Saturday, January 17, 2015

Waterbury's Connections to Selma

Sometimes related events converge by coincidence. As Waterbury wrestles with the creation of new voting districts, guided by an outside demographer whose primary focus is adherence to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a new movie, Selma, brings to life the conflict that forced the Voting Rights Act into being.

Brief Background

On January 2, 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), along with other groups, began a voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama. Their goal was to focus national attention on the local government, which was illegally preventing African Americans from voting.

One of the protesters, an African American church deacon named Jimmie Lee Jackson, while protecting his mother and grandfather, was shot and killed by an Alabama state trooper in February. On March 7, activists began a march from Selma to Montgomery, but they didn't get far. State troopers set up a blockade on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, attacking the marchers with tear gas and clubs. The event received wide television coverage, sparking national outrage.

Two days later, the march began again, this time with more than 2,000 people participating. This time, they avoided a confrontation with the state troopers by turning back to Selma, but yet another protester was killed: a white Unitarian minister named James Reeb.

On March 15, President Johnson declared his support of the protesters; on March 16, the plan to march from Selma to Montgomery received official approval from a federal judge; and on March 17, President Johnson submitted to Congress his voting rights legislation.

The marchers finally left Selma on March 21, protected by the National Guard and the FBI. On the final day of the march, March 25, the number of participants grew to 25,000. Alabama's Governor Wallace refused to accept a petition from the marchers. A third participant in the demonstration was killed that night: white housewife Viola Liuzzo was shot in the head by members of the KKK while she drove fellow marchers to their homes in Selma.

The Voting Rights Act was finally signed into law on August 6, 1965.

Support for Selma in Waterbury

Waterbury attorney Peter Marcuse was active in the South prior to the Selma march. He was a member of the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee (LCDC), which provided legal aid to Civil Rights activists beginning in the summer of 1964. Marcuse was based in Mississippi for part of that summer, defending civil rights workers.

Marcuse traveled to Selma for the march in 1965 with Arthur Johnson, head of Hartford's Human Relations Commission. During the days leading up to the final march, Marcuse and Johnson toured the area in a station wagon, surveying the terrible living conditions for Alabama's African Americans. Marcuse also worked for social justice in Waterbury, helping to found New Opportunities for Waterbury. Now Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning at Columbia University, Marcuse writes a blog about various topics including social justice and urban issues.

Rev. Alfred Jaenicke, assistant at Waterbury's Sts. Peter and Paul Church, was one of six Catholic priests from Connecticut who flew to Alabama on March 11 in response to Martin Luther King's call for clergymen to join the demonstration. The Connecticut priests were part of the National Catholic Conference for Inter-Racial Justice.

Waterbury resident and State Treasurer Gerald Lamb joined the Selma demonstrators on March 21, serving as Connecticut's official representative. Connecticut's Governor Dempsey declined to join the march, citing too many obligations, but declared in a telegram to Dr. King: "I intend to continue my practice of speaking out strongly for civil rights and to make particular reference to the struggle you are waging in Alabama." (Hartford Courant, 21 Mar 1965)

Other Waterbury residents who participated in the march from Selma to Montgomery included Frank S. Moore, president of the Waterbury branch of the NAACP; Doris Powell Glass, president of the Waterbury Negro Federation; and Reed Smith, president of Meadow Homes, the first interracial premium home community in Waterbury.

[If you know of others from Waterbury who marched, please let me know, and I'll add them to this post.]

Waterbury Rallies for Selma

On Sunday, April 4, 1965, approximately 1,000 people rallied on the Waterbury Green to show support for the Selma demonstrators and voting rights. The Waterbury demonstration began with a march of about 500 people, who walked from Cooke Street, down North Main Street, to the Green. The march was led by a half dozen or so Waterburians who had participated in the march from Selma to Montgomery. Marchers also included about 40 nuns from city parishes, as well as Catholic and Protestant clergymen. A few demonstrators carried signs with slogans that included "Love Conquers All" and "God is Love." There was no chanting or shouting, only quiet discussion as they marched (All rally descriptions, unless otherwise noted, are from Waterbury Republican, 5 Apr 1965).

Marching to the Green down Cooke Street, Sunday, April 4, 1965.
Front row, left to right: Kenneth Moore and his parents, Mrs. and Mr. Frank Moore, and Alderman Luther Gatling.

