the Mayor, be responsible for the daily management of certain City functions?
Shall the remainder of the changes to the Charter as recommended by the Charter Revision Commission be approved, which changes include a provision requiring periodic Charter review every five years at a minimum?
All of those questions haven been incorporated into “Shall the remainder of the changes to the City Charter, as recommended by the Charter Revision Commission, be approved?” Yes or No”. The rationale for consolidating questions is purportedly to keep all questions on a one-sided ballot.
Don DeFronzo, a former mayor, state senator and state DAS commissioner, called the wording of Question 3 “disrespectful, patronizing, and perhaps deceitful, in dealing with New Britain voters” in a September 26th Opinion published in the New Britain Herald.
DeFronzo wrote that Question 3 is “generic, non-specific” and “poorly worded question with no informational context.” He also disagreed with the amendment for a new chief administrative officer: “While not disputing the need for strong professional management, many students of public administration would see the retention of both a full-time mayor and a high-salaried COO as a duplicative expenditure, leading to more bureaucracy and a fragmentation of authority.” The charter change will retain both a full time Mayor with a current salary of $100,000 and, if approved, bring on as of next January a city manager (COO) with a likely salary well over $100,000. The appointment of a tax collector and town clerk would not take effect until 2025.
Text of an amendment to the City Charter creating a Chief Operations Officer
In an October 6th Herald letter to the editor, John Board, who has served as a city commissioner in the Stewart administration, urged a yes vote to “help New Britain adopt 21st-century public administration best practices.” Board, however, acknowledged transparency problems with a “catchall” Question 2: “A lot of the recent chatter I’ve heard around town has been related to the process of how the final questions are structured and presented — those discussions absolutely have merit. Personally, Treasurer Danny Salerno’s approach of considering that question two be separated into a third question or more detailed provided would have given the greatest level of transparency for voters.”
State law (Sec.9-369b) requires the Town and City Clerk to print and disseminate “concise explanatory texts or other printed material with respect to local proposals or questions approved for submission to the electors at a referendum.” Each explanatory text, says state law, shall specify the intent and purpose of each proposal or question. In the July 19th New Britain Herald the Town and City Clerk, in apparent conformance with the law, published the charter amendments and strike throughs (deletions) in a small-type, two-page spread without any “concise explanatory texts.”
Officials have made assurances that prior to November 8th the public will be officially informed about the content of all the charter changes with explanatory literature for voters at the polls and in public notices.
Misleading Referendum Proposes High Level Patronage JobTo Manage Municipal Government
by John McNamara
NEW BRITAIN – Creating a new chief operating officer to manage the municipality and making town clerk and tax collector jobs appointed instead of elected offices are big and very different questions for a referendum vote in November.
Voters, however, won’t have a choice if they favor one change but not another. Both proposed changes are rolled up into one innocuous question that deliberately obscures what could be the most significant revisions to the city charter in a generation.
In June the Common Council, at the behest of the Mayor’s office, accepted recommendations for City Charter change from a five-member charter commission, but did not adhere to the Commission’s breakdown of specific questions for the ballot on all the changes: “Shall the remainder of the changes to the City Charter, as recommended by the Charter Revision Commission, be approved? Yes or No”
Creation of a chief operating officer for the daily management of the city government within the scope of the office of mayor.
Appointment of the Tax Collector and Town and City Clerk positions instead of by popular vote beginning in 2025
Mandating a charter revision commission at least every five years.
Changing the Director of the Water Department title to “Deputy Director of Public Works Utilities”
Updating language and removal of inactive commissions and committees.
By contrast the Common Council let stand the wording from the charter commission on what the composition of the 15-member Common Council should be. The ballot question clearly asks if five at large councilors can be dropped in favor of three members from each ward under the minority representation law.
Whether the city should have a COO or appoint rather than elect the tax collector and town clerk deserves broad awareness, public discussion and, above all, clear language on the ballot questions. But the Council majority, doing the bidding of Mayor Stewart, has ensured there’ll be no clear language on the ballot. When Justin Dorsey, Mayor Stewart’s Chief of Staff, was asked by a former elected official why the charter questions were combined, he reportedly gave the flimsy excuse that the ballot would have to be printed on two sides.
Inserting a COO job into the charter to perform mayoral duties is likely to raise concerns in a city with a strong mayor-council form of government and growing concerns over debt obligations. Voters will need to get to the fine print to understand what the vague ballot question involves short of hearing about it in a vigorous public awareness campaign.
In a recent New Britain Herald Op-Ed, Mayor Stewart insisted that the public will find out what’s on the ballot if they read her column. “I will use this column over the next couple of months to go into more detail about a different aspect of the proposed Charter revisions.”
