District Commission Begins Historic Task

Charles "Chuck" Pagano was named chairman of the District Commission by Waterbury Mayor Neil O'Leary. Pagano lives in the Bucks Hill neighborhood of Waterbury and is the Executive Vice President of Technology and Chief Technology Officer of ESPN, and has been with the company since 1979. Pagano is also the President of the Board of Directors for Holy Land LLC, the non-profit group operating Holy Land USA in Waterbury. O'Leary sought Pagano's leadership on the District Commission because Pagano is an unaffliated voter "who is above reproach." 

                    Story and Photographs By John Murray  

   When Waterbury voted to fundamentally change the structure of city government they handed a hot potato to Mayor Neil O'Leary who had less than six months to implement an historic aldermen by district initiative that won by a surprising 2000 vote mandate on November 4th. Legal counsel had to be hired, an eight-person District Commission had to be formed, a demographer had to be hired to analyze population and voting patterns, and most importantly, the city needed to be carved into five voting districts.

  "We have to get everything in place so the political parties can nominate candidates for the 2015 election," O'Leary said. "We don't have the luxury of time."

  Which is why the process began the morning after the election with a meeting between O'Leary and Corporation Counsel Linda Wihbey. "We had to figure out a plan," O'Leary said, "but first we had to figure out what it all meant."

   The political power structure in Waterbury had been caught off guard by the vote, and O'Leary admitted he didn't know of one elected official who thought the voters were going to embrace electing aldermen by district, and reject the at-large system that had been in place for 90 years.

  "That was one of the most historic votes in city history," O'Leary said. "And we are determined to give the people what they asked for."

  The change is that city voters will no longer elect 15 aldermen "at-large", a system that created over-representation in affluent neighborhoods and left nearly 50% of the the city with no direct represntation on the legislative body of municipal government. Now the city will be divided into five equal districts and each district will be represented by three aldermen. The concept is not hard to grasp, but the implementation is a logistical nightmare. The clock is ticking and city leaders have pressed the gas down to make it happen.

    The city sent out request for proposals (RFPs) to hire outside legal counsel and a demographer, and with the help of O'Leary and Board of Aldermen President Paul Pernerewski, Tony Piccochi (Majority Leader of the Board of Aldermen) and Paul Ciochetti (Minority Leader on the Board of Aldermen) selected the eight-person District Commission. O’Leary was instrumental in recruiting Chuck Pagano and Bill Pizzuto onto the commission, two men he said, “are above reproach.”

    O’Leary is unapologetic about helping select commission members and said, “this is an historic moment for Waterbury and I am committed to making sure we do this right. This is our legacy.”

   The eight person District Commision is;

   • Charles “Chuck”Pagano, a retiring ESPN executive and chairman of the board of directors of Holy Land USA. Pagano is an unaffiliated voter from Bucks Hill

   • Sundae Black, an African American sunday school teacher who ran for the school board in 2011 as a Republican. She lives in Bucks Hill

   • Norberto "B.J." Rodriguez, is a private investigator in the public defender's office, a vocal supporter of aldermanic district elections as a member of the Charter Revision Commission, and lives in the South End

   •  Michael Salvio, the president of the Historic Overlook Community Club and a member of the Waterbury Neighborhood Council

   •  Geoffrey Green, deputy Republican registrar of voters and Charter Revision Commission member. Green is a resident of the Brooklyn neighborhood.

   • Bill Pizzuto, director of UConn Waterbury campus and a former Republican alderman, lives in the Robinwood neighborhood

   • William Kolo, a Waterbury Neighborhood Council appointee to city development board and charter commissioner. He lives in Bucks Hill

   • Joyce Templeton, daughter of Kay Wyrick and one-time secretary of the Greater Waterbury African-American Republican Club

   Additionally, the city hired Attorney Daniel Casagrande from Danbury to counsel and guide the District Commission through the process of submitting a final district plan to the Board of Aldermen by January 30th. Casagrande, no relation to former Waterbury Corporation Counsel, Tony Casagrande, came highly recommended by Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton.

    The city also hired demographer Peter Morrison from Nantucket, Massachusetts, to analyze census data and voting patterns to create three district options to be presented to the District Commission by January 8th. The pressure is now squarely on Morrison, who judging by his street address in Nantucket – 3 Eat Fire Springs Road - is the man for the historic task.