Image courtesy of Jimmie Griffin.

Speakers at the rally were primarily people who participated in the Selma march. Gerald Lamb spoke about his experience marching from Selma to Montgomery "not only as the governor's representative, but as your representative too." Lamb said that the trip was one of the most moving experiences of his life.

Jerry Harrison, a 19-year-old Selma resident and member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, also spoke at the Waterbury rally. Harrison had been beaten and gassed at the Pettus Bridge blockade during the first Selma march. In Waterbury, Harrison declared "Anyone who denies an American citizen the right to vote dishonors the memory of every serviceman who died fighting for this country." (Hartford Courant, 5 Apr 1965)

Gerald Lamb addressing the crowd on the Green, April 4, 1965.
(Image from Waterbury Republican, 5 Apr 1965; microfilm at Bronson Library)

Frank Moore, president of the Waterbury branch of the NAACP, thanked the Waterbury police for their protection of the march and rally and spoke about the importance of voting rights and stated that "A voteless man is a hopeless man, because he is then a slave."

On a side note, police protection for the rally was, sadly, necessary. In February, residents of Berkeley Heights had been alarmed to find a 15-foot cross set on fire in the playground across the street (Bridgeport Post, 11 Feb 1965). Police swiftly arrested four young men, ages 18-20, who set up the burning cross after reading about the KKK's activities in the South. Sentencing of the cross burners was scheduled for the week following the rally on the Green (Bridgeport Post, 11 Mar 1965). The "ringleader" was sentenced to serve two months in jail and pay a $100 fine (Bridgeport Post, 8 Apr 1965). In a different incident, a week and a half after the rally on the Green, Waterbury Alderman Luther Gatling was arrested in New Haven after defending himself against a man from Massachusetts who claimed to be with the KKK and threatened to "get you, n***." (Boston Globe, 16 Apr 1965). Both men were arrested on breach of peace charges. Although the Civil Rights struggle was primarily active in the South, where conditions were much worse, tensions ran high here in Connecticut.

Other speakers at the rally included Doris Glass, president of the Waterbury Negro Federation, who urged everyone to become involved in human rights, explaining the need for financial and moral support of the Civil Rights cause.

Reed Smith, president of Meadow Homes, shared the perspective of being a white Northerner in the march from Selma to Montgomery. The experience touched him profoundly. He stated that "after my experiences in Alabama, I know I can never again sit by and do nothing when I think of the many Negro people I met in Alabama who are living in fear."

Alderman Luther Gatling, president pro tem of the Board of Aldermen, urged Waterbury's citizens to exercise their right to vote: "Vote for those who have died and for those who will die in the struggle. If we, who need only walk a few steps to cast our ballot, fail to do so while men are marching 50 miles and giving up their lives for the same right, then we are more guilty than Gov. Wallace of Alabama."

Rev. Jaenicke spoke about the Catholic perspective, noting that "Christ made no distinction. He suffered and died for us all," and that "as Catholics, we must join in all attempts to eliminate every form of injustice."

Rev. Barry Stipp, pastor of the Wolcott Congregational Church, who also joined the demonstration in Selma, emphasized that "the church is the heartbeat of the civil rights movement."

The rally included a plea to raise money for the voting rights workers in the South: the Waterbury NAACP collected $533 that day, with pledges for additional donations.

Rev. Jonathan Reed of Grace Methodist Church concluded the rally with a memorial service for those killed while working for the cause of human rights.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Public Response to the First Map

The public gave its response to the first draft map for Aldermen by District on Thursday, January 8. Overviews of the meeting have been reported on by the Waterbury Observer and the Rep-Am, so I'll try to stay focused on some of what they didn't cover.

The first draft map was posted to the city website on Monday last week with no explanation; as a result, people were jumping to conclusions all over the city. The most common conclusion was that the map was rigged to protect two Democratic Aldermen. Accusations of gerrymandering came from all sides. I was hesitant to jump to that conclusion, however, since the map still had an overabundance of Democrats in two of its districts. I may be cynical at times, but jumping to the conclusion that one or two Aldermen had been able to rig the map for their exclusive benefit was too much of a leap for me. The map was pretty alarming, and some weird choices were made. My concerns were laid to rest at Thursday's meeting.

