I went to a meeting of the Stamford Board of Representatives (and lived to tell the tale)
"Policy is made by those who show up."
I was reminded of this quote by my UIUC college professor and former president of the Illinois Farm Bureau, Ron Warfield, as I watched from the gallery my first-ever meeting of the Stamford Board of Representatives last Monday night, December 3, 2018, at 8:00 p.m. eastern standard time, on the fourth floor of the government center building (in the legislative chamber, not to be confused with the room adjacent the cafeteria, where a zoning board meeting ran at the same time).
The main event for the evening was the vote to override the Mayor's veto of the Board's ordinance to allow residents the choice of piling loose leaves at the edge of their property or bag them. But the real show was everything around that vote. Here is what I saw.
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To begin with, our local legislative chambers is not what you would call a glamorous forum for debate (in fact, very little about our local government can be properly characterized as glamorous). I neglected to take a picture, but you can get a sense for the legislative chambers in a photo from this Stamford Advocate article back in 2014. Like much of Stamford's architecture built in the 1970s and 80s, it emphasizes "functionality" at the expense of other things such as, let's say, "aesthetics."
Who was in attendance? Good question! I'm glad you asked. Answer as follows:
1. 37 elected members of the Stamford Board of Representatives, with three members absent (for those who want to know who, you can check it out on this handy Action Report of the meeting on the government website), and their staff (perhaps three or four administrative functionaries who ran the voting machine, assisted with the calendar, distributed copies of important documents, etc.).
2. 5 members of the interested public, including Republican Board of Finance member Kieran Ryan, former Reform Stamford candidate Chris Woodside (who had a lively exchange with Rep. Kolenberg (R-15) on gun legislation before the meeting), a gentleman named Mike who came to speak at the public comment part of the program, a fourth gentleman who is unknown to me, and yours truly, in the back row of the 30 or so unoccupied public spectator seats.
3. One (1) Dean Kelly, invited by Rep. Lion (D-19) to give the invocation at the start of the meeting (who I had a very pleasant exchange with as we mutually attempted to find the room where the meeting took place circa 7:55 p.m.).
8:00 p.m. came, and we were ready for action. Here's what transpired. Fair warning: the next few paragraphs do not make for scintillating reading, but they do accurately reflect the meeting's first 30 minutes or so. Feel free to skim them at your leisure.
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First, Dean Kelly gave the invocation, where he blessed the Board and asked they be given guidance to legislative honestly and beneficially for the residents of Stamford. He then returned to the gallery, where he sat patiently for about forty-minutes before graciously showing himself the door. Following the invocation, President of the Board Rep. Quinones (D-16) announced a new policy, whereby each district is responsible for bringing a person to give the invocation for the following month in numerical order. Rep. Watkins (R-1) asked a question, and Quinones clarified that December 2018 was District 20's responsibility, January 2019 District 1's responsibility, and so on. With a mutual understanding reached, the Board concluded its discussion of the new invocation policy.
Next, the Board moved onto the business of setting the 2019 legislative calendar. Traditionally, the Board meets on the first Monday of every month, and for 2019, this would make the July meeting occur on the 1st, just three days before the Independence Day holiday. So a proposal was made to move the July meeting back to the 8th, and much discussion ensued. Rep. Pia (R-7) wanted to make sure people could have a full week of vacation if a move was going to take place. Rep. Michelson (R-1) (unrelated, by the way, to Barry Michelson, who ran for Mayor as a Republican in 2017 against Mayor Martin) warned everyone that due to construction, there will be severe disruptions to commuters on the Stamford Train Station from about July 4 through July 13 of 2019. Rep. Zelinksy (D-11) expressed concern about missing a whole week of Committee meetings. Rep. Cottrell (D-4) indicated that last year (or perhaps it was the year prior) the July meeting had been moved a week back. And so on.
After this lively discussion, a vote was taken on the motion to change the date of the July 2019 Board meeting from July 1 to July 8. It failed resoundingly. With the calendar now uncontested, a voice vote was taken on the 2019 Board meeting calendar, and it passed unanimously.
Next up were a pair of honorary resolutions honoring individuals for their service at the Ferguson Library and UCONN Stamford, respectively. Neither of the honorees were in attendance. The resolutions were held for a future meeting. The Board soldiered on.
Now it was time for the audience participation part of the program. In principle, the time for public comment is to provide for members of the public one to three minutes to discuss something before the Board that did not have a hearing in committee. In practice, it seems to work a bit differently.