The Mayor should be asked to justify the move to create an executive job to perform mayoral duties. The COO proposal comes on the heels of a 12.5% salary hike for the Mayor from $87,971 to just under $100,000 ($99,027) in the fiscal year that began July 1. The mayor’s pay hike is not the issue here. Arguably, some sort of increase has been overdue for some time. At issue is the padding of the City Hall bureaucracy with a patronage job in the Mayor’s office within a City Hall with high level managers in all city departments. If approved the new charter language creating a chief administrative officer would, in effect, turn the running of the city over to a city manager performing mayoral duties but retaining the full-time mayor. Presumably a COO’s salary would be equal to or likely exceed the mayor’s salary adding a another six figure post to the Mayor’s office that is not directly accountable to voters. In other communities comparable to New Britain with a COO or appointed manager, there’s customarily a “weak” and ceremonial Mayor without the six figure salary. In 2023, a COO would further add to the budget in the Office of the Mayor that under Erin Stewart has increased salaries for all positions by 27% over the last five years, going from $325,146 in 2019 to $414,027 in the 2022-23 fiscal year.
Setting aside the merits of the charter changes, the Common Council’s failure to adopt clear and concise ballot questions in the Commission report is a blow to transparency and has undermined the charter revision process. Those of us opposed to a politically appointed Chief Operating Officer but very much for a Civil Service appointed tax collector and clerk have been disenfranchised.
Fuzzy Charter Question Will Keep Many Voters in the Dark
by John McNamara
New Britain voters will be deciding much more than who should be the Governor and making their picks for other elective offices on November 8th. City charter revisions will, if approved, make the biggest changes in a generation as to how Connecticut’s eighth largest city is governed.
On June 22nd the Common Council accepted the recommendations of the Charter Commission whose five members held hearings and meetings this year to amend the charter for the first time since a 2016 referendum was held. The Commission, chaired by former Alderwoman Sharon Beloin Saavedra, straightforwardly proposed four major changes for referenda that could be considered by voters on their merits and that would take effect next January.
On the composition of the Common Council the Commission called for ending the five at large seats on the 15-member council and electing three members per ward under the minority representation law. That resulted in the Council approving one of the two questions adopted: “Shall the Common Council be comprised of fifteen (15) members, consisting of three (3) members elected from each of the five (5) Common Council Districts, with the minority party requirements of the Connecticut General Statutes applying to each of the five (5) Common Council Districts separately?
On other significant changes the Charter Commission specified three specific questions for the ballot:
2) Shall the positions of Revenue Collector and the Town and City Clerk be changed from elected to civil service, appointed positions? (effective 2025)
3) Shall an appointed Chief Operations Officer, who shall report directly to the Mayor, be responsible for the daily management of certain City functions?
4) Shall the remainder of the changes to the Charter as recommended by the Charter Revision Commission be approved, which changes include a provision requiring periodic Charter review every five years at a minimum?
The Mayor and her Council majority, however, abandoned the Commission’s language in favor of an imprecise, “housekeeping” ballot question that gives no hint on what changes are proposed: “Shall the remainder of the changes to the city charter, as recommended by the charter revision commission be approved?”
Transparency and directness have been thrown out by Mayor Stewart and her Council caucus in the wording of the second charter referendum question and voters will be deprived of a clear idea of the big changes they will be asked to approve when they get in the voting booth or vote absentee notwithstanding the opportunity to read the little noticed fine print. The situation is akin to the tactic used by the Stewart administration in the 2016 charter referendum when multiple changes were made to the charter in a “housekeeping” question that went far beyond language changes. In a separate question that year a four-year mayoral term was comfortably rejected by voters.
Hidden in the “remainder of the changes” question is making the tax collector and town clerk jobs appointive rather than elected through a civil service process. More controversial is the creation of a six-figure Chief Operating Officer (COO)– the equivalent of a city manager – to handle executive duties that by charter are now the responsibility of the Mayor with the Mayor having appointment (patronage) powers in filling the position. It’s debatable whether such a post belongs in the city charter when a Council resolution could accomplish the same thing. The move by the Stewart administration also comes shortly after the Mayor’s annual salary got a double digit percentage increase and a process was established to hike elected officials’ pay on a regular basis. The COO job amendment, like appointing Clerk and Tax Collector via Civil Service, needed a separate ballot question just as the Charter Commission stated in its final report.
Assurances, of course, have been made that the city will fully disclose the content of all the charter changes with explanatory literature for voters at the polls and in public notices. State law (Sec.9-369b) requires the Town and City Clerk to print and disseminate “concise explanatory texts or other printed material with respect to local proposals or questions approved for submission to the electors at a referendum.” Each explanatory text, says state law, shall specify the intent and purpose of each proposal or question.