Now that I've heard the demographer, Dr. Peter Morrison, give his presentation, I can state with full confidence that the map will not be rigged, that there is no way that Morrison would ever allow his work to be corrupted by local politics, and that he will create a map that will be as good as we could ever hope to get. The city made an excellent choice in selecting Morrison to draw up the map.

Last week, I also heard from a few people who are upset about the credentials of the Commissioners selected to oversee the process. There appears to be some simmering discontent over the way in which they were selected. Frankly, at this point, I don't think that matters. While I do not personally know all of the Commissioners, the ones I do know are above reproach. They care about this city, and they care about doing what's right. They all listened closely to what the public had to say at the meeting last week, and they were in complete agreement with what was said. I see no reason for anyone to question their integrity or their suitability for the job.

As I've said before, the bottom line is this: no matter what the district boundaries end up being, this is an opportunity to change "politics as usual" in this city. Start thinking about who in your community would be a good Alderman. Start discussion within neighborhood associations and other community groups about how to become involved with the new system. The more people are involved in the electoral process, the better our government will be. Sitting around complaining about what's already happened accomplishes nothing.

Morrison's Presentation

Dr. Morrison clarified a number of important things on Thursday. (His slideshow can be accessed on the city website in PDF format.)

The "first draft map" was never intended to represent a possible final map. Morrison's first concern was to protect the city from lawsuits related to federal voter protection laws. He used data showing where our two groups of minorities (blacks and Hispanics) live, and drew up districts that would withstand any accusation of violating federal law.

Demographic data presented by Dr. Morrison at Thursday's meeting.
Current deviation is 7.74%. It needs to be below 10%; Morrison wants to get it down to 5%.

Morrison drew the districts with no regard for neighborhood boundaries, which, as we all know, caused pretty much everyone in the city to freak out. Morrison explained in his presentation that he has a map of neighborhood boundaries, and that, in most cases, it will be very simple for him to modify his first draft map to respect the neighborhoods.

Slide from Morrison's presentation, showing an example
of where changes can be made to keep neighborhoods intact.

Larry Rifkin interviewed Morrison on WATR Friday morning. It was interesting to hear Morrison's response to Waterbury. He was impressed by how unified we were in our defense of our neighborhood structure (the technical term being "communities of interest"). I've heard it said before that Waterbury is a city of neighborhoods, and I'm certainly aware of how each neighborhood has unique characteristics, but it was eye-opening to hear an outside demographer describe this as something that makes Waterbury different from other cities.

Morrison pointed out that because the black and Hispanic speakers at Thursday's meeting expressed a primary concern for keeping neighborhoods intact, he would be able to loosen up his initial plan for two of the districts. In other words, what Morrison heard from the people of Waterbury is that keeping neighborhoods intact is more important than any other consideration.

Rep. Butler's Plan

During the public speaking portion of Thursday's meeting, State Rep. Larry Butler recommended throwing away Morrison's first draft map and instead use the state legislative map from 2000, back when the city's five legislative districts were located solely in Waterbury (as opposed to now, when the 71st district includes Middlebury). Butler's plan was endorsed by two of the Commissioners immediately following the public speaking, and the Commission voted to instruct Dr. Morrison to create a map based on the old legislative map. It will need to be tweaked to reflect the most recent demographic data.

Map submitted to the Redistricting Commission by Rep. Larry Butler.

What Happens Next

Dr. Morrison will draw up three maps, one of which will be based on Rep. Butler's proposal. The three maps will be discussed at the next public hearing, on Wednesday, January 14. As with the last meeting, if you care at all about this, please plan on attending. If you can't attend, I assume it will be broadcast on our cable access channel, and you will be able to view the maps on the city website. You can also submit your comments through the city website.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

The First Map

The latest chapter in the saga of Aldermen by District is unfolding this week. In a surprise move Monday, the city posted on their website a preliminary map showing possible boundaries for the new Aldermanic districts. Outrage and accusations of gerrymandering promptly ensued.

Based on what we we've been told up until now, we expected to be shown three different maps at a public meeting held at City Hall tomorrow night (Thursday, January 8, 6:30 p.m.). The publication of the preliminary map on Monday was done without explanation. At first I thought maybe it was put online by mistake. Then I thought maybe it was a ploy--show your client the worst draft first, so that anything you them afterwards looks that much better. Either way, I figured I would wait to render judgment until after all three maps are unveiled on Thursday.

