Flawed Stamford election system needs change


STAMFORD — A voter filling in the ovals beside candidates’ names during a municipal election may not stop to wonder how those names made it onto the ballot.

But it’s something to think about in Stamford, where some candidates help put their own names there.

Candidates are chosen by political committees, one for each party, and a good number of committee members run for office.


So when the parties nominate candidates for seats on the boards that govern the city, those committee members can vote for themselves.

You almost can’t lose.

Consider Stamford’s dominant party, Democrats, who outnumber Republicans two to one.

The 40-person Democratic City Committee includes 14 members of the Board of Representatives, one member of the Board of Finance, and one member of the Board of Education.

During the Democrats’ July 19 nominating convention, for example, city Rep. Gloria DePina of District 5 — also a member of the Democratic City Committee from that district — had the opportunity to pick herself as a candidate.

She then could vote on her own nomination, which she won.

So, in November, DePina again will run for her seat on the Board of Representatives, which she has held since 1989. DePina also won her party’s endorsement to again run for constable.

It’s no different on the opposing party, though the scale is smaller.

The 40-person Republican Town Committee includes eight members of the Board of Representatives and one member of the Board of Education.

Like the DCC, the RTC is divided into 20 districts, two members in each district.

In three of those districts — the 14th, 15th and 17th — both committee members are on the Board of Representatives.

During the Republican Party convention, also held July 19, each of those six GOP representatives won a nomination to run again in November.

The result is that, among the 40 members of the Board of Representatives, 22 also sit on the committees of their respective political parties.

It means more than half of city representatives will have had the opportunity to help re-elect themselves by the time voters go to the polls on Nov. 7.

Such a system favors incumbents.

Two city representatives, Democrats Annie Summerville and John Zelinsky, have sat on the board for 40 years. Two others have been members for nearly as long — Republican Gabe DeLuca, 38 years, and Democrat Elaine Mitchell, 31 years.

Four members have held their seats for 20 to 29 years — Democrats Gloria DePina, Philip Giordano and Randall Skigen and Republican Mary Fedeli.

Six representatives have been on the board for 10 to 19 years, and the remaining 26 members have served for nine years or fewer.

The influence of political committees extends into the mayor’s office. For example, three members of the Democratic City Committee — Cindy Grafstein and Martin Levine as special assistants and Jay Fountain as director of the Office of Policy and Management — work for Democratic Mayor David Martin.

The system has operated this way for many years, but now some are clamoring for change.

Josh Fedeli, who became chairman of the Democratic City Committee last year, tried to expand the group by adding a member to each district. It would bring in new faces, Fedeli said, but longtime members voted to reject the move.

Fedeli has said he will try again.

Some newcomers are challenging the system on their own.

In Board of Representatives District 4, newcomers Megan Cottrell and Robert Roqueta are collecting signatures to force a primary and challenge incumbents Willy Giraldo and Mary Savage, both members of the Democratic City Committee.

None of it means that incumbents are bad and newcomers are good — an effective governing body has a balance of experience and fresh ideas.

It does, though, call for banning elected officials from also sitting on political committees.

That would guard against a system that allows for power and influence to be relegated to a few.


angelacarella@stamfordadvocate.com


 

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