The City is not off to a very “concise” start in fulfilling the public’s right to know. In the July 19th New Britain Herald the city, in conformance with the law, published the charter amendments and strike throughs (deletions) in a small-type, two-page spread. For those of a certain age or visual acuity a magnifying glass will be needed to identify amendments buried in the text. Town and City Clerk Mark Bernacki will presumably do better in preparing posters for the polling places.
Two City Charter questions will be on the ballot on November 8th to vote up or down. While changing the Common Council to 15 district representatives is clear in the first question. The Mayor and Republican caucus are deliberately keeping voters in the dark on the second question. This warrants a “No” from any voter wanting to vote on the merits of each major proposal.
28% Turnout Continues A Downward Trend In Voting For Local OfficeHolders
By John McNamara
“Money is the mother’s milk of politics” goes the observation first coined in the 1960s that applies to almost every state and federal election cycle as all kinds of committees and special interests raise billions in reported and anonymous donations.
That old saying about money in politics applies less frequently to local elections where votes are more easily won (or should be) on the ground and neighbor to neighbor without big outlays for media and consultants. You can’t say that about New Britain’s 2021 municipal election when the money race accelerated, voter participation declined and the status quo at City Hall was overwhelmingly sustained.
Last year marked the first time in memory that turnout dropped below 30 percent while mayoral campaign money for the November 2 election exceeded $30 for every vote cast. New Britain is not alone in a decline in voter participation for local elections, especially in mid- and large-sized cities. Cities across the state and nation continued to register lower turnouts last year. But by bottoming out at 28%, New Britain fell below the already dismal 32.13% statewide turnout.
Last year marked the first time in memory that turnout dropped below 30 percent while mayoral campaign money for the November 2 election exceeded $30 for every vote cast
Incumbent Erin Stewart handily won a fifth term over State Rep. Bobby Sanchez (D-25) and swept a Council majority in with her as a super majority of eligible voters failed to show up.
Because of a Presidential Year bounce in 2020, there were 2,270 more eligible voters in 2021 than in 2019. In her landslide win, however, Erin Stewart received fewer votes than the 2019 totals as the turnout gap widened between municipal and state and federal ballots.
Four mayoral campaigns involving three Democrats and Republican Stewart reported contributions totaling $384,900 by the end of 2021. The Democratic and Republican Town Committees added another $53,000 to the “off year” election cycle bringing the reported political cash to $437,900 to get out the vote. The totals do not include under ticket slate or candidate committees that drove donations well past $450,000.
Mayor Stewart’s “Re-Elect Erin” Committee raised $178,835 and spent $175,835. Stewart, tapping the advantages of incumbency, outpaced Bobby Sanchez’ fundraising by nearly $60,000. Sanchez’ committee raised and spent $116,518. Democratic mayoral challengers Veronica DeLandro and Alicia Strong raised another $90,000 combined. Strong raised and spent $21,000 in losing to the endorsed Sanchez in September’s primary. DeLandro’s committee raised approximately $69,000 but her committee failed to gather sufficient signatures to get on the primary ballot. DeLandro has subsequently formed her own “Bee The Change” political action committee (PAC), and may have converted a significant treasury into an ongoing PAC.
Last year’s surge in fundraising can be attributed to several factors. Incumbent Stewart did not take the potential of a serious and well-funded challenge for granted. She ramped up her fundraising and leaned into the perks that go with incumbency. “The Democrats showed early signs of political energy, with three determined candidates running for mayor.” observed a post-election story in The New Britain Progressive. “Whether that early momentum will continue into success in future elections remains to be seen, but it certainly did not manifest in the November elections in 2021.”
Stewart effectively pursued a Walnut Hill Park “Rose Garden strategy” in winning a fifth, two-year term. Few sparks flew between Stewart and Sanchez to stir voter interest with the incumbent largely ignoring the Democratic nominee. The incumbent even managed to ungracefully ignore a traditional League of Women Voters debate that would have been the only public forum of the campaign. Her salvos were directed at the school administration over social media related disruptions at the high school last fall making it seem at times that Erin Stewart was running against School Superintendent Nancy Sarra. For his part Sanchez earnestly pointed to his work as the Legislature’s Education Chair in delivering record amounts for school construction and school aid and called for a City Hall more responsive to neighborhoods. Stewart, meanwhile, cut the ribbon on renovations at the Chamberlain School and other developments in romping to a low-turnout victory.