Now, however, for whatever reason, it seems that the process has been changed. John Murray of the Waterbury Observer spoke this afternoon with Dr. Peter Morrison, the demographer hired to oversee the project and was able to get an update on what is now happening.

According to what Dr. Morrison told the Observer, the map that went online Monday is the starting map. It was drawn to create five districts of approximately equal population and to protect minority voting blocks. Dr. Morrison is looking for feedback on this first map at tomorrow night's meeting, and has stated that he will then draw up three maps to be presented at the next meeting on January 14.

I think there are going to be quite a few angry people at tomorrow night's meeting. It's very easy to get bogged down in the details of this apparent sleight-of-hand. According to the official published information about the meeting schedule, we'll be presented with three maps tomorrow night, and we'll be able to comment on the maps at meetings held on January 14 and January 22. If John Murray hadn't tracked down Dr. Morrison and gotten a verbal update, we'd all be going into tomorrow night's meeting expecting to see three maps, and many of us wouldn't have our comments about the preliminary map ready. This is a massive lack of transparency. Either somebody screwed up, or somebody was trying to unfairly control the outcome. (Personally, I figure it was a screw up. The process is rushed, so mistakes are bound to happen.)

At this point, the most important thing is for everyone to give their feedback on this first map. There are two ways to do this:

1. Attend the public meeting at City Hall, Thursday, January 8, 6:30 p.m.

2. Review the map online and submit your comments through the City website; you can either fill in a submission form, or you can email

Now on to my thoughts about the first map.

The map is, surprisingly, very similar to my hypothetical "map of doom," which I drew up in an attempt to show what a gerrymandered map might look like (see previous post). According to Dr. Morrison, the map primarily focused on adhering to legal requirements regarding minority voting protections.

Here's the first map. I've added the names and party affiliations of the incumbent Aldermen.

Map from City of Waterbury website showing possible Aldermanic districts,
with names and party affiliations of incumbent Aldermen added by me.

There are so many, many things wrong with this map. In no particular order, here are a handful of the problems:

1. The map gives the impression that it was drawn to protect three powerful Democrats.

If I zoom in on the map, you can see it better. For no clear reason, the orange 1st District include a sliver of Bunker Hill, stretching out to include Democrat Alderman Napoli. His equally powerful Democrat neighbors in Bunker Hill are placed in the 5th District, conveniently preventing the three of them from having to primary against one another. Dr. Morrison claims that he was unaware of this situation, but I can't imagine any other reason for drawing the map this way.

Let me make it clear, however, that I am not opposed to drawing the map to protect incumbents. However, it's only okay if ALL the incumbents are protected. No exceptions, no special treatment for anyone.

2. Dr. Morrison says that the minority voting blocks in the 72nd and 75th Legislative Districts have been protected. However, it can be argued that this map reduces opportunities for minorities to serve on the Board of Aldermen.

In the proposed 1st District (orange), Alderman Lopez, a Hispanic, would have to primary against Aldermen Napoli and Begnal, white men who have served on the Board of Aldermen for many years, and who would quite possibly defeat Alderman Lopez, who is in his first term on the Board and isn't as well known.

In the proposed 4th District (lavender), Alderman DePillo, a white man living in Bunker Hill, is more or less guaranteed to win reelection due to his popularity, making it that much harder for minority candidates in the 4th District to win election--one of the three seats is taken by a white incumbent who doesn't even live on the same side of town as the rest of the district.

3. The 2nd and 4th Districts, which correspond to the 72nd and 75th State Legislative Districts, and which have the highest concentrations of minorities, have significantly smaller populations than the surrounding districts.

According to the map, the district population numbers are as follows:

1st District (Bunker Hill, Buck's Hill, Bouley Manor): 22,260
2nd District (Hillside, Downtown, South End): 21,386
3rd District (East End, East Mountain, Hopeville, Platt's Mills): 22,584
4th District (WOW, Crownbrook, Overlook): 21,214
5th District (Town Plot & Bunker Hill): 22,922

Dr. Morrison claims that the 2nd and 4th Districts conform to laws protecting minority voters. If that's true, then why are those districts significantly smaller than the predominantly white neighborhoods?

