Commission Members Weigh Charter Proposals

Not exactly an overflowing crowd at the public hearing Tuesday night hosted by the new Charter Revision Commission. But those who did speak including former City Councilman Bob “Troll” Walsh, 2011 mayoral candidate John Gomes, financial watchdog John Marshall Lee and Maria Pereira, an elected member of the Board of Education until her education peers voted to disband in favor of a state takeover. All had strong opinions about what voters should decide on the November ballot.

CT Post reporter Tim Loh’s take here.



  1. The first thing the Commission should do is give up on the idea of voting on charter revision proposals this November. Given the state-mandated timetable for approving a ballot question, only three or four months would remain for the Commission to do its work. That’s enough for a rubber stamp, but not for a comprehensive, independent review of the charter.

  2. Well, as all would agree, reading the Charter itself would be a good start for the Review group! (Does anyone assume the majority of the City Council members have done so recently? As a matter of fact, the Ordinance Committee approved and the Council also a ruling more than 8 years ago that went into effect, and was never implemented! How is that for follow-through? The connection of Charter and Ordinance seems important.)
    And Phil, are the ordinances a part of what such a group historically takes a look at as well? At least one comment last night regarding Ethics regulation in the City is looking for an upgrade from Ordinance status to Charter.
    Finally, once a member of the Charter group has an idea as to what is currently called for, one would need to see how it is working currently. For the current group that would mean attendance at, participation in, or deep research with people who have been living with City structures and processes as they are today. How many of the folks on this committee have been to a land use hearing, read anything on Ethics activities, been to a City Council meeting or one of the sub-committee meetings recently? Who among them has a financial background, training or experience even equal to that of the current members sitting on Budget and Appropriations committee to consider alternatives to today?
    The group listened to the public members who spoke. They heard sincere doubt about whether their group was hand-picked to turn in a rubber stamp judgement, or a genuine Charter Review. They also were told they each represent some 15,000 citizens, a heavy responsibility if taken seriously.
    They will need help. Let us see to whom they turn for input (perhaps they will reach out for more input from the public, on a Saturday? or at a more publicized event?); what the nature of their learning curve is; how deeply they dig for an understanding of checks and balance in the City; and how many “best practices” from other communities are considered in their recommendations. What will the minutes reveal? Open, accountable and transparent are words that can guide them to some major changes in our Bridgeport system, if they so choose. Time will tell.

  3. Ron,
    I was in Haiti for a week helping build a playground at a Christian school. I believe kids have a right to some happiness. Payday for me is 15 seconds after the finish of the playground dedication when the kids from K-6 grade rush onto the big unit and climb, swing, slide, etc. with joy and full animated spirit.
    Haiti is called by some a failed state. Bridgeport, relative to the affluence and relatively better ratings in surrounding communities, might be called a failed City. Our institutions and structure have not supported elected leaders to benefit the common good, but rather to pose in that way but deliver something less.
    You are a smart guy and have experience in challenging what passed as ‘common wisdom.’ Take me up on my genuine invite to meet and share some words and thoughts. You know my name and my phone number.
    You remember the phrase, “You are part of the solution, or you’re part of the problem.” You are independent, intelligent and command respect in many quarters. How about it? Time will tell.

    1. BEACON2,
      You raise some interesting questions.

      This is going to be a little bit wordy, but I want to put the discussion that follows into context.

      All municipalities are creatures of the state. They were established, and their powers defined, by state law. Indeed, many local charters, including Bridgeport’s, were first adopted and amended by special act of the legislature. As Bridgeport learned the hard way, sometimes those amendments were adopted in the face of strong local opposition.

      The result was a crazy quilt of charter provisions which varied wildly between communities. For example, New Haven’s appointed Board of Education was the result of such a provision. So were Bridgeport’s old Board of Apportionment and Taxation and its current civil service system.

      By the 1960s local leaders wanted more control of their affairs and the legislature had tired of resolving local disputes. When the state constitution was rewritten in the mid-1960s the framers included a new Article Tenth, entitled “Home Rule.” It includes a lot of flowery language, but the meat is found in the provision that, except in three specific instances, “On and after July 1, 1969, the General Assembly shall enact no special legislation relative to the powers, organization, terms of elective offices or form of government of any single town, city or borough …”. That provision put the legislature out of the charter business. Special Act charters previously adopted remained in force, but future amendments, or new charters, would have to be adopted locally.

      But there was a catch.

      Municipalities didn’t have the same freedom of action as the legislature. The charter provisions which they adopted had to be authorized by the legislature either in the home rule act or some other general statute. As our Supreme Court has repeatedly said, “Municipalities, because they are creatures of the state, have no inherent legislative authority … They can wield only those powers expressly granted to them by the legislature.” Remember that statement, you’ll probably hear it frequently over the next few months.

      Two court cases demonstrate what that means.

      The language quoted is taken from a 1985 case involving a recall provision that the Town of Watertown included in its locally adopted charter. The Supreme Court unanimously struck down the recall provision, concluding such provisions had not been authorized by the legislature. As a result, the only towns with valid recall provisions are those, like Stratford, which were passed by the legislature prior to 1969.

      About the same time the City of Bridgeport was enacting a charter provision which prevented realtors from serving on the land use boards due to a perceived conflict of interest. That provision was approved by the Council and the voters but overturned by a Superior Court judge who decided the legislature hadn’t authorized that type of provision.

      Before I turn to your questions I want to add a note in defense of all the lawyers, advocates and others who will be talking about these issues over the next few months. In the real world, the law in this area is often as clear as mud. Sometimes you don’t know whether a provision will be upheld until a judge decides. (I say that as the author of the land use provision referred to above.)

      I have always thought Charter Revision works best as part of comprehensive, independent, review of the operations of all or part of the operations of government. That is the way Bridgeport has approached most such efforts. Some passed and some failed. But nobody could say they were wired. I think it is fair to say each of the chairmen I worked with (Margaret Morton, Howard Owens, Bill Holden and David Carson) all insisted on that.

      It’s interesting to note the two Charter Revision Commissions that “crashed and burned” without getting proposals on the ballot were both attempts to rush through a particular provision without that kind of review (the 1987 attempt to elect the land use boards and Mayor Ganim’s attempt to make the Board of Education appointive).

      Ordinances are adopted by the Council under a procedure set forth in the Charter. They are not part of the charter revision process. However, there is nothing to stop the Council from looking at the ordinances implementing a charter provision in order to get a better idea of how that provision is being carried out.

      At least two Charter Revision Commissions looked at the question of whether to include detailed provisions concerning the Ethics Commission in the Charter. Both decided against doing so, primarily because the charter revision process would make it difficult to update the Commission’s duties and powers to reflect evolving needs. Personally, I think they made the right decision.

      One closing note. We live in a democracy and “decisions are made by those who show up”on election day. The Charter isn’t a panacea. Nor is it a substitute for good candidates, wise voters and dedicated public servants. Any government missing those three things will fail, regardless of what its charter says.

      Time to get off the soap box and go to bed.

      1. Phil,
        Thank you for your lesson on Charter Revision and some pertinent history to our current opportunity.
        I would like to speak with you about one or two specific issues when you have time and if you have the interest. My daytime phone is 203-259-9642.
        I am copying your input to place in my Charter Revision notebook, as it will doubtless save me time in framing possible recommendations. Hope to hear from you (and Ron Mackey) one of these days. Time will tell.

  4. We just need to push it more for the next meeting. The troops were not “rallied” … but I am in for the next one, I could not make this one because of scheduling.


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