Bi-partisan support has its advantages and Democratic State Rep. Jack Hennessy received it Wednesday morning in his quest to close a state loophole that allows city employees to serve on the City Council prohibited by the Bridgeport City Charter. Why allow the will of city voters to get in the way of conflicts of interest? Gravy train interests are working against Hennessy’s bill.
A diverse configuration of politicians, community activists and government officials issued written and verbal testimony before the legislature’s Planning and Development Committee including Republican Senate Leader John McKinney.
“Bridgeport’s charter clearly seeks to prohibit city employees from serving on City Council; yet through a loophole in state law this prohibition is not followed. We should close this loophole and local rule should ultimately prevail,” says McKinney.
Retired Superior Court Judge Carmen Lopez urged the committee to free residents from conflict of interest.
“The people of Bridgeport have already spoken, in the form of a charter provision, which is part of our organic law,” she said. “Those who temporarily hold office should not be permitted to thwart the rule of the people based upon an existing state statute. Here in Connecticut we believe in the principle of home rule. We even have a provision of our state constitution dedicated to that provision. By passing this bill, you will free the people of Bridgeport from the shackles of conflict of interest, brought about by one-party machine rule. Bridgeport is a city in which the “loyal opposition” is usually non-existent. When it does surface, it serves as a wholly owned machine subsidiary.”
Who showed up to testify on behalf of the City Council against Hennessy’s bill but Lydia Martinez, the queen of absentee ballots, under state investigation for another case of absentee ballot fraud. Martinez argued the people of Bridgeport must decide whom should represent them, perhaps ignorant of the fact that it was the people of Bridgeport who authorized the charter language that prohibits city employees from serving on the council. Martinez argued that city employees on the council could abstain, perhaps forgetting she never met a conflict of interest she didn’t admire.
Hennessy noted in testimony before the legislative committee Democratic insiders are working hard to torpedo his bill, saying “there’s a lot of forces against it and that just tells me that the machine in Bridgeport isn’t just located in Bridgeport, but it’s pervasive throughout the state.” Among them are labor unions whose contracts are approved by the Bridgeport City Council as well as the municipal lobbying group Connecticut Conference of Municipalities that received $88,000 in taxpayer money this budget year approved by the City Council.
Community watchdog John Marshall Lee, a frequent contributor to OIB, told the committee, “With at least six of twenty City Council members working in city departments and other close relatives providing realistic conflicts for several others, the City Council delivers vote after vote affirming rather than reviewing and providing a responsible pushback to City Hall. They have ceased to understand that conflicts of interest and appearance of same are to be avoided.”
Black Rock resident Jennifer Buchanan, part of a coalition of community activists and government officials that shepherded through laws to regulate massage parlors and strip clubs, told the committee, “I was here last year with a group of citizens asking you to enact a statute to regulate massage parlors; I am so very grateful to you, you listened and passed that state statute. Bridgeport closed their massage parlors, and we close them every time they attempt to re-open–it is not business as usual in Bridgeport because of your support. I am here again to ask you to please change this state statute so we can have a city that can continue to do the right thing, and work towards being a city of which we can be assured our elected officials serve only the best interest of the citizens of the city. There is a large number of qualified citizens of this city who have indicated they want to serve as City Council members, but will not consider serving with city employees who are council members.”
The reality is this bill will not survive as a result of a lot of Democratic inside pressure placed on a Democratic-controlled legislature, but sometimes strong coalitions take one brick at a time. Hennessy’s bill would have a stronger chance for passage if it grandfathered in the council members in question. He’s attempting too big a bite in the face of political opposition.
The Hartford Courant issued an editorial in support of Hennessy’s bill:
Town Workers Have No Business On Local Boards
When former U.S. Comptroller General David M. Walker moved to Bridgeport a few years ago and got involved in local affairs, he was stunned to learn that municipal employees in Connecticut can serve on their towns’ legislative bodies. “It just doesn’t work,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “It is a clear violation of best governance practices.” We agree.
Mr. Walker will submit testimony to a General Assembly hearing Wednesday in support of a bill that would prohibit municipal employees from serving on any boards that handle a city’s or town’s finances.
At present, municipal employees are prohibited only from serving on their boards of finance, except where permitted by charter or home rule ordinance. The bill introduced by Bridgeport state Rep. Jack Hennessy would expand the prohibition to include local legislative bodies that act as boards of finance–such as the Bridgeport city council, which has some city employees on it.
If the bill passes, city or town employees could no longer be involved in a community’s financial management. Which is how it should be.
Our only issue with Rep. Hennessy’s bill is that it doesn’t go far enough. City or town employees shouldn’t be serving on municipal governing bodies, period. It is an inherent conflict of interest.
One of the principal duties of a municipal governing body is to set a annual budget. A municipal employee’s livelihood is dependent on that budget. Either the council member influences, to some degree, his own wages and benefits, or he recuses himself from the process and fails to represent his constituents. Neither option should be acceptable.
No one is so valuable that he or she must serve both as a town employee and as a member of the local governing body. Pick one or the other.