First up was the aforementioned Mike, who wanted to bring the Board's attention to the public maintenance of city sidewalks and the like, some of which are replete with weeds and other foreign objects. The members of the Board respectfully listened to and nodded along with his presentation, which included handed-out pictures of some offending areas. Next up was Chris Woodside, who expressed his frustration about voting hours in the Town's Clerk office for absentee voting last election (as an aside, I voted absentee the Friday morning before the 2018 election, and was in and out of the government center in no more than fifteen minutes).
Now, onto the main event.
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In order to override the Mayor's veto of the leaf ordinance, the Board would need to cast 27 votes in favor of doing so. With three members absent, and two either excused or not voting, that meant the pro-ordinance side could sustain only 8 defections.
At 8:31 p.m., the clerk called the motion to override the Mayor's veto of Ordinance 1244. Surprisingly, there was no debate. The vote was taken, and the voting board showed 10 nays. The Mayor's veto was sustained. The climax was over as soon as it began.
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Of course, just because the main event had concluded did not mean the Reps packed up their bags and went home. There was still business to be conducted which would take nearly two hours to complete. I will not recap the play-by-play any further, and instead provide highlights for the balance of the evening.
- Rep. Summerville (D-6), chair of the Appointments Committee, gave glowing remarks about the candidates nominated to various appointed boards (e.g., the Zoning Board of Appeal, Personnel Commission, Health Commission, etc.). Rep. Figueroa (D-8) echoed Summerville's remarks, joking that "as you know me I'm very picky," but that she was impressed by the candidates and recommended approval.
- Someone on the Appointments Committee apologized for being late to the last meeting where the candidates were interviewed. She had lost her telephone.
- A Resolution proposing additional fees for city-owned parking lots, garages, and meters at the train station and downtown areas was sent back to the Transportation Committee for further evaluation.
- It looks like the costs for remediating the mold issues in Stamford Public Schools will hit if not exceed $2,000,000.
- Rep. McMullen (R-18) proposed a similar amendment to various Resolutions imposing fees, which would provide that each sunset by a date certain, as he understands Resolutions to be "temporary" and therefore requiring an end. Rep. Lee (D-15) disagreed about the meaning of temporary in this context, and in any event noted the Board has not received any opinion from the city's Corporation Counsel indicating the fees must sunset. The mouths of law professors teaching statutory interpretation salivated nationwide. Rep. Lee's view carried the day, and McMullen's amendments were defeated.
- Rep. Sherwood (D-8) generally votes no, except when voting yes means voting no (such as when voting to hold an item and send it back to committee).
- Rep. Lee (D-15) likes to use the word "fulsome" when describing committee discussion of items presently being voted on.
- If debate on an item lingered for too long, a Representative would often "call the question" and move to have the vote taken. At least on this night, these motions always succeeded.
Nearly two-and-a-half hours after they began, the business of the Stamford Board of Representatives for the December, 2018 meeting concluded at approximately 10:27 p.m.
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So, did I learn anything from my visit to final 2018 meeting of the Stamford Board of Representatives?
Many things seemed quite trivial about the final 2018 meeting of Stamford's greatest deliberative body. And many probably were. But our elected Representatives, by and large, did not treat them as such. On multiple occasions, various Representatives from both parties raised procedural concerns with actions the Board wanted to take, to make sure the Board is doing things the "right way." This was true even where everyone acknowledged that the outcome was unlikely to change, such as when Rep. Watkins (R-1) voiced his concerns regarding Rep. Summerville's (D-6) motion to approve about a half-dozen members to various city boards, because they had not received a positive recommendation from the Appointments Committee (the Committee had lacked a quorum to provide one). The nominations were approved without objection, although Watkins and perhaps one or two others abstained from casting an affirmative vote.
Now, back to what professor Warfield said, that "policy is made by those who show up." The Stamford Board of Representatives has more impact on the lives of Stamford residents than the vast majority of politicians with more familiar names. When 10 members (instead of 8) voted against overriding the Mayor's veto of the leaf ordinance, that vote had more impact on our Stamford neighbors than anything I can think of that our Congressman, Jim Himes (D-CT, 4th District) has done in his 5-plus terms in office. And to be clear, this is not an indictment of Himes in the least, but instead a reflection of the fact that in the federal government, power is diffuse and difficult to exercise, while in local government, it's much easier to track, and can actually be influenced by the everyday citizen.
By just showing up--to a Board of Reps meeting, a Zoning Board meeting, or countless other forums for debate and discussion in the city of Stamford--you can make yourself heard, and maybe even influence the outcome of a policy that affects the life of you and your family.
The question then becomes, will you avail yourself of your right to do so in our democracy?
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