4. There is no regard for neighborhood boundaries.

Bunker Hill has been divided into three districts, apparently to avoid having four Aldermen in one neighborhood. The area surrounding Alderman Napoli have been grouped with a District that includes Buck's Hill and the East End, while the area surrounding Alderman DePillo have been added to a District that includes Overlook and the North End.

Detail showing Bunker Hill divided into three districts.

Downtown has been divided into three districts.

Detail showing Downtown divided into three districts.

The WOW and Crownbrook neighborhoods have been divided into two districts which completely disregard both neighborhood boundaries and state legislative boundaries.

I could keep going, but I think you get the idea.

It's up to the people who live in the neighborhoods to tell Morrison and the Commissioners whether or not the proposed boundaries make sense. Participation is vital. Morrison isn't from here; he doesn't know Waterbury. If we don't tell him what's wrong with the map boundaries, we'll get something that doesn't work.

If you can't go to the January 8 meeting, send your feedback to Be heard. Be involved.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Drawing Up the New Districts

Things are chugging along with the establishment of Aldermen by District. Check out the Waterbury Observer for a good report of what's going on with the District Commission.

If this is a topic that is of interest to you (and if you live in Waterbury, it should be), I recommend that you plan on attending the public meeting at City Hall on January 8 at 6:30 p.m. The District Commission will present three district maps for us to give feedback on. ("Us" means anyone and everyone who lives and votes in Waterbury.)

This is your chance to be heard. Don't sit back and assume someone else will do it for you. Participate in the reshaping of your city government. Get involved, and stay involved. Pay attention to what's happening, and take advantage of any opportunity to have your voice heard.

Before you go to the January 8 meeting, spend some time thinking about what you hope to see happen. The city is going to be divided into five districts -- what should those districts be?

The Commissioners will be drawing the boundaries based on how many people live in each area, how many people are registered to vote at each polling center, where different minority groups are clustered, geography, existing political boundaries, where the incumbents live (to "avoid head-to-head contests"), and "communities of interest." They will also be guided by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as any relevant state laws.

In order to help you think about the issues involved, here are several maps to consider.

Map 1

Let's start with Waterbury's current State Legislative districts. There are five such districts in Waterbury. Some people have wondered why we can't just use those districts as the Aldermanic districts. The answer is that one of those districts includes all of Middlebury, so that plan would work only if Waterbury annexes Middlebury. Although that has some appeal, it's not going to happen (but, boy, would it make for a funny fictional short story!).

Current State Legislative Districts. The 71st District also includes Middlebury,
making it impossible for the Aldermanic Districts to follow the same boundaries.

Map 2

The next map is drawn to give you a sense of what could happen if the Commission decides to guarantee that the incumbent Aldermen are protected. This is not a precise map, just a rough draft to show that it is possible.

This is not that bad of a district map, but it is risky. If the new districts are based on the current residences of the incumbents, it could set a dangerous precedent in which it would be considered acceptable to redraw the map every time an incumbent moves out of his or her district. It would also set an equally dangerous precedent for the next time the district boundaries are redrawn for legitimate reasons.

If the Commission should decide to deliberately protect the incumbents, I hope there will be legally binding language to prevent any future consideration of the location of incumbents when the district boundaries are eventually redrawn.

Hypothetical map protecting all the incumbent Aldermen,
while following some of the State Legislative boundaries.

This brings us to the issue of gerrymandering, the definition of which is to rig the district boundaries to benefit one party over another, or one class over another. It could be argued that this map is an example of political party gerrymandering, since there are more Democrats than Republicans or Independents, but since it protects all the incumbents, I'd be surprised if anyone raised that point.

The issue of class is stickier. It could be argued that this map violates Federal law, since it sets up a scenario in which the poorest neighborhoods with the highest concentrations of minorities are represented almost exclusively by white Aldermen living in predominantly white, middle class neighborhoods. However, this would be easily remedied in the first election by putting forth candidates who live in the minority neighborhoods (i.e., the South End could rally behind a candidate from their neighborhood, ousting one of the incumbents from Town Plot or East Mountain). It would be a problem only if all the three parties refused to include viable candidates from certain neighborhoods or communities.

I think it is important for the Commission to consider the locations of the incumbents when drawing up the Districts, but a deliberate effort to avoid having more than two incumbent Democrats or more than two incumbent Republicans in any one district would be interpreted as gerrymandering, especially if it is done at the expense of equal representation.

