NB Politicus

COO Patronage Job, End To Elections Of Clerk and Tax Collector Are On The Nov. 8 Ballot

Posted in City Charter, city politics and government, New Britain by nbpoliticus on July 20, 2022

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?

City Charter Amendment Excerpt published in New Britain Herald July 19th

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.

Campaign dollars soared in ’21 municipal election but voter participation declined

Posted in Campaign Finance, city politics and government, Voting by nbpoliticus on March 27, 2022

28% Turnout Continues A Downward Trend In Voting For Local Office Holders

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.

Despite campaign cash aplenty voter turnout continued a decline in the 2021 municipal election. (newbritainprogressive.com)

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

Behind Mayor Stewart’s War On Supt. Sarra and the BOE

By John McNamara

The vandalism and trouble that occurred at New Britain High School in September needlessly escalated the rift between Mayor Erin Stewart and New Britain School District leaders.

Incidents of student misbehavior fueled by social media have not been limited to New Britain as districts in CT and elsewhere re-opened this fall.

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.

Erin Stewart and Paul Salina in a recent campaign mailer.

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 Return of Tim Stewart: Ex-Mayor Chairs SBC As $50M School Project Begins”

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.


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?