How is your Representative voting?
About this time last year, Team Stamford produced a chart showing the aggregate voting records of the 40 members of the Board of Representatives when compared with how the Mayor wanted them to vote on significant issues before the Board. Our records indicate that chart accounted for the first eight votes we recorded from the 30th Board of Representatives (i.e., the Board whose first meeting was December 4, 2017), which covered everything in the year 2018.
Now, back by popular demand, we have updated this chart through January 6, 2020, to show the aggregate voting percentage of each of our Reps with or against the Mayor. This time, we have 25 recorded votes: more than three times the number included in our chart from last year (although two of these votes are not included in the aggregation, because we didn’t believe it practical to assign a “Mayor’s preference” to the vote on whether to cut the Board of Education budget or pass a resolution to call for laws to prevent further gun violence).
A note on methodology: we reviewed the minutes from each meeting of the Board of Representatives, and made a judgment call as to which votes were material enough to be included in our analysis. Perhaps we could have done better at the margins, but we are confident the votes included provide a fair and representative sample as to how our Representatives are generally voting on matters before the Board.
*Replaced by Rep. Palomba in December 2019
**Replaced by Rep. Florio in December 2019
***Defeated by Rep. Curtis in November 2019 special election
At least three interesting observations can be drawn from developments in the past year.
First, the group of Democrats on the Board generally opposed to the administration, including 7 of the 8 original members of “Reform Stamford” group of Democrats, have consolidated as the largest voting “bloc” on the Board, now up to 14 members. Both Democrats in Districts 9 and 11, as well as one each in 3, 13, 14 can generally be relied upon to vote against the Mayor, in addition to all original members of “Reform” (with the exception of Rep. Figueroa (D-8), who can generally be counted on to vote with the administration).
Second, the Republicans have consolidated in a generally pro-administration position, especially in the past year. Rep. Mahoney (R-20) is now only the 18th member of the Board most opposed to the Mayor; Rep. McMullen (R-18), around the 21st. Around this time last year, they were the 6th and 3rd most likely votes against the Mayor, respectively. Meanwhile, the two other Republicans most opposed to the administration are no more: Rep. Graziosi (D-13) switched his party back to Democrat, and Rep. Kolenberg (R-16) resigned his seat before beginning graduate school in England. And while it’s too early to say how newly-appointed Reps. Palomba (R-16) and Florio (R-18) are voting, on their first two votes, they’ve been in line with the Republican caucus and the administration.
A year ago, we wondered if Reform Stamford would team up with Republicans to pose a check on the Mayor’s agenda. In fact, largely the opposite has happened, as the Republicans have teamed up with the Mayor and the establishment Democrats to support the Mayor’s agenda.
As could be repeated ad nauseum, local politics really aren’t partisan in the way state or national politics are.
Third, there appears to have developed four rough voting “blocs” on the Board, set forth below in order of each bloc’s history of voting with the Mayor: (1) Establishment Democrats; (2) Republicans; (3) Independent Democrats; and (4) Anti-Establishment Democrats.
Establishment Democrats (11) 1. Lila Wallace (D-5) 2. Gloria DePina (D-5) 3. Lindsey Miller (D-7) 4. Monica DiCostanzo (D-7) 5. Anabel Figueroa (D-8) 6. Jonathan Jacobson (D-12) 7. Eric Morson (D-13) 8. Benjamin Lee (D-15) 9. Matthew Quinones (D-16) 10. Bob Lion (D-19) 11. Susan Nabel (D-20)
Republicans (7) 1. David Watkins (R-1) 2. Bradley Michelson (R-1) 3. Gary Palomba (R-16) 4. Mary Fedeli (R-17) 5. J.R. McMullen (R-18) 6. Chuck Florio (R-18) 7. Dennis Mahoney (R-20)
Independent Democrats (8) 1. Virgil de la Cruz (D-2) 2. Elise Coleman (D-3) 3. Annie Summerville (D-6) 4. Denis Patterson (D-6) 5. Philip Giordano (D-10) 6. Mavina Moore, Sr. (D-10) 7. Jeff Curtis (D-14) 8. Tom Pendell (D-15)
Anti-Establishment Democrats (14) 1. Ines Saftic (D-2) 2. Terry Adams (D-3) 3. Robert Roqueta (D-4) 4. Megan Cottrell (D-4) 5. Nina Sherwood (D-8) 6. Rodney Pratt (D-9) 7. Jeffrey Stella (D-9) 8. Alice Liebson (D-11) 9. John Zelinsky (D-11) 10. Marion McGarry (U-12) 11. Anzelmo Graziosi (D-13) 12. Diane Lutz (D-14) 13. Marc Aquila (D-17) 14. Raven Matherne (D-19)
These categories are not an exact science, of course, and they are meant to be descriptive, not evaluative, so kindly hold your complaints if you feel categorized incorrectly. (As an aside, careful observers will notice that I carried 12/14 of the anti-establishment Democrats, and 6/8 of the independent Democrats in my bid for election to the Board of Finance, but not a single sitting Republican or establishment Democrat.)
The above three developments are incredibly strange for a number of reasons.
