NB Politicus

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

By John McNamara

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

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

The unsigned communication in English and Spanish read:

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

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

carabetta

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

By John McNamara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Connecticut general statutes 9-610

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Inside City Hall: Stewart’s Civil Service Commission Abuses Power, Violates Charter

Posted in city government, city politics and government, ethics, Republicans by nbpoliticus on January 15, 2015

The Civil Service Commission’s  efforts to remove from office and impose fines on Council President Pro Tem Suzanne Bielinski over the Council’s hiring of her niece, Jessica   Gerratana.  as the Common Council secretary,  is a costly misuse of government for partisan purposes.

Ignoring  the City Charter , the Commission voted last  October 6th for the ouster of the long-serving  Bielinski  and  for a $2,500 fine on the alderwoman after  Commission members agreed to take up  a complaint and the unsubstantiated accusations of  Ward 5 Republican Ald. Louis Salvio.  The Commission’s latest gambit came last week when, upon advice of lawyers from  Murtha Cullina, it backed away from recommendations for  a $2,500 fine and the removal of Bielinski , referring the matter “informally”  to the Common Council for action, but still insisting on a $250 penalty.

Civil Service Commissioners, acting without a shred of legal standing  and with the tacit approval of the Stewart Administration and its Corporation Counsel,  attempted to set  itself up as judge and jury of Alderwoman Bielinski’s conduct. Despite high-paid legal advice to back off, the commission continued to double down on its illegitimate actions.

Nearly forgotten in this charade of an “investigation”  and abuse of power by the commission is the earlier decision by the city’s ethics commission to throw out Salvio’s complaint for insufficient evidence.  By charter and ordinance,   the ethics commission is the only municipal body sanctioned to consider conflicts of interest by the Mayor and Council members.

By retaining an outside firm to avoid any “conflict of interest” in advising the Civil Service Commission,   Corporation Counsel  Gennaro Bizzarro side-stepped his non-partisan responsibilities in favor of rewarding political friends.

His choice of a law firm reinforces the partisan nature of the Civil Service Commission’s actions against Bielinski.  Murtha Cullina’s partners are Republican-leaning, having represented New Britain Republicans in the Ward 5 ballot case in 2013 and serving as “observers” on Election Day last November in an intrusive attempt to challenge Democratic voters at the polls.

Attorney Bizzarro knows very well that one of the city’s full-time staff attorneys could have interpreted the City Charter and rendered  an opinion in a heartbeat.  The City Charter could not be clearer on this issue. A commission in the executive branch of government has no role in the censuring or removal of a Council member.

With litigation and a grievance pending Ald, Salvio and the Republicans are heading for the exits and doing damage control. The immediate and unfortunate result, however, is that legal costs to the city are likely to escalate by the tens of thousands of dollars because of the partisan use of government  by New Britain Republicans. It’s budget time and not a good time to be playing politics on the taxpayer’s dime

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Ethics Flap Prompts Billy Mac To Resign From Board; Salvio’s Complaint Called Another "Fishing Expedition"

Posted in city politics and government, ethics by nbpoliticus on February 18, 2009


The resignation of former Mayor William McNamara from the city ethics commission adds another partisan twist to the sorry state of affairs on a board charged with keeping municipal officials honest.

The Courant and Herald covered McNamara’s move this past week.

Billy Mac, a supporter of the incumbent Mayor and the emcee at Stewart’s inaugurals, derided a decision by the Common Council not to accept a ruling against Ald. Paul Catanzaro for participating in a Council discussion related to work at the Parks and Recreation Department. Republican Ald. Lou Salvio, a prolific filer of official complaints against Democrats, brought the original charge. On the first go around the ethics commission threw out the allegation. But it got a second life as the Herald’s James Craven reports:

A quorum of the commission dismissed the complaint 2-1, but on Dec. 22, commissioner Jill Kemp, a Republican, made a motion to reconsider the dismissal. During a Jan. 21 meeting, the commission heard testimony and added two letters to its investigation. After reviewing the material, Republican commissioners William Dworski, Jill Kemp and Carmelo Rodriguez, along with Democrats Kemp and McNamara, voted unanimously that Catanzaro be reprimanded for two violations.

