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.

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/