If you speak to the Mayor and many people in his administration, they often sound like Republicans. I had the opportunity to meet with the Mayor before the Board of Finance election, and his concerns significantly overlap with mine, including legacy unfunded pension liabilities which state law makes exceedingly difficult to reform. The Mayor even added an additional concern: the difficulty in finding qualified leadership for our city’s departments and agencies, an issue with which I don’t have much personal experience, but seems highly plausible. And Michael Handler, the Mayor’s Director of Administration, was appointed by a Republican mayor, ran for governor as a Republican on the platform of his work reforming Stamford’s union contracts, and is now spearheading a school infrastructure funding initiative which aims to save money in part by utilizing private sector instead of public union labor. Those talking points are catnip for Republicans.
But, if you listen to the anti-establishment Democrats, their concerns also sound like those of Republicans. They often complain of increasing taxes and spending and a lack of transparency with city government. They are reliable votes against incremental spending, as they largely opposed budget increases for the Board of Education or the Mill River Collaborative. They supported a top-line budget cut of $1.4 million from the 2018–19 city-side budget.
So, what is the disconnect? Both voting blocs at least sound like they want Republican governance, but don’t know how to get there. And why are the Republicans voting with establishment Democrats?
“Local government is just a way for smart townies to get wealthy at the expense of the rest of the townies.” These words come from a friend whose father is the mayor of a small town. Saying nothing about his father’s fitness for elected office, I think my friend’s observation is spot-on. In Stamford, we have a privileged class of bureaucrats, city workers, and private contractors, receiving outsized salaries and benefits, and not doing enough work to earn their compensation.
Of course, there are exceptions to this observation. But a cursory glimpse at the annual list of city employee salaries leaves little doubt this is true as a general matter. We also have a well-to-do cohort of upper-middle class professionals who game the system for special privileges for themselves, their families, and their businesses, particularly with regard to work bid out by the city to private contractors, zoning exemptions and enforcement, and accessing special education spending.
As discussed previously, the vast majority of our city’s spending is on autopilot. Between the collective bargaining apparatus Hartford imposes on cities, Hartford’s unfunded mandates with regard to the education of our city’s English language learner and special education students, and the secular rise in health care costs for employers across every sector, virtually all of the year-over-year increase in Stamford’s budget is driven by costs well outside of the control of the Board of Representatives, the Board of Finance, or even the Mayor. The disputes that come before that Board almost never materially influence how much money the city spends (although the proposed school infrastructure funding reform is a rare exception). They are often technocratic, non-ideological disputes about what is the best way for the city to operate. And sometimes they come down to simple question of “do you trust or not trust the administration?”, a question for which the various voting blocs will have wildly disparate answers.
These realities pose barriers to responsible city government, but tools remain available to our elected officials genuinely interested in reform.
If you want to clean up Stamford’s city government, reverse the stagnation of property values, the increase in property taxes, decreasing provision of city services, and middling reputation of the public school system (an unfair reputation in many respects, as educational outputs are generally system-independent and based on the qualifications of students themselves), here are some of the ways I think it might be done. Note that these are just ideas, and subject to further scrutiny, may be great, terrible, or somewhere in between.
1. Investigations and evaluation reports of city employees and private contractors hired by the city to make sure taxpayers are getting what they are paying for. A few examples: a. Year in and year out, certain teachers find themselves on extended leave, and the city is forced to pay long-term subs to replace them. b. Maintenance staff at our schools have been known to delay cleaning during school hours, so they can stay after and collect overtime. c. I have seen certain outside legal counsel in action before the Board of Finance. I am not impressed.
2. Random audits of overtime pay earned from every single employee group. a. Our overtime costs are out of control, and I am very skeptical that much of the overtime work performed is actually necessary.
3. Imposition of a “public impact fee” from developers. a. When land is re-zoned from industrial to multi-family, it increases greatly in value. Often, that increase is being captured almost exclusively by developer interests. While I generally don’t think it comes at the expense of the rest of Stamford’s residents, we should try to share in the windfall.
4. Increase the budget for zoning enforcement, to ensure quality of life is maintained in every neighborhood in our city.
5. Closer scrutiny of special education funding used to enroll students at out-of-district schools.
6. Aggressive lobbying of our state and federal officials for funding to offset education spending driven by immigration.
Many of these things require leadership and a little politicking from the Mayor, a task for which he has demonstrated himself largely unsuitable. Which is too bad, because the Mayor has done a very good job being prudent with our city’s finances. He is a really smart and sober leader. I said during my interview for Board of Finance that one of the best things this Mayor has done is adequately funding our pension and OPEB (other post-employment benefits) liabilities, and I meant every word of that.
However, being a good mayor is more than being handy with Microsoft Excel. It requires building trust, even with people who disagree with you, to move the ball forward to root out waste and corruption in Stamford’s government.
To be fair, this is an extremely difficult task. Ultimately, it’s our neighbors—our friends, and our families—that that are taking advantage of the people of Stamford. You don’t have to look hard to find the friends and family members of our elected officials receiving six-figure sinecures at taxpayer expense. And with the surface-level research and analysis from our local news sources, there’s no independent parties to keep an eye on city government. The vested interests in the status quo may be too great for anyone to overcome.
That said, I’d like to see someone try.