On the other hand, if the Commissioners draw up a map that "protects" all of the Republicans, but forces the Democrats to have a primary in one or more districts (which is a possibility), or vice versa, they could be accused of favoring one party over the other. They have to proceed very carefully, and very thoughtfully. They are surrounded by metaphorical land mines.

Map 3

This next map is what I call the "Map of Doom." If I had more patience, I could make this map even worse. It was a struggle to draw it so that the incumbents are all protected and the "inner city" is gutted--gerrymandering isn't as easy as you might think! I'm joking around a little here, but this would be terrible if it actually happened.

This is a worst case scenario, in which minority communities and impoverished neighborhoods are sliced and diced to prevent them from electing their own candidates. Fortunately, the Voting Rights Act (and the integrity of the Commissioners!) will prevent the "Map of Doom" from happening.

"Map of Doom," the map least likely to actually happen.

Map 4

A while back, I invited readers to submit their own maps. Bryan B. submitted this next map, which incorporates the boundaries of existing polling locations to establish five districts with approximately equal numbers of registered voters. The Commission will be considering more factors than just those, but this map is very helpful in visualizing the concentrations of registered voters, and for considering how that should factor in to the final district boundaries.

Map showing hypothetical districts based on number of voters and polling district boundaries.

Map 5

This last map is one I drew, basing the hypothetical District boundaries on the approximate boundaries of existing neighborhoods, geographical divisions (such as Route 8), and the boundaries of the Legislative Districts.

Hypothetical map based on neighborhoods, geography, and Legislative Districts.

Other Ideas

Community activist Jimmie Griffin did not draw up a map, but did state that he hopes that the boundaries of the 72nd and 75th Legislative Districts are retained.

I have no idea what the Commission will present on January 8. There will be three maps to choose from, and they will be counting on public input to guide them. Please plan on attending, and please give this some serious thought beforehand. If we want a good government, we must all participate in the process.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Aldermanic and Mayoral History

Whenever there's a political or social controversy, it can be helpful (or at least interesting) to take a look back through history to see how we got to this point. I've spent some time over the past week or so sifting through newspapers on microfilm and in online databases, and rooting out old charter revision reports tucked away in the basement of the Bronson Library. As a result, I've found some interesting information about the origins of Waterbury's Aldermen at Large system, which will be coming to an end next year.

The City of Waterbury was incorporated in 1853, but included only the center of Waterbury, where the population was the most dense. The Town of Waterbury formed a ring around the City, extending out to the current borders of Waterbury. The City and the Town each had their own form of government: the Board of Aldermen and the Selectmen.

1874 Map of Waterbury, showing the City of Waterbury highlighted in yellow, surrounded by the Town districts, which formed the basis of some of today's neighborhoods. (Map courtesy of UConn Libraries)

The division between the Town and City has lingering effects today. The outer ring neighborhoods, which were part of the Town of Waterbury, have a much more suburban feel to them than the neighborhoods that were part of, or close to, the City of Waterbury.

The City of Waterbury was divided into four wards, while the Town of Waterbury had ten districts. By 1893, the population in the Town of Waterbury had grown large enough to be in need of city services.

Waterbury's four city wards in 1893 (soon after, there were five wards). Everything outside of the wards was part of the Town of Waterbury, which had a separate government system. All that remains of the old division between the City and the Town is the existence of a City Clerk and a Town Clerk. (Map courtesy of David Rumsey Map Collection)

A merger of the City and the Town was approved by the Connecticut General Assembly in 1895. The new City Charter specified that the Board of Aldermen would consist of three Aldermen elected from each of five wards. The Town and City were fully consolidated as a single government in 1902.

Waterbury's Aldermen in 1898, as listed in the Municipal Register.

I was wondering when we switched to the Aldermen at Large system, and I came across this tantalizing paragraph printed in the Hartford Courant in 1931:

"Democrats Elect Hayes in Waterbury," Hartford Courant, 7 Oct 1931.
(Waterbury municipal elections used to be held on the first Tuesday in October.)

Although the above snippet of an article implies that Hayes instituted Aldermen at Large during his time as Mayor, I have since found out that it actually went into effect earlier (you can't trust everything you read in the news, even back in 1931).

