DeFronzo on City Charter Referendum: “No Thank You”

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.)

DeFronzo’s Assignment: An Agency Where "There Is Something For Everybody"

State Senator Don DeFronzo, an early supporter of Dan Malloy in the 2010 gubernatorial race, is heading for the state Department of Administrative Services (DAS). The agency DeFronzo will lead is generally not in the headlines but has evolved into an omnibus branch of the executive that is a key to how state government runs itself and does business with others.

Here is how the agency introduces itself:

DAS has statutory responsibilities and administrative authority in the areas of personnel recruitment, selection and workforce planning; fleet operations; state workers’ compensation administration; procurement of goods and services; collection of monies due the state; surplus property distribution; contractor prequalification and supplier diversity; consolidated human resources, payroll, fiscal and equal employment opportunity services for small agencies; as well as printing, mail and courier services for state government. 

In addition, we have proudly added to our agency the Claims Commission, the State Marshal Commission, the State Property Review Board, and the Insurance and Risk Management Board.  DAS is also a partner agency for Core-CT which is Connecticut state government’s integrated financial, human resources and payroll system.  The services we provide cross state agencies, municipalities, vendors, colleges and universities, non-profit organizations and the public at large.  There is something here for everybody.

As if that isn’t enough there are strong indications that Governor-elect Malloy may try to extend DAS’ responsibilities and give DeFronzo an even bigger portfolio to manage in the Departments of Information Technology (DOIT) and  Public Works (DPW).  Such a consolidation would be up to legislative approval in the General Assembly.

At issue is whether a bigger DAS would bring the efficiencies and savings sought by the new administration as it seeks to spend less and deliver services.

Strategic Bonding: Senate Dems Push "Jobs Now" Initiative

The federal stimulus program is getting credit for mitigating 2008’s economic free fall (Things would be worse without it). Recovery as defined by Wall Street financiers and their troika of Obama administration buddies –Rahm Emmanuel, Larry Summers and Tim Geithner — is well under way.

But the employment numbers and continuing slide in local tax revenues make for a “jobless recovery” in Connecticut through 2011 or perhaps beyond. Federal stimuli, even when the state manages to get all the new money in the pipeline, won’t solve a deep-seated problem.

“Over the last twenty years, Connecticut has seen perhaps the poorest job creation among all fifty states,” stated a UCONN Center for Economic Analysis report in November. “And in the last decade, most job growth came in health care, accommodation and food services, education, and government (especially local government). A broader perspective gives little hope that Connecticut will see the restoration of growth in jobs—let alone high‐wage jobs‐‐given current policy and economic development initiatives.”

State Comptroller Nancy Wyman, speaking to the New Britain Democratic Town Committee December 21st, confirmed CT’s troubles saying Connecticut is probably in the top three or four among state governments having the most trouble balancing the books in the current economy. Emerging mitigation steps, including cuts to the social safety net and more givebacks by state employees, will not address the structural problem that is measured by Wyman’s estimate of the loss of up to 80,000 jobs in recent years.

Last November’s Metro Hartford unemployment rate of just over eight percent understates the employment problem. In cities such as New Britain that official number is more like 12 percent — not including the discouraged workers and the under-employed thousands who are in the part-time work force.

Responding to the economic gloom, State Senator Donald DeFronzo and other state Senators have rolled out a “Connecticut Jobs Now” plan that would use $1 billion in state bonding to invest in transportation infrastructure, housing, energy conservation, clean water and higher education. Picking up where the federal stimulus won’t go, state Senate Dems describe the policy as “an aggressive plan to create jobs, stimulate Connecticut’s sluggish economy and promote economic recovery.”

States DeFronzo: “Connecticut needs jobs, and needs them now; we have a responsibility to create and sustain jobs in our state. The unemployment rate in Connecticut is 8.2 percent; construction industry employment is upwards of 25 percent. Our current market conditions offer an unprecedented opportunity for the state to make wise capital investments in new facilities, clean water projects, roads and bridges, mass transit and many other projects that could be bid and under construction in a very short period of time.” DeFronzo is Senate Chairman of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee and General Bonding subcommittee.

“Connecticut Jobs Now”, promising a 12-month push to create 16,000 jobs, calls for the funding of only those projects that were previously authorized. Wyman and other state officials would most certainly oppose any new bonding given the high levels of current debt incurred by state government from the Rowland/Rell years. The Jobs Now strategy calls for allocation of those projects that could be implemented within 90 to 120 days. Several state agencies, including the state Department of Transportation and Department of Public Works have already developed project lists that meet the recommended criteria.

“The state and federal government need to spark more private investment and job creation, and we can do that by re-prioritizing our existing bond authorizations to complete shovel-ready projects,” Senator Jonathan Harris (D-West Hartford) said. “We don’t need to authorize any more bonding — we just need to invest it differently. And we need to do this immediately.”

Governor Rell, who controls the state’s bonding agenda, has not responded to the Senate Dems proposal sent to her in a December 18th letter. Whether she will buy into a strategic call to get moving on bond projects already authorized but not acted on by her bond commission is uncertain. Given the state’s lackluster job creation efforts since the early 1990s, “Jobs Now” and similar ideas should be the dominant concern among those who are trying to succeed Rell. It’s not a cliche to say “it’s the economy stupid” in 2010.