In an editorial that also appeared in the CT Post, a coalition of city reformers backs a move by the City Council to institutionalize independence from the executive branch of municipal government.
This month, the nation grappled with the one-year anniversary of the horror of Jan. 6 when the U.S. Capitol and our democracy were attacked. During the Trump administration, corruption, patronage, election rigging and racist policies were the fuel used to light American democracy on fire. For 40 years, these same forces have also slowly chipped away at Bridgeport’s democracy.
In America, there are three co-equal branches of government–executive, legislative and judicial. We believe in the principle of separation of powers because it keeps our democracy healthy by enforcing checks and balances at all levels of our government. In Bridgeport, however, the separation of powers between our executive branch (the mayor) and our legislative branch (the City Council) does not exist–and our city and our democracy are suffering because of it. Here are just a few examples of how this strange arrangement works:
The official leader of the City Council is the mayor, not the City Council president.
City Council members are dependent on the mayor’s legal staff to draft local ordinances and for counsel on municipal affairs and contracts.
Similarly, City Council members are dependent on the mayor’s finance staff for information on the city budget–an incredibly complex financial document that the mayor has a staff year-round to work on, but that the City Council gets a mere month to review, analyze and act on.
Finally, City Council members are volunteers who often hold little to no expertise in finance or law. They receive no salary for their service and hold other full-time jobs. While holding a degree in finance or law should not be a requirement (a healthy democracy needs public servants from all walks of life) under Bridgeport’s current structure, City Council members are provided with no independent, professional staff to provide expertise and assist them in their duties. As a result, due to no fault of their own, the City Council lacks the resources to perform its essential duties of passing laws, enacting a budget and serving as a check on the mayor.
This is a recipe for democratic disaster: It creates an unhealthy dependence on the mayor’s administration, confusion around government roles and responsibilities, and provides ripe conditions for political corruption.
The recent approval of a tax break to the Steelpointe developers to build market-rate, luxury apartments on the East End/Side’s waterfront property is a prime example.
The City Council was asked to approve the multimillion-dollar tax incentive without having all the relevant information and benefit of independent counsel and financial advice. In fact, the mayor’s Office of Planning and Economic Development provided wrong information to the City Council on the nature of the deal, asserting that an additional $10 million tax break for the developers was needed in order for the project to move forward. If the City Council had its own legal counsel and budget director, this misrepresentation could have been exposed, giving the council the opportunity to make a more informed and independent decision.
We need a separate but equal Bridgeport City Council–and passing the Empowered City Council Act is an essential first step to helping make that a reality.
The Empowered City Council Act, introduced on Jan. 18 by City Council President Aidee Nieves and proposed in The People’s Platform by the Unrig Bridgeport Coalition, will provide our legislative body with a legislative and legal counsel to draft and review ordinances and advise the council on legal-related matters; an independent budget director to direct and advise the council during the budget process; and five legislative aides to support the 20 council members with their essential duties. Other cities in Connecticut of comparable size and municipal budgets–Hartford and New Haven–have similar support staff and permanent professional civil servants for their legislative bodies and their city governments are stronger because of it.
If we’ve learned anything in the aftermath of Jan. 6, it’s that we cannot take our democracy for granted. It is up to us–the people–to protect and strengthen it. If we truly want a vibrant, strong and healthy democracy in Bridgeport, then it’s time to restore City Council to its rightful place–as an independent, equal and empowered branch of our government.
The authors and organizations are part of the Unrig Bridgeport Coalition, including: Gemeem Davis & Callie Heilmann, Bridgeport Generation Now Votes; Shaenna Taylor, Bridgeport Strong; Tom Swan, Connecticut Citizen Action Group; Donna M. Curran, former member, Bridgeport City Council; Nichola Hall, Greater Bridgeport Ed Gomes Black Democratic Club; the Rev. D. Stanley Lord, Greater Bridgeport NAACP; Barbara Lopez, Make the Road Action Connecticut; Tamsyn Ambler & Shaurice Bacon, PT Partners; and Sauda Baraka, Bridgeport Working Families Town Committee.