Cathleen Simpson and George Estrada, chair and co-chair respectively of the Charter Revision Commission created by Mayor Bill Finch and the City Council, assert in an op-ed piece published by the Connecticut Post that the paper misses the mark on the commission’s work. The commission has fashioned a question that seeks a thumbs up or down from city voters in November that includes choosing an elected or a mayoral-appointed school board. Commentary follows:
When opponents run out of arguments they usually resort to baseless accusations. You expect more of journalists … even columnists.
Earlier this month the City Council approved a comprehensive charter revision of an archaic and confusing document by moving toward a more comprehensible and user-friendly document. The Charter Revision Commission is a highly respected, bipartisan and independent group of individuals who oversaw a process that has spanned the better part of year and included nearly 50 public meetings.
The charter they have drafted allows the citizen to move chapter by chapter and get a sense of how the government is organized, what the functions of boards and commissions are and how ordinances and budgets are adopted. Most importantly, it addresses the issue of how the Department of Education and the Board of Education will function in a city sorely in need of education policy and governance reform.
Instead of focusing on the vast array of change, reform and tools given to citizens of Bridgeport the ability to: enforce greater public accountability standards; demand Charter-mandated professional qualifications for department heads; and require best practice standards for the operation of government, Keila Torres Ocasio accuses the City Council of presenting a “vague” question for the ballot in November; a question that will “confuse” or “trick” voters into voting “yes.”
In effect, she accuses the City Council and the Charter Revision Commission of a sleight-of-hand designed to mislead the voters in November. We will ignore Ms. Ocasio’s insulting insinuation that the voters can be tricked or confused, and focus on the rationale for the question and the process from which it was derived.
First of all, the identity and specifics of the proposed restructuring of the Board of Education are no secret to those who read the pages of this newspaper. There have been newspaper articles and opinion pieces both pro and con that delineate the proposed structure.
Moreover, there has been no shortage of opportunities for public participation in the formulation of governance policy. The Charter Revision Commission held 35 public meetings prior to submission of its draft and four additional meetings following council consideration of the draft in June.
Second, while the state law requires two public hearings, one at the commencement of the process and another just prior to the transmittal of the draft report, the Charter Revision Commission conducted four public hearings (not counting three additional public outreach sessions at various neighborhood public libraries). Incidentally, one full public hearing was devoted to the governance of the public education system. The public hearing on education governance followed a series of four fact-finding public meetings with national experts on governance, local and statewide education advocates, former members of the Board of Education, and mayors of similarly situated Connecticut cities.
There was no shortage of public exposure to a variety of ideas.
Third, following the fact-finding meetings and the focused public hearing, the commission made a decision on the structure: a nine-member board appointed by the mayor (following a recommendation from the Candidate Qualifications Advisory Council) and approved by the City Council. The new board would be in full effect on Dec. 1, 2015, following the transition of current elected members serving a term of four years. The members will be subject to the rules of accountability applicable to members of all boards and commissions (residency, dual-appointment restriction, term limitations, minority party representation, removal and required cooperation, as well as special rules and restrictions about such qualifications including a detailed list of attributes and life and occupational experience; mandatory training beyond the requirements of state law at the commencement of their term.
Finally, the powers of the Board of Education are clearly set forth and it is established as a board of directors or trustees and policy-making body with oversight responsibilities, and the ultimate authority to hire or fire the superintendent of schools.
The City Council conducted a public hearing, five public committee meetings, two plenary sessions on the charter and two full, joint meetings of council members and the commission. All told, almost 50 public meetings from Jan. 24 through the final action on Aug. 6.
This process was thorough and balanced. In fact, the commission specifically and repeatedly invited local opponents of mayoral accountability to speak to no avail.
In the final analysis, Ms. Ocasio seems more interested in blasting the mayor rather than evaluating the substance of the proposal.
There will be a full debate, the proposed charter is online, will be published in its entirety in this newspaper (as required by law and at considerable public expense) and will be explained completely in an explanatory document permitted by law.
The proposed charter and the ballot question were not conceived as a ruse or trick. This proposal has and will continue to be fully exposed by its proponents. The public deserves an honest appraisal and those of us who support the charter will make certain that this battle will be fought on the issues, not innuendo or misleading invective.