Former Superior Court Judge Carmen Lopez shares this follow-up commentary examining the process for Bridgeport’s legislative body to coalesce independence from the executive branch of government.
While we wait with bated breath for the release of the City Attorney’s predictable opinion on City Council Item #23-21, also known as the City Council Empowerment Act, a review of the language of the proposed resolutions and ordinance is in order.
This Act proposes to amend the Bridgeport Code of Ordinances by adding three distinct sections to the current Code.
The first proposed new section, Section 2.06.080, authorizes the City Council to “appropriate sufficient funds to appoint five (5) legislative aides.” These legislative aides “will be assigned to serve up to four (4) City Council members each.”
It must be noted that the existing Bridgeport Code of Ordinances already establishes an Office of Legislative Services in section 2.06.070. This office is charged with assisting members of the City Council with the performance of their duties and is authorized to have a budget for that purpose.
This ordinance is expressly authorized by the City Charter, Section 6 of Chapter five (5).
It should be self-evident, that the City Council possesses the absolute right to hire legislative staff. It has the authority, by ordinance to include those positions in the annual budget, and to fund those positions.
For many years the City was well-served by Tom White, who performed these duties conscientiously, capably and impartially. This perhaps got him fired by the city employee, who then served as City Council president for many years. The position remains vacant to this day.
Whether the new hires contemplated by the new ordinance would be members of the classified service, or would be non-civil service employees at will, is a policy decision which the City Council must address.
However, the second proposed section of the new ordinance, Section 2.06.090, authorizes the City Council to “appropriate sufficient funds to hire an attorney, or outside council to advise members.” This provision will inevitably provoke opposition from the City Attorney’s Office. That office has maintained over many years, and over many administrations, that no attorney can be hired without the approval of the City Attorney.
The City Attorney has relied on Chapter 7, Section 4 of the City Charter, which states “no Board, Commission, officer or department of the City, shall retain legal counsel to represent it in any matter without the approval of the City attorney.” Since the City Council is not specifically mentioned in that provision, it may be argued that the Council, as Bridgeport’s legislative body, already has the power without the City Attorney’s permission, to hire legal counsel.
However, litigating that issue would be expensive, time consuming, and might not achieve the desired results. Therefore, only a revision of the City Charter approved by the voters, can guarantee the right of Bridgeport’s legislative assembly to hire its own independent legal counsel.
Independent legal advice is an absolute prerequisite, to the ability of the City Council to act independently of the Mayor and the City Attorney, appointed by that Mayor.
For years, members of the City Council have privately groused that the City Attorney’s office is too controlling and spends most of its time admonishing the Council concerning what it can’t do, and why it must trust and obey the Mayor.
This advice does not depend upon the identity of the Mayor. For decades, our unelected City Attorney has dispensed this counsel to the elected members of the municipal legislature. Almost invariably, the City Attorney will come down on the side of Executive power.
The Charter can be amended to permit legal counsel to be chosen by and accountable to the City Council. As a new member of the Council explained at the recent meeting of the Ordinance Committee, the Connecticut General Assembly hires attorneys. Those attorneys are not subject to the review of the Attorney General or the Governor’s Counsel.
Municipal legislators here in Bridgeport should have the same authority.
In furtherance of legislative independence and freedom of action, a Charter Revision Commission might explore other means of enhancing the stature of the City Council.
For example, City Council meetings should be chaired by the President of the City Council and not by the municipal executive. The mayor should be permitted to offer input during the Council meeting, but should not do so from the Chair. Nor should the City Attorney be the official parliamentarian.
I am encouraged by what seems to be a willingness by our City Council members to fully appreciate what their role as legislators entails. A Charter Revision commission appointed by and reporting to the City Council, as required by state law, would further the goal of legislative independence.
Let us hope that this streak of independence represents a permanent change in the City Council, and is not merely a momentary fad!