NB Politicus

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/

Stewart Seeks To Exclude BOE, Common Council From Approving Use Of School Construction Money

Posted in Bonding, City Hall, public education, school board, School Construction by nbpoliticus on March 8, 2021

By John McNamara

The Stewart Administration, blocked in recent months by a bipartisan Board of Education (BOE) and city ordinance from filling a political patronage job on a new school construction project, will seek to remove  Common Council and BOE authority on school construction spending handing the final say over to the seven-member School Building Committee (SBC) appointed by the Mayor.

A resolution filed by the Republican caucus Majority Leader Daniel Salerno and Alderwoman Sharon Beloin-Saavedra at the March 10th Council meeting would alter the membership of the SBC, by dropping Common Council appointments.  It would further cede approval to “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 ” to the School Building Committee. The existing ordinance requires  approval by the BOE and Common Council.

CITY HALL WATCH

The hiring of a construction representative for the Chamberlain Elementary School renovation project and re-roofing projects at Pulaski and Slade Middle Schools sparked controversy last year when the SBC selected Ray Moore, the former Schools’ facilities director, to be a construction representative at a six-figure salary shortly after he retired from his job at the schools.  Former NBHS Principal and retired School Administrator Paul Salina, who is the Stewart appointed Director of Support Services at City Hall, reportedly pushed hard for Moore, his former colleague, to get the lucrative construction representative’s position. 

BOE members, however, objected to the Moore hiring saying a newly-hired Facilities Director in the School District could handle oversight of the Chamberlain renovation without the added costs. “We try to save as much as city-wide taxpayer money as possible.” BOE Member Violette Jimenez Sims told the New Britain Herald’s Catherine Shen in a November 24th story. “For me, I would rather spend the money that would directly impact the children that they can use forever and ever and not spending it on a redundant service.” 

The Moore hire was subsequently set aside after BOE Attorney Patrick McHale asserted that state statutes and the ordinance gave the BOE the right of approval of the construction manager who answers to the SBC.

For all its clout in allocating and contracting tens of millions of dollars for school construction the School Building Committee is a relatively obscure municipal government committee.  It’s not easily found on the city website’s link to boards and commissions.   Its Chairperson, Frances Wolski, has been a member for multiple two-year terms during the Stewart administrations. The committee has seven members but two seats are vacant as of February.   The Committee’s most prominent member in recent years has been former Mayor Timothy Stewart, a position of influence he held during his daughter’s first two terms until his mysogynistic social media rants ended his tenure on the committee and as head of the Chamber of Commerce.

Last year the Council approved $57 million for the Chamberlain renovation and re-roofing projects contingent on state reimbursements.  State Representative Bobby Sanchez (D-25), the Chair of the Legislature’s Education Committee, has successfully worked to get a 95% reimbursement from the state for a renovated Chamberlain School in the east end and roof upgrades to two middle schools.

The proposed School Building Committee resolution is certain to raise new concerns by Common Council Democrats over the propriety of removing Council and BOE checks and balances on school construction.  School construction projects involve millions of dollars in state bond and local funds that need to be allocated with competitive bidding and full transparency, which is what the existing ordinance ensures.  Ceding all power now to the Mayor’s office and the Mayoral appointed SBC creates a process that will eliminate oversight by elected BOE and Council members.

Related Story:  School Building Committee Pick For Architect of Smalley Academy Renovation Has Its Share of Troubles.

Related Story from New Britain Herald  Construction Bill Will Fund Three New Britain School Projects

 

 

 

 

New Britain Is Using Two Ballot Drop Boxes At City Hall For Now: Legislators Get Two More OK’d For Heavy Presidential Turnout

Posted in 2020 Election, Voting Rights by nbpoliticus on October 4, 2020

By John McNamara | nbpoliticus.com

With absentee ballots expected to be mailed to voters in the coming days for the November 3rd Presidential Election, New Britain election officials are using two ballot drop boxes at New Britain City Hall. With an expected uptick in absentee voting because of COVID 19,  two more have been made available to the city by Secretary of the State Denise Merrill.

Republican Town and City Clerk Mark Bernacki told me that two drop boxes have been installed for both the August Primary and November election in accordance with the Secretary of the State’s requirements. One is outside City Hall’s main door at 27 West Main Street for “24/7 public access” and the other is outside the Clerk’s Office which is available during regular business hours.  Bernacki says the box outside his ground floor office is where walk-in voters may submit applications and ballots “in order to practice safe, social distancing in a busy lobby.” Both applications and the actual ballots may be dropped in the boxes instead of sending them by U.S. Mail.

In early September, Democratic State Representatives Rick Lopes, Peter Tercyak and Bobby Sanchez asked Secretary of the State Merrill for additional drop boxes for the City of New Britain and the request was granted. 

Democratic Registrar of Voters Lucian Pawlak and Democratic city councillors have reportedly urged Bernacki to deploy at least one more ballot drop box elsewhere in the city to expand access and make voting easier for a Presidential election where turnouts can exceed 70% compared to city and state elections where voter participation is significantly lower. Greater use of drop boxes was raised at September’s Democratic Town Committee meeting as local campaigns address the challenge of getting out the vote amid COVID 19 conditions. Firehouse and school locations have been suggested. So far Bernacki is confining use of the drop boxes to City Hall and is reluctant to set up more citing insufficient personnel and time constraints to  collect applications and ballots elsewhere.

“It would be very disappointing if the City Clerk did not use this opportunity to assist New Britain residents in accessing their right to vote,” said Rep. Lopes who is the Democratic candidate for 6th District State Senator. “It’s not asking too much to check a drop box once a day.  This pandemic has asked many sacrifices from all people. As public servants we need to accept the fact that when times are tough, we need to work harder and complain less.  I would ask that we all come together to find a way to help people vote instead of trying to find ways to not help.”

Election officials stress that all polling places will be open on November 3rd at their normal times from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. The city has received federal funds to run the election to address the costs of voting amid a pandemic. “With 17 polling places, the registrar’s office is already planning on hiring more poll workers for Election Day and making sure everyone feels safe, which is the biggest challenge, The New Britain Herald’s Catherine Shen reported on September 25th. “They are also doubling up on absentee ballot counters to respond to the expected high influx of mail in ballots.”

Using ballot drop boxes as an alternative to the Post Office has become an ever more contentious issue in battleground states where voter suppression tactics by Republicans have gone into overdrive.

Last week Texas Governor Greg Abbott severely restricted the number of ballot boxes per county and a voter rights’ suit has been filed over an edict clearly designed to block voter turnout in urban and minority areas. Texas and other states also allow early voting in addition to voting by mail, an option that won’t be available to CT voters until a constitutional change occurs.

“Republicans are making it hard to vote even where drop boxes are set up and working,” according to a Washington Monthly story about the “GOP’s multi-front war on voting.” The report said: “In Ohio, for example, each county’s drop box will be located outside of that county’s board of elections buildings. That sounds innocuous enough, but consider Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati. It recently moved its board of elections site from downtown Cincinnati to the northern part of the city, making it much harder to access without a car.”

 

 

 

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.