The Aldermen by District issue is, once again, becoming a hot item on the Waterbury scene. I do not think that the Mayor is sincere in promoting a Charter revision for this issue. Rather, it may be floated as a vehicle to further strengthen the Mayor’s control of land use by combining the City Plan and Zoning Commissions. Aldermen by District is an anathema for the political control system carefully crafted through two previous Charter revisions. On the resident side, unfortunately, I do not perceive any constructive preparation for the implementation of an Aldermen by District system, should that change come to fruition. Rather than making predictions, however, I would like to review the history of the movement, to provide a background for those not previously involved.
I first became aware of the Aldermen by District proposal in 1995 when Cicero Booker and David Gilmore made a presentation to the East End Community Club on behalf of the Waterbury Coalition for Better Government. The proposal called for dividing the city into 15 districts, each entitled to one seat on the Board of Aldermen. The target of the presentation was the unfair representation under the at-large system, where none of the then incumbent aldermen resided in areas with the highest Black and Hispanic populations.
In the OBSERVER of March 28, 1996, a letter to the editor cited from a statement by the Coalition, “…We, therefore, urge the Board of Aldermen and the mayor to abide by their pledges by allowing all our citizens an opportunity to determine the form of government best suited for them, by sending the aldermen by district issue to referendum on this November’s ballot.”
The 15 district proposal was quickly objected to by the pro-establishment block. The Charter Revision Commission, chaired by Marc Ryan, at first proposed an 11 / 4 split [election of 11 at-large and 4 by-district aldermen (Rep-Am of 3/11/1997)]. The “split” and its later versions would eventually become known as the “hybrid” system. This proposal was criticized by Commission member Garrett Casey and subsequently stripped from its report to the Board of Aldermen. It was then proposed a 10 / 5 split (10 at-large and 5 by-district) backed by then mayor Philip Giordano. The “5” was based on the existing 5 electoral districts. The Commission voted it down.
At the beginning of 1998, following pleas by Jimmy Griffin and others, alderman Thomas Tremaglio, called for the formation of another Charter Revision Commission, to deal specifically with Aldermen by District. It was subsequently formed in April of that year, to renewed squabbles. This situation was reviewed in an article entitled “Race Against the Clock” by D. Howard and J. Murray (OBSERVER, May 7-20, 1998). The Commission’s Republican majority eventually voted down the issue, proposing that it be made a non-binding referendum ballot for the 1999 election. The Board of Aldermen approved it by a 9 : 6 vote. The measure was then approved by the State House and Senate (Rep-Am of 6/15/1999). The squabbles continued, with the establishment hinting that the proponents, primarily the NAACP, had racial motives, which was vehemently objected to by Jimmy Griffin. Neighborhood activists, like Les Beland, Kathy McNamara and others saw it as an issue of accountability. Pros and cons abounded causing the OBSERVER of July 1999 to ask, “”How Many Bubbles in a Bar of Soap?”
The non-binding referendum was approved with a 2:1 ratio by 6,700 voters in the subsequent election. Elated, the proponents demanded a binding referendum. The Board of Aldermen voted unanimously to establish a Charter Revision Commission whose task would be to propose various options. The Giordano administration responded with a delaying action, dickering over taxes due from some of the Commission candidates, demanding expansion of the agenda etc.
It should be noted at this point that tensions on a variety of issues had been building within the Board of Aldermen, virtually paralyzing any constructive action. The Democrat minority had gained a seat in the previous election, changing the Republican to Democrat ratio from 9 : 6 to 8 : 7. In a joint action by a number of Republican and Democrat members, Board president Nick Augelli was ousted, with Sam Caligiuri taking over the presidency.
In June 2000 the Charter Revision Commission came up with a number of recommendations. In the case of Aldermen by District, it called for a 10 / 5 split, with 10 aldermen to be elected by district. The Republican controlled Board countered by voting for a special referendum on the issue. More squabbles! Eventually the Board agreed to present the issue for ballot in the November 7th 2001 election.
An interlude in the process occurred with Phil Giordano’s ambition to run for the Senate in the spring of 2001 and eventual arrest on unrelated charges. The appearance of Mike Jarjura on the scene and fear of Larry DePillo’s win of the mayoral race loosened the city’s political structure and diverted the attention from the Aldermen by District issue.
The Republican town committee entered the fray on September 22nd 2001, voting $1,000 to fight the Aldermen by District issue as part of the election campaign. This gave birth to the apparently amply funded “Keeping Waterbury United” committee. Leaflets and rumors abounded, spreading scare about redistricting, racial inferences etc.. The residents were bombarded with negative slogans like, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and visions of being included in racially controversial districts.
As a result, the Aldermen by District proposal was defeated. A majority of voters simply demonstrated the prevailing tradition that it is easier to complain about an existing system than venture into a new one. A major factor in the defeat, however, was the lack of a logical explanation of how the “hybrid” plan would have been implemented. To-date nothing has changed…..
Mike Jarjura, the new mayor, brought the need for urgent Charter revisions to the top of his agenda. After snubbing the Board of Aldermen on the nomination of members, the mayor, with obvious backing of the State Oversight Board, put his plan through. A new Charter Revision Commission was created in February 2002. Its primary objective was to revamp the fiscal controls and strengthen the mayor’s role in the city administration. This has become known as the 2002 Commission. The Aldermen by District issue was relegated to the less pressing “political” agenda, to be dealt with at a later phase.
In November 2002 a new Charter Revision Commission was created, again after the usual squabbles, to deal with such “political” issues as the Civil Service and the Aldermen by District. There was a marked lack of enthusiasm in dealing with the latter, but it had to be there to appease the critics of the administration. The attitudes of its chairman, attorney Anthony Casagrande, and vice chair, Dennis Odle, did not bode well for the election of aldermen issue.
This became known as the 2003 Commission. The public showed their apathy by virtually ignoring the proceedings. The classic reminder of this attitude is the photo showing attorney Dennis Buckley with a background of empty seats in the public auditorium (Rep-Am of 11/15/2002). The 2003 Commission focused on the Civil Service issue. In April 2004 the Commission voted unanimously to retain the current at-large system.
At Jimmy Griffin’s prodding, the Aldermen by District issue has been brought to life once more, with a call by minority groups for a new Commission. As quoted in the Rep-Am of 9/24/2005, he stated at a meeting of activists with Mayor Jarjura, “We want whoever is elected mayor to set up a commission that is going to be sensitive to the issue and vote on it”. That challenge was addressed to the mayoral candidates of that date, before the now famous “write – in” candidacy of Mayor Jarjura. Elected, Jarjura has vowed that a Charter Revision Commission shall be seated this year, i.e. 2006. Well, at least the usual squabbles have already started.
Looking back at the eleven years of struggle to change the way aldermen are elected, I must express a deep disappointment. I cannot fault the administration’s attitude; the last thing they want is losing control of the Board of Aldermen. The November 2005 election, if anything, has weakened the Independent Party’s minority side, by the seating of two Republican members. This ought to ease the mayor’s concerns in cases requiring super-majority (10 -5) votes on his proposals.
In the interim, a lot has changed in the structure of neighborhoods, expected to produce the candidates. Much of the traditional population has aged or migrated changing the political balance. The ethnic mix has also changed, the newcomers hesitant to participate or ignorant of the traditional ties. Neighborhood organizations, in my opinion, have shown little if any effort to attract and involve the new residents. Thus, it may take years for new leaders to emerge as viable candidates. At this time, the Aldermen by District issue would serve the administration to camouflage the true objective listed below.
The land use issue being readied for consideration by a new Charter Revision Commission would be very damaging to Waterbury taxpayers. “Streamlining” the City Plan and Zoning Commissions into one entity, given the mayoral control over the Board of Aldermen and the lopsided commission setup under the existing ordinance, would eliminate yet another safeguard protecting the residents from excesses of the administration. Separation of the two Commissions allows more influence of public opinion. “Streamlining”, on the other hand, may eventually cause land use control to fall under the purview of the Waterbury Development Corporation. Impossible? Not in Waterbury!
The only legal protection of residents’ rights is the office of the Corporation Counsel. However, since it is the mayor who does the hiring, the impartiality of that office is open to doubt. I empathize, therefore, with alderman Booker’s concerns about the need for legal advice independent of the Corporation Counsel.
Currently the land use control is being overwhelmed by developers’ applications. This, of course, impacts every aspect of the city’s infrastructure (schools, roads, water, sewers, public safety etc.). While it may be touted as “economic development”, the results may become disastrous to taxpayers in the future.
In the Country Club Hills case, for example, attorney Gail E. McTaggart stated, “If the subdivision plan conforms to the existing regulations, the planning commission has no discretion but to approve the application”. Of course, it takes a skilled lawyer to interpret the regulations. The same would apply to other commissions and the Board of Aldermen. In Waterbury, because of the fact that the Corporation Counsel represents primarily the mayor, we have a dilemma on our hands. Thus a need for an independent legal counsel.