NB Politicus

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

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.)

 

 

 

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.

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