   With all the players onboard by December 9th, an informational meeting was scheduled for the District Commission on December 11th at Aldermanic Chambers inside Waterbury City Hall.

   The meeting was called on short notice and three of the eight district commissioners (Pizzuto, Soto and Black) were unable to make the meeting. The goal of the meeting was to get the process moving ASAP and Casagrande and Morrison explained the unfolding process to the commissioners, and laid out the possible legal challenges if the process weren’t transparent and involving public participation at every step except the informational meeting.

   Morrison said the Federal Voters Right Act would guide the process, and that, “the central and most complicated challenge is to guard against the dilution of the voting strength of Latinos and African-Americans” by “cracking” and “fracking”. Other variables in creating districts are topography (rivers and natural barriers), existing political boundaries, geographic compactness and incumbency (trying to avoid head-to-head contests).

   According to a Justice Department website, "The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a landmark piece of federal legislation in the United States that prohibits racial discrimination in voting. It was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson during the height of the American Civil Rights Movement on August 6, 1965, and Congress later amended the Act five times to expand its protections. Designed to enforce the voting rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, the Act allowed for a mass enfranchisement of racial minorities throughout the country, especially in the South. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the Act is considered to be the most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever enacted in the country.

   The Act contains numerous provisions that regulate the administration of elections. The Act's "general provisions" provide nationwide protections for voting rights. Section 2, for instance, prohibits any state or local government from imposing any voting law that results in discrimination against racial or language minorities. Additionally, the Act specifically outlaws literacy tests and similar devices that were historically used to disenfranchise racial minorities."

   The Voting Rights Act will be the guiding principal that MJorison will use to draw the district lines.  Additionally, the most generic variable that Morrison will consider in creating the districts is an attempt to not divide “communities of interest”, which Morrison said could be anything, and the example he used was the  “heart of the Latino community.”

   Casagrande spent several minutes explaining that the process of creating districts often results in legal challenges and he cautioned the commissioners about e-mailing each other back and forth. “Don’t put anything into writing that you don’t want to see on page 6 of the New York Post tomorrow,” he said. “And be careful what you say on the record.”

    Casagrande said race will be a consideration in the process, but it cannot dominate. “That’s when you get into trouble,” Casagrande advised the commission, “and it’s the lawyer’s job to keep the commission out of trouble.”

   Transparency and public participation are critical parts of the process, and the meting schedule was set for the District Commission. Morrison will submit three district plans on January 8th at 6:30 pm in Aldermanic Chambers. Vigorous public comment will be sought at that meeting, and subsequent meetings January 14th, January 22nd and January 29th. The final report is due on January 30th and will be submitted to the Board of Aldermen on January 31st.

   One noticeably absent person from the informational meeting was Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary. “My job was to help coordinate the process and to provide city resources to get the job done,” O’Leary said. “I want this to be an apolitical process. I’ve given the District Commission all the tools, now it’s up to them to build the house.”   

Peter Morrison is an expert demographer from Nantucket, Massachusetts, and has been hired by the City of Waterbury to present three district options to the District Commission by January 8th. Morrison will rely on census data from 2010 and voting records to devise the trhree options. Morrison's company is located at 3 Eat Fire Springs Road in Nantucket, so the man can obviously take the heat.

City Clerk Michael Dalton played a crucial role in helping the District Commission get underway at it's informational meeting December 11th in Aldermanic Chambers inside Waterbury City Hall. Not used to the rules and regulations of starting a meeting, Pagano relied on Dalton for guidance.

B.J. Rodriquez was a member of the Charter Revision Commission that triggered the process of getting the Aldermen By District proposal on the ballot for voters in November. Rodriquez is a Democrat, an investigator in the Public Defender's Office, and was a staunch advocate for electing aldermen by district. 

Geoffrey Green listens to Corporation Counsel Linda Wihbey at the end of the informational meeting as Joyce Templeton, weighs in on the conversation. Green is the Deputy Republican Registrar of Voters in Waterbury and was also a member of the 2014 Charter Revision Commission.

Attorney Daniel Casagrande has been hired by the City of Waterbury to guide the eight-person District Commission in their work to present a district plan to the Board of Aldermen by January 30th. Casagrande has done extensive work for the City of Danbury and came highly recommended to Waterbury Mayor Neil O'Leary by Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton.