Charter Revision — Real Reform

Published on May 19, 2011 by

During the upcoming Bridgeport mayoral campaign I predict that we will hear a lot of campaign rhetoric and general puffery on the subject of city employees serving as members of the City Council.

One candidate has already stated that she would not appoint any City Council member to a paid city position.

Invariably, this discussion usually ends with a shrug of the shoulders followed by a sigh of resignation and the following lament from the candidate: “I can’t do anything about this situation because there is a state law on the subject.”

Image of Scales of JusticeIn a sense, the fault for this dilemma is not in our statutes or in our City Charter, but in ourselves, the voters of the City of Bridgeport. We have the power of the vote and are free to reject any city employee who seeks to represent us as a member of the City Council.

However, although this is a correct statement of law, and a correct theoretical statement concerning the power of the electorate, in practice, it simply won’t work.

Bridgeport is a one-party city where nomination is tantamount to election.

You don’t need a crystal ball to predict that many city employees will be elected and re-elected to the City Council. The real or imagined desires of any mayor are of no moment.

Many Bridgeport residents know that our City Charter already prohibits members of the City Council from holding any office “the emoluments of which are to be paid by the city treasury.”

However, a state statute, section 7-421 of the General Statutes, supersedes our Charter provision.

This statute prohibits a municipality from barring municipal employees from service on its legislative body. Therefore, any municipal employee (or city teacher for that matter) is eligible to serve as a member of our City Council.

The state statute can, of course, be amended by legislative action.

However, with less than a month remaining in the current General Assembly session, do not expect any of Bridgeport’s six House members or two senators to seek an amendment to that statute, for fear of antagonizing organized labor, and the state and municipal unions.

However, those of us who believe in accountability and believe that city employees who work for the mayor and vote on their own salaries, are engaging in a blatant and obvious conflict of interest, need not feel checkmated.

I propose a solution which involves Charter revision.

It may be remembered, that Bridgeport once had a Board of Apportionment and Taxation. I propose to re-establish that body in the form of an elected Board of Finance.

Any candidate for mayor, or incumbent mayor, who is serious about addressing the problem of city employees on the City Council, rather than simply posturing, should call for the creation of a Charter Revision Commission.

This commission would have the power to recommend an amendment to the City Charter establishing a Board of Finance. The members of this board should be elected on a city wide basis and should be given all, or virtually all, the fiscal and budgetary powers now exercised by the city council. the board of finance should also set the mill rate.

This Charter revision would have several beneficial effects. The requirements of minority party representation contained in the General Statutes would apply to this Board of Finance. The result, one could hope, would lessen the stranglehold now exercised by the Democratic machine.

Secondly, the same state statute quoted above which allows city employees to serve on the City Council, prohibits them from serving on a city Board of Finance.

Because this Board of Finance would set the mill rate and be the budget authority for the city of Bridgeport, the conflict of interest which prevails on the current city council would be eliminated, or drastically curtailed.

Furthermore, a Board of Finance whose exclusive function is fiscal and budgetary policy, would assure greater transparency and hopefully greater accountability to the voters and the taxpayers.

Freed from the shackles of municipal employment, these Board of Finance members, would ask the tough, but necessary questions which now go unasked and are therefore unanswered.

I wish this Charter Revision Commission was not necessary. In my opinion, municipal employees should not serve on the City Council and the state Legislature should not meddle with the wishes of the people of Bridgeport as expressed in our Charter.

However, a realistic appraisal of the situation leads me to conclude that this state law will not be changed and a pledge not to appoint a City Council member to a municipal job is tinkering at the margins and not attacking the real issue.

Perhaps one of the candidates for mayor will propose the establishment of a Charter Revision Commission and the process of restoring accountability to city government can begin.

Otherwise, we will have to be content with political rhetoric rather than real solutions during the upcoming “silly season.”

Clearly, there is a way; let us hope there is a will.