While voter turnout in the 2020 Presidential Election was close to 70 per cent in the year of the pandemic in New Britain, the 2021 municipal race continued the widespread slide in the number of voters who elect local office holders. Some reformers at think tanks that study voting patterns have proposed aligning all elections from dog catcher to President to even numbered years for bigger turnouts. Legislatures or localities, however, show no signs of taking that step which involves a lengthy process of changing statutes and charters.
For New Britain it will surely take more than campaign dollars that were so plentiful last year to reverse that decline in voting in 2023.
Voter Participation In Last Three Municipal Elections In New Britain
2017 Voter Participation 30% | 31,899 Eligible and 9,684 Voting
2019 Voter Participation 32% | 31,205 Eligible and 9,945 Voting
2021 Voter Participation 28% | 33,475 Eligible and 9,333 Voting
Mayor Erin Stewart, however, used the disruption to immediately berate School Superintendent Nancy Sarra and educators for not cracking down enough on youthful offenders. The call to meet and work together came second only after Erin Stewart got her licks in on the campaign trail. Harsh criticism of educators is a central theme of Ms. Stewart’s re-election campaign. The NBHS incident was just an opening for the incumbent mayor to score political points at the expense of school officials dealing with Tik Tok-related misbehavior and parents wanting assurances that their children would be OK.
The Mayor’s social media response to the high school incident could be forgiven if it was a one off dispute between City Hall and the School District. The dialogue gets predictably contentious every year over local funding for schools as New Britain has ranked near the bottom on school spending during the Stewart years.
Mayor Stewart maintains that the schools need to “operate differently” before she’ll support additional city dollars for education. When Council Democrats proposed a meager $1 million increase in this year’s municipal budget Stewart and her Council Caucus opposed it. A $500,000 boost was OK’d but the City is holding onto that money four months into the fiscal year claiming that it has increased local aid to education without giving up a dime.
Stewart skewers the school district for being “dead last” in student achievement while her budgets give New Britain almost dead last ranking in how they support public education. Previously, the Mayor has expressed little concern or no concern over school achievement as she denies BOE requests each year. “In recent years, educators have said they need at least $5 million more than their regular budgets to catch up with similar districts. The nonpartisan School and State Finance Project last year reported that only Danbury spends less on each student than New Britain does, with even deeply impoverished systems like Bridgeport, Waterbury and Windham spending more,” according to a story by The Hartford Courant’s Don Stacom.
In her escalating feud with Sarra and the bipartisan Board of Education, Stewart employs Paul Salina, who has held a $90,000+ patronage job (interim director of operations) at City Hall since 2018. A former NBHS Principal and band leader who retired in 2003, Salina, 72, later returned to the public schools as an administrator before and after Kelt Cooper’s superintendency holding down a $146,000 operations officer job. When Superintendent Sarra reorganized and reduced administrative overhead, she reduced Salina’s role and salary. Salina retired again but quickly joined the Stewart administration with a vague and largely undefined strategy and policy role.
Within the last year the Stewart-Salina duo has ramped up the fight with the BOE on a range of issues from the hiring of a football coach to school funding to control of school construction leaving no space for any kind of cooperation.
The fight over the last year has primarily involved the School Building Committee (SBC) and the attempted hiring of another retired school official and colleague of Salina for an oversight job on the Chamberlain School renovation project.
“Relations between the Mayor’s office and the BOE, contentious over budget issues in most years, have become even more adversarial over the SBC’s move late last year to hire Ray Moore, a retired school facilities director and a colleague of Paul Salina, as a consultant or “construction representative” on the Chamberlain School project at a six-figure annualized salary. BOE President Merrill Gay, Vice Chair Nick Mercier and Dr. Violette Jimenez-Sims criticized the attempted hiring with “no request for proposals or bidding for this position,” asserting that the role could be filled with existing school staff to save money for other education needs. Intervention by the BOE’s attorney averted a full appointment of Moore at that time to the consultant post. Republican Mercier’s public opposition to hiring a consultant without BOE input and questioning the Stewart-controlled SBC also led to the Republican Town Committee’s ousting of Mercier in July for a nomination to a third term on the BOE. A longtime Republican activist and music teacher, Mercier will stand for re-election to the BOE as a petitioning candidate for his efforts at accountability on school construction issues. ” from New Britain Progressive, August 22, 2021;
The flap over the hiring of a Chamberlain project consultant demonstrates what is behind the barrage of attacks against Sarra and the school board which have become fodder for Team Stewart’s campaign of misinformation.
At issue is power, patronage and the special favors that Stewart and her cronies want and used to get but are not getting anymore. Nancy Sarra won’t have any part of the political games Stewart and Salina want to play. She and the current BOE’s Democratic and Republican members who have her back are resisting inappropriate power grabs from City Hall as they focus on the challenges of educating in a chronically under-funded urban school system.
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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