Bridgeport resident David Walker, who served as U.S. comptroller general from 1998 to 2008, has a lot to say about how Bridgeport government should reform itself in his latest CT Post column. Yes, some of these are not simple and some would need state legislative changes, but check out his observations:
The spirited Bridgeport Democratic primary campaign for mayor is over. Mayor Finch bested Mary-Jane Foster for the Democratic nomination and he must now face Republican candidate Rick Torres and independent candidate Jeff Kohut in November’s general election. Given the dominance of Democratic Party registrants in the city, Mayor Finch is a heavy favorite to win in November. However, regardless of the result of the upcoming general election, it has become clear to many that Bridgeport has serious governance challenges that need to be addressed expeditiously and effectively once the general election is over.
The truth is that all entities in the private, public and nonprofit sector must follow modern and effective governance practices to maximize their chances of success and to minimize problems. In the case of Bridgeport, that means, among other things, increasing economic growth, providing additional employment opportunities, supporting a quality education for our children, and ensuring fiscal responsibility both for today and tomorrow.
Bridgeport’s City Charter was last updated in March 1999. Not surprisingly, it is outdated and needs to be brought in line with 21st century best practices. This needs to be done through a process that is approved by the mayor and the city council, involves an array of capable and credible citizens, includes public input, and ensures an appropriate degree of transparency. Based on my observations in Bridgeport and knowledge of many different governance systems, some of the types of changes that need to be considered include the following:
Ban individuals who have been convicted of a felony from seeking or holding public office and, depending on the nature of the past offenses, from holding certain government positions.
Retain the current City Charter ban on city employees serving on the City Council and seek to have the state law that preempted municipal law repealed. Taxpayers need and deserve to have individuals with no major potential conflicts serving on the City Council.
Prohibit Democratic or Republican town committee members from working for the city as career civil servants. The federal government does not allow civil servants to be involved in partisan political positions and the city should not either;
Require city department heads to be Bridgeport residents unless the mayor certifies there are no appropriately qualified candidates who are city residents.
Move to an integrated and non-partisan primary process for all city elections. Many municipalities across the country have already implemented this best practice.
Impose a two full-term limit for mayors and a four full-term limit for City Council members.
Transparency and Accountability:
Strengthen the city’s financial and related party disclosure and conflict of interest rules and enhance related public disclosure and access.
Allow for recall of elected officials.
Require the city to prepare and issue an Annual Summary Financial and Performance Report that the general public can both access and understand.
Require that the city’s annual operating budget be balanced without incurring additional debt to do so. The city has been running annual operating deficits for far too long.
Provide a greater role for the mayor in connection with Bridgeport’s schools, and allow for mayoral control of the schools with an Advisory School Board.
The preceding suggestions are just some of the reforms that could help to significantly improve Bridgeport’s current performance and accountability as well as its future prospects. We can’t expect to achieve a renaissance in Bridgeport if we don’t directly address the city’s outdated and inappropriate governance practices.
The general election candidates for Mayor should outline their views on needed reforms in areas of importance to the city and its citizens, including in connection with the City Charter. They should also commit that one of their first acts if they are elected, will be to create a Commission or Task Force to recommend updates to the City Charter. Given the current state of the city’s governance structure, finances, education system, and election processes, the future prosperity of our city and opportunities for Bridgeport residents may well rest on whether and how this is done.
While this column relates to Bridgeport, concerned citizens in other cities and towns, both in Connecticut and around the country, should take steps to ensure that their municipality’s governance system is both modern and effective. After all, it’s key to help ensuring proper performance today and a better future.