Watchdog Barks About “Hidden Government”–Will Others Dig In?

For years, citizen fiscal watchdog John Marshall Lee has been a lonely bark adding light to the dark of government finances with little backup from struggling taxpayers at City Council meetings. Last week, City Council chambers was jammed with angry taxpayers only after they received their tax bills. It’s always better to vent before the budget is approved, but could this be the start of more citizen involvement? Lee speculates in this commentary:

Tuesday evening July 5, 2016, City Hall Bridgeport, 450 or more citizens, taxpayers and others gathered to see what a City Council meeting would feature after receiving tax bills that shook many in the community, not just one neighborhood. Citizens without taxable property of any kind, renters, at the moment probably did not know what was going on.

And there were those who had suffered from overvaluation for years (condo owners, many living out of town and renting their units) who may have received some justice such that some taxes did go down. But commercial property owners and those in neighborhoods with higher residential market values were outraged and present in numbers more than at any time in recent history.

Over the past six years I attempted to learn how Bridgeport governance functions, first. I have asked questions and tracked down answers, second. Then I made connections across years, departments, informal statements, minutes of meetings, annual audits, and monthly financial reports. Finally I have shared the facts and my impressions almost daily, on OIB, and with the City Council in the five-minute slices of the public speaking session allowed 22 times per as educational free speech for those unwilling or unable to pursue the study.

It is usually a lonely activity. I write on a given subject for about an hour, perhaps 700-800 words. I have five minutes to deliver my message to a generally inattentive City Council audience that for the most part does not seem to care. At times my talks have praised, provided sympathy to and understanding of Council difficulties over the years but that brought them no closer to talking with me a part of public service. Other times I have scolded them for failed action, challenged them for their lack of attention to detail, for their failure to serve as monitors of our Charter and Ordinances, or for living up to a role as watchdogs of public dollars. The public generally has not viewed the Council at work. On Tuesday they got an eyeful. Council process was in full display.

As I arrived to the steps of City Hall I took a moment to address the crowd that was waiting outside and showed them the poster created four years ago to depict the muzzled watchdogs of the Council, in that they had sat still for nearly 30 years without receiving a June fiscal report, until 2012, even though the City Charter specifically stated otherwise. It took until 2013 for a Council to request a “DRAFT” June 2013 report be made “FINAL” and include any changes that occurred in the audit period. It was a Council election year and the Final report, available in late winter 2014 showed the type of corruption present. Tom McCarthy, Council president, had guided 15 of the 20 Council persons to request City purchase orders to local charities, a total of 55 checks totaling over $28,000 from their OTHER SERVICES Line Item.

They met without meeting notice, without minutes filed, without an agenda public and they spent taxpayer money, delivering checks to charities as if it were their own money. They never told the public and the June report was the only way it would have been discovered. And the taxpaying public received “no” OTHER SERVICES for this Council appropriation.

No report in the CT Post on this subject. No consequences of any kind for this clear misappropriation of public funds. We received a FINAL June report for 2014. But Ken Flatto, Finance Director, has been unwilling to provide one for June 2015. With the number of irregularities already discovered in the Finch years, why is Ken Flatto being so secretive and coy, offering such a statement in the coming year?

I went into the chambers and greeted many in the crowd. After significant delay due to scheduled hearings not held on time, I was identified as the first speaker of the evening.

Just before the speaking session started late as there had been much confusion with the number of people in the audience, more than two people advised and encouraged me to request that City Council rules be suspended and that public speaking be extended beyond the first six people listed. I asked two Council persons to do so but received no agreement from them.

My initial words to Tom McCarthy repeated the request to suspend rules to allow more people to speak. Tom’s response: “John, we’re sticking with the rules.” The audience was disappointed and groaned. I began my talk.

In the time since I have wondered about Tom’s specific answer to my request and my own speculation goes to the action and discussion of Council members who left their seats to meet in the caucus room. Did Tom get the watchdogs in the room and tell them how he would control things? Probably not, because he would have used an “I” statement, as he often does, rather than “we.” So was the issue discussed? Was it perhaps voted upon by your Council members and mine out of sight? And what was the vote that prepared Tom McCarthy to announce “We’re sticking with the rules?” What rules was McCarthy adhering to in 2013 when he guided the Council to misappropriate $28,000?