Until 1917, Aldermen were elected by Ward: three Aldermen from each of five Wards. During this time period, a majority vote was defined as a two-thirds vote of all members.

Board of Aldermen listed in the 1917 City Directory

In 1918, a hybrid system was introduced: two Aldermen from each of five Wards, and five Aldermen at Large.

Board of Aldermen listed in the 1918 City Directory

Finally, in 1920, the system switched to only Aldermen at Large. During this period, until 1927, the Aldermen had staggered terms of office, similar to the Board of Education. I haven't figured out all of the details of how the elections were run during this period. There were seemingly endless amendments to the City Charter during the 1920s, and the newspapers weren't too interested in writing about the details.

Board of Aldermen listed in the 1920 City Directory

Waterbury fell afoul of serious political trouble beginning in 1918, the same time that the Board of Aldermen began transitioning from being elected by Ward to at Large. By 1920, the city's expenses were spiraling out of control and the Board of Aldermen raised the mill rate to what was then a record high of 29.55 mills ("Committee Now '100%' Guilfoile," Hartford Courant, 4 Jan 1920).

The Hartford Courant later described the period beginning in 1918 as “Twelve years of misgovernment,” involving out of control municipal spending and increasing municipal debt (“Waterbury Airs Fight At Hearing,” Hartford Courant, 8 Apr 1931). By 1929, the fiscal crisis in Waterbury was so bad that the State Legislature’s Finance Committee established a special commission to conduct a two-year study and find solutions to the problem.

Waterbury's voters were fed up with mismanagement by the "at large" Board of Aldermen, and they eagerly embraced transferring power from the Aldermen to the Mayor. Waterbury's charter was changed to establish what was then called a "strong Mayor" system of government. It was also sometimes called a “business man’s government” (“Cellar ‘Plottings’ in Waterbury Told,” New York Times, 2 Feb 1939). This wasn’t exclusive to Waterbury—“strong Mayor” governments were a popular trend during the 1920s and ‘30s, placing most of the government power with the executive, ideally to create an “efficient and economical” administration.

Waterbury's voters were ready for a strong mayor to take charge of the city’s finances. What they got was T. Frank Hayes.

Hayes was elected Mayor in 1929, after campaigning as a business man who would run the city like a business. Sounds good, right?

Full page campaign ad in the Waterbury American, 2 Oct 1929
(Microfilm at Silas Bronson Library)

As it turned out, trusting Frank Hayes with power was a terrible idea. Almost as soon as he was in office, he took advantage of his power to award no-bid city contracts to associates who kicked back a large portion of their pay to Hayes and his cronies. Over the span of eight years, Hayes and his friends skimmed more than $1 million (possibly as much as $3.5 million) from the city coffers, raising the mill rate to 40 in order to support his scam.

Hayes was a major proponent of a 1930 Charter Revision, which gave the mayor power to name all the members of city boards each year, and to veto any measures enacted by the Board of Education. The proposed Charter Revision also included the creation of a Council-Manager (or city manager), who would run the city. This part of the Charter Revision Report was rejected.

The proposal to adopt a Council-Manager system of government was hotly debated for over a decade in Waterbury. The city’s Republicans were divided on the issue, while the Democrats were all opposed (Frank Hayes was a Democrat). William J. Pape was a supporter of the system, voicing concern that if current trends weren’t stopped, Waterbury would end up with “a Socialist mayor” (“Waterbury Airs Fight At Hearing,” Hartford Courant, 8 April 1931).

Opponents of the system preferred revising the charter to give the mayor more power. It finally came to a referendum vote in 1939, when voters were given a choice between adopting a city manager charter or keeping their existing “strong Mayor” charter. The campaign for a city manager charter was led by the Waterbury Good Government Association, which had been involved in exposing Mayor Hayes’ corruption. Despite Frank Hayes’ rampant abuse of the “strong Mayor” system, the city voted 14,726 to 10,513 to maintain the dubious status quo (“Waterbury Turns Down City Manager Proposal,” Daily Boston Globe, 4 Oct 1939).

From 1939 on, Waterbury was firmly committed to the "strong Mayor" system of government. When a good Mayor is elected, the system works well; but when a corrupt Mayor is elected, it's a catastrophic disaster.

The Hartford Courant said it best in 1938: “In the end, the real assurance of a good government is the constant vigilance of the electorate.” It