Transparency has been one of, if not the largest complaint this Board of Representatives has had with this Mayor (Reform Stamford has specifically raised this issue, although this complaint is far from limited to their members). Time and time again, it seems as though the Mayor makes a decision, foists it upon the Board, and expects them to go along without their involvement or input into the process.
Even when the Mayor's decision is a good one, the Mayor's failure to communicate his process, and involve additional city stakeholders, hamstrings his ability to effectively lead. I am thinking specifically of the decision to approve repairing the West Main Street Bridge for pedestrians only with State money, which, substantively, seemed to me a common-sense decision (why not take the state money, fix the long-inoperable bridge, and move on?). However, it only squeaked by the Board of Representatives 21–19, because the Mayor brought it up for approval at the last minute, with a seemingly artificial deadline to make the decision, lest the city lose the grant supporting the repairs. There are other examples I could list as well.
And thus history repeats itself with regard to Chris Murtha, the current deputy chief of the Prince George’s County Police Department in Maryland, who is up for nomination to be Stamford’s new chief of police. The Board of Representatives' Appointments Committee voted not to confirm him this past Tuesday by a six-to-one count against (with one abstention), and he goes to the full Board of Representatives for a vote this upcoming Monday, where his fate does not seem much more promising.
Before this search process began, the Mayor HAD to have known there are many members of the Board of Reps—including Democrats—who would give his nomination for chief of police little benefit of the doubt. He should have worked in advance to address these problems before proceeding with his search for a new police chief.
As these pages have documented, and as is obvious to anyone with a passing familiarity with this Board of Representatives, the Mayor faces significant, repeated dissent from more than a dozen Democrats on the Board of Representatives. And this is far from being limited to the eight members of Reform Stamford (really just seven, as Rep. Figueroa (D-8) more often than not sides with the Mayor): Reps. de la Cruz (D-2); Adams (D-3); Pratt (D-9); Liebson (D-11); Zelinksy (D-11); and Lutz (D-14); these are just six non-Reform Democrats who vote consistently against the Mayor. There are multiple others who are only with him about half of the time.
Search committees, as I understand them, are by their nature confidential. It would be damaging both to the members of the committee, and especially those candidates being vetted (who, remember, are currently employed, and would like to remain in good standing with their current employers if not ultimately chosen), if the deliberations taken place in a search committee were made public. It is very possible that the committee the Mayor convened which ultimately recommended Mr. Murtha is the most ordinary thing in the world.
If so, it is clear the Mayor failed to communicate this to the Board of Representatives. It is further clear he otherwise failed to involve them in this process in a manner which they would have found sufficient. Their vote is a much a rejection of the process to choose Mr. Murtha as it is a rejection on the merits. I do not think Monday’s full vote should be taken as a referendum on Mr. Murtha’s character or ability to lead the police department, but rather a rejection of this Mayor's leadership style and nomination process.
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As to Mr. Murtha, he is ultimately a pawn caught in a continuing struggle between the Mayor and the Board of Representatives. As one Representative likely to vote against approval indicated to me, they feel "genuinely bad" for Mr. Murtha, who is "not a monster," but nonetheless feels too much doubt has been generated with the public to have a new police chief take office under these circumstances.
It cannot be forgotten in this process that Mr. Murtha too is a person; who should be treated with fairness and respect; who has a wife and children, a career, and friends and extended family, and will carry on living his life having gone through this nomination process, whether or not he is confirmed. Having empathy for Mr. Murtha—as I hope anyone reading this has—does not of course obligate you to vote in favor of him, or otherwise support his nomination. But we must not forget that government is ultimately a business driven by its people. And if we treat our nominees (our people) too shabbily, we may find the number of quality people who desire to work for the city dwindles and dwindles.
As to Mr. Murtha's qualifications: I don't know him from Joe Public, other than that he was chosen by the Mayor's search committee from hundreds if not thousands of possible choices. I also do not know Jim Matheny, the seeming favorite of Stamford residents who have weighed in publicly on the issue, and who appears to be very highly regarded, including by my Team Stamford co-founder. (It is worth noting that the Board of Representatives does not face a binary choice between Mr. Murtha and Mr. Matheny, but rather between Mr. Murtha and resuming the search process.)
As to the unproven allegations of racial discrimination lodged against Mr. Murtha and his current police department, as a lawyer myself (sorry to mention it, but I think actually relevant here), the following two points I believe are most salient. First, it is as fundamental as any other concept in the American justice system that everyone is entitled to the presumption of innocence, and, so long as the search committee did its own diligence on the allegations (as I understand they have), the allegations should be discounted almost entirely unless and until either (a) further information emerges to the contrary, or (b) a finder of fact rules against him, or the police department he serves.* Second, I have seen firsthand in private practice that it is the rule, and not the exception, to gratuitously name individual defendants as a means of harassment, and to gain leverage in litigation, even when the allegations of wrongdoing are ultimately frivolous. My impression is that the likelihood of Mr. Murtha being found guilty in his individual capacity of racial discrimination in the Prince George’s County proceeding is exceedingly low.
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If I was on the Board, I would likely be a "yes" on Mr. Murtha, if only for the fundamental reason that I believe the Mayor deserves significant deference when choosing his cabinet members and other high-level city officials. We elect the Mayor to lead the city; accordingly, absent very serious reservations, we should allow the Mayor to choose his or her people, such that the Mayor owns the consequences of those decisions. To force upon the Mayor a second-choice candidate, when both Mayor and candidate know they are not their preferred partner, weakens the ability of the Mayor and the candidate to work together moving forward for the benefit of the city and its people.**
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*Yes, I know the Board of Representatives is not "trying" him in any legal sense, and that his liberty is not at stake, but the principle remains the same. We are in a dangerous place if mere allegations of wrongdoing can sink a promotion. In particular, an allegation of this sort is almost impossible to wholly exonerate oneself from—it presents the proverbial problem of "proving a negative." In any event, if it wasn't allegations of racial discrimination, I think it likely that many members of the Board would have found something else to latch onto as justification for rejecting any nominee they feel resulted from a flawed process.
**I also wonder whether it is possible to hold his nomination until the legal process in Maryland can further play out. To the extent any Representative's vote hinges on the resolution of those proceedings, or at least on further factfinding with regard to them, so long as Mr. Murtha is comfortable with it, I see no harm in delaying the vote on him such that he can clear his name.