Rallying against powerful union interests that control key state legislative votes trying to kill a government reform bill, dozens of city stakeholders Monday night urged passage of An act prohibiting municipal employees from serving on certain municipal legislative bodies before more than 100 spectators at a forum at the Bridgeport Public Library Downtown.
The bill introduced by State Rep. Jack Hennessy and State Senator Marilyn Moore seeks to enforce the voter-approved Bridgeport City Charter that prohibits city employees from serving on the City Council to avoid conflicts of interests such as approving their own wages and benefits. One of the faces of conflict who was a subject of criticism from speakers is City Council President Tom McCarthy who works at the pleasure of Mayor Bill Finch as deputy director of Labor Relations.
An interested spectator at the forum was former Mayor Joe Ganim, forced from office in 2003 following conviction on federal corruption charges, who’s pondering a run for his old job. Ganim told CT Post reporter Brian Lockhart he now supports the reform bill even though he did not enforce the charter provision when he served as mayor. Mayor Bill Finch has also not enforced it out of political expediency.
Several union leaders such as Joe Ambosini and Richard Dietz representing city employees spoke against the bill claiming voters must decide who should represent them irrespective of the fact city voters decided at the polls they don’t want city employees serving on the City Council. State Senator Ed Gomes, with sturdy labor credentials, delivered an impassioned rejoinder to those claiming the bill is anti union.
“No one is more pro union than me,” Gomes, a retired steelworker and Senate chair of the legislature’s Labor Committee, told the audience. “It’s not an anti union bill. There are things going on in Bridgeport counteractive to good government … I have been 50 years in the labor movement. This bill serves the needs of the citizens of the city of Bridgeport,” he boomed to a rousing ovation.
City officials could simply follow the City Charter without state intervention, but have chosen to ignore the will of the people citing a dubious loophole in state law.
State law bars public employees from serving on municipal boards of finance. The Bridgeport City Council, however, serves as a board of finance. The bill proposed seeks to extend state law to prohibit municipal employees from serving on any government body that has budget authority.
State Senator Marilyn Moore acknowledged her support of the government reform led to her victory over Anthony Musto in a Democratic primary last August. Musto opposed the bill on behalf of the city’s political establishment. Moore pointed out she was aided by union support during her campaign. But she told the audience that unions had not voiced opposition to her support for the bill during the campaign.
“No one with the unions said this conflict of interest bill was a problem,” Moore told the audience. “I’m keeping my word to support this bill,” she said to applause. “The choice is 20 people (size of the City Council) or the people of Bridgeport. I will fight for the greater good.”
Most members of the city’s legislative delegation attended the forum including Hennessy, Moore, Gomes, and State House members Steve Stafstrom, Andre Baker and Charlie Stallworth, all of whom support the legislation.
Republican City Councilman Enrique Torres, two-time mayoral candidate, told the crowd, “I deal with this situation on a regular basis. It’s not a good situation. The mayor of Bridgeport should not control the legislative body … The president of our council (Tom McCarthy) … that individual is the direct employee of the city … that individual is also head of labor relations. State law bars state employees from serving in the legislature as does the federal level … Tom McCarthy is the kingpin … he serves at the pleasure of the mayor and serves at the pleasure of the unions.”
McCarthy’s office negotiates union contracts McCarthy must approve as leader of the city’s legislative body so it’s to the benefit of union leadership to maintain a cozy relationship with McCarthy who also hears union grievances.
But some union members stepped up to the microphone to support the bill such as city school teacher Rob Traber, president of the Bridgeport Education Association. “I’m not allowed to be on the board of education until I’m no longer an employee,” he pointed out, adding “the piper is calling the tune,” suggesting the paychecks of city employee councilors are controlled by the executive branch.
Doug Wade, owner of Wade’s Dairy based on the East Side, said “This is serious to me because Bridgeport has had this black eye of corruption. I’ve got a business to grow.” Wade, a supporter of Mayor Bill Finch, said the mayor should have been there voicing support of the bill. Finch has not enforced the City Charter provision nor supported the bill out of respect for McCarthy. McCarthy was a city employee councilor prior to Finch’s election in 2007 but became head of the legislative body with Finch’s support shortly after.
Donald Greenberg, a political science professor at Fairfield University, added “Voters have decided they don’t want city employees serving on the City Council. Our city has had a taint of corruption and we will never have open, transparent government in this city until that taint is expunged.” He urged supporters of the bill to further the defeat of legislators against the bill. “Our will will be recognized.”
Pete Spain from Black Rock said, “It’s impossible for taxpayers to get a fair deal when council members work at the pleasure of the mayor. Such arrangements are not permitted in state and federal government.”
Tom White, former City Councilman, said “Disturbing opposition by labor has once against misrepresented the goal of this bill. The bill endorses a clear guideline applied to all municipalities.”
Mary-Jane Foster, 2011 mayoral candidate who helped organize the forum said, “The bill fundamentally changes the way we govern … Let Bridgeport government itself with integrity.”
Scott Hughes, city librarian who resides in the Upper East Side, said “Having lived in other places, this conflict of interest is the one thing holding Bridgeport back … This is a problem in the constitution state.”
West Side resident Gabrielle Parisi said “Why does the city attorney or anyone else for that matter find it necessary to look for a loophole? There is no ambiguity. The Bridgeport City Charter prohibits city employees from being eligible to run for City Council. So I ask again, Why? We have plenty of real and present challenges that stand in the way of our path to healing and vibrancy as a city … Any questions regarding this issue have already been answered in the most succinct manner that America furnishes for her citizenry … at the voting booth.”
City realtor Gail Robinson said it’s also an important issue for the investment community. “It’s just common sense not to have city employees serving on the City Council. We’re overtaxed due to a lack of economic development. Let’s send a message to legislators that there will be consequences if they oppose this bill.”
Former City Councilman Bob “Troll Walsh” said he speaks from experience why the bill must pass. “I was a City Council member who had the audacity to speak out against a former mayor and within a few months I lost my job … There is a chilling effect, you cannot deny it … when Tom McCarthy reports directly to the mayor there is no separation between the mayor and the council. It is bad … very very bad.”
When Walsh finished one of the many audience members who clapped was Joe Ganim, the mayor in question. Ganim was present for the entire forum.
The bill before the General Assembly’s Planning and Development Committee faces stiff opposition from Senate chair Cathy Osten, a union activist with ties to Lori Pelletier, head of the state AFL-CIO. Osten has said publicly she will kill the bill. Union leadership provides money and bodies for many Democratic candidates.
Legislative supporters of the bill say they will not give up the fight. They will submit the bill as an attachment to another bill if not voted out of committee, a suggestion also made by former State Senator Ernie Newton, the first speaker of the evening. Newton also declared another course of action if the bill fails — file a lawsuit in state court to honor the charter.