The Council had precedents for “moments of privilege,” adjusting to the present moment, but this Council was not ready to accede to a reasonable request. They also had precedents to follow the rules, when it works to their advantage, individually, or as a body. But the filled seats in the Council room was unprecedented in the experience of this City Council.

I delivered my comments that specifically identified the “hidden government” in Bridgeport that exists to select 93% of our elected officials, year in and year out. That “royalty” has no platform, has no open process, exists thanks to sharing jobs, contracts, and celebrity of City office with those who can be bought and allows corruption to be present and accepted too frequently without a whistle blown or any consequences.

I have been thanked by many for my years of activity on behalf of all citizens. Perhaps we have reached a “tipping point” where OPEN, ACCOUNTABLE, TRANSPARENT and HONEST governance values and behavior will be demanded by more than a few.

Time will tell.



  1. We should drag the Mayor, Flatto, and the entire membership of Budget and Appropriations Committee
    into Superior Court!
    After hearing Co-Chair Scott Burns’ testimony last week at the Burroughs Community Center, we have grounds for a budget do-over. This budget is misleading and damaging to the taxpayers of Bridgeport, it clearly does more harm than good!.

    1. JML, I wish you realized how appreciated you are from the reasonable, thinking residents of Bridgeport. Unfortunately the sitting council members, along with the one holding the Charter-mandated title of Council President have no respect for their constituencies, the law and the Charter. They are a group of uninformed, inexperienced, glory-seeking individuals who don’t have the manners of a tomcat. A year goes by very quickly, especially in politics; I have expressed to you more than once I’m ready to get started to educate the public as to what they are entitled to in terms of representation, and inform them of the ignorance of their council members. I assure you, many voters won’t even know whom they are. I don’t feel good being so brutally honest, but no one knows better than I the responsibilities and commitment necessary to hold that position. I’m not interested in a popularity contest, and any one of them should feel free to challenge my opinion of them, to my face!

  2. JML, it is a pleasure to read you on OIB. The people are now paying attention; the challenge is keeping them engaged and notified. When the next council meeting isn’t on the budget, will the horde come out to see Boss Joe and the do-nothing/know-nothing town council? If history is a predictor, no. In my opinion this has to become an organized movement for it to have legs. Your cause is the cause of Bridgeport, and for those whose taxes weren’t affected, it is still worth their time for the incompetency of the government affects us all. These same people, of the same political party, have been in power for decades and Bridgeport has not improved. Not the schools, not the neighborhoods, not the roads; no growth in home ownership, new business, new tax revenue has not materialized and spending goes up. It does not matter whom you are; old, young, man, woman, child, black, white, brown and everything in between, Bridgeport has failed you!
    What happens now could be the genesis that give us a new mayor and new town council in two years, and sets Bridgeport on its course to be the city people have been expecting it to be for the past 40 years.

  3. DC,
    I know Lisa and you are right. More people are becoming aware of the “facts” that escape from the control by the incumbent administration. For instance, July 5 taxpayers for the most part did not include those who pay principal, interest and taxes each month to a financial institution. The tax notices are sent to the financial institution and then they write their clients the escrow for taxes account is being readjusted for the new year with higher (or lower) monthly payments.

    However, when the City taxes were reviewed by spreadsheet analysis privately, it looks like 95% of commercial taxpayers showed increases. And for the residential, almost 2/3 showed increases. Is it possible the Mayor’s predictions for 65% having reductions was faulty in some manner? Time will tell.

    1. JML and DC Faber, keep it coming. Many people read this blog, and while Lennie unfortunately doesn’t have the exposure the Post has, the messages on this blog get out to many. If an effective movement results with the involvement of the smart, willing readers, the Post will be chasing Lennie’s sources. We may not always express our concerns and opinions in the same way, but we mean the same thing and have the same concerns. Repetition is always successful, Lennie our marketing guru will tell you that. Say it enough, get the message out, watch every vote the council members cast, single them out if necessary, you will see a change within a year.



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