The reconsideration has brought charges from Democrats that Salvio openly violated the ethics rules himself by disclosing information that is supposed to remain under wraps as part of the ethics process. And then there is the matter of Billy Mac himself. Members of the ethics commission, while they can contribute to political candidates, may not endorse or campaign for a candidate. By all accounts, former Mayor McNamara has been a public supporter of Stewart during his re-election bids.

All of this tit for tat, of course, doesn’t have much to do with grand lists, fiscal prudence, essential services and keeping the city afloat during one of the worst recession’s in anybody’s memory. Come to think of it, it may not have much to do with conflicts of interest or ethics either.

The allegation made against Catanzaro raises again the issue of what elected officials who are connected to the city by reason of employment can and can’t do in their elected capacities. This two-hatted group includes Mayor Stewart (on loan from the fire department), Alderwoman Tonilynn Collins (water department)and Catanzaro
(a rank and filer at parks & rec).

Salvio alleges that Catanzaro’s Council vote to have the city perform a landscaping job instead of a private contractor created a conflict because as an employee of Parks & Rec Catanzaro “would be benefiting himself.” Catanzaro, a city alderman with responsibilities on budget matters, says that he felt obligated to support the city doing the work “to save money.” He went further by saying he would not be involved in doing the work that was estimated as a two-day job with $120 in labor costs. But that’s not Catanzaro’s decision. It would be up to Parks Director Bill DeMaio or a supervisor to assign a worker to do the job, including Catanzaro if they so chose. And Catanzaro should have left well enough alone by excusing himself when the ethics report arrived this month.

The real issue is whether Catanzaro stood to directly gain financially from participating in the city versus private contractor vote. Did Salvio find a smoking gun? Was there a documented request by Catanzaro to his bosses that he wanted the work for himself and/or his union? The answer appears to be no, lending credence to the claim made by North-Oak Street neighborhood activist Rich Marzi at a February Council meeting that Salvio is engaging in “a fishing expedition.” Salvio admitted as much at a January 21st ethics hearing on the matter by saying he “now believes Catanzaro would not have benefited directly as a result of his actions,” according to a Herald story in the hearing.

This Salvio complaint follows a string of other complaints against Democratic members of the Common Council since Mayor Stewart, using his authority under a new charter, appointed a new ethics commission in 2004 at the start of his administration. A January 2004 Herald story “Stewart picks ethics panel” by Penny Riordan points to a Republican strategy of complaints aimed at Democratic aldermen and unionized city employees from the earliest days of Stewart’s administration. Rather than take a bipartisan approach to appointments, Stewart took absolute control. Not surprisingly, the Stewart-appointed commission has been unanimous in casting aspersions against Democratic aldermen.

The Commission also turned aside a complaint early on that, as an elected mayor connected to the city fire department, Stewart was required to file a statement with the ethics board so he could carry out his elected duties while on leave from regular city employment. Stewart never filed a statement despite specific requirements for a mayor that are set forth in the code of ethics.

Another complaint that alleged Stewart intervened in fire department personnel matters was also rejected by the ethics panel. Subsequently, Stewart and the city have lost labor board and court rulings by denying Firefighter Ed Preece a promotion despite Preece’ high exam scores. Preece was replaced by lower scoring candidates connected to the Mayor. And the case has cost the city a chunk of change for nothing in return.

If nothing else the controversies at the ethics board during the Stewart years have undermined a Commission that needs to be set up above the political frays that are an inevitable part of the process.

There are well-intended arguments that city employees should not be allowed to run for municipal offices as is the case with the state and state legislators. But that is not the case now. Stewart, Catanzaro and Collins were elected by voters with policy making and budget roles. They can and should recuse themselves if they or family members stands to directly benefit from their actions. Otherwise, let them govern.

By applying that standard, the latest complaint by Salvio has all the earmarks of a partisan and spontaneous attack on a fellow council member. Salvio’s actions have been aided and abetted by Mayor Stewart who keeps the make up and structure of the local ethics board under his thumb. He can go to work at City Hall knowing that he and members of his administration are above any ethics problems because he has the votes to make it so.

Billy Mac is right about one thing: it’s a waste of time to serve on the current ethics commission. The situation, however, leaves the city without a process to handle the real conflicts of interest that may be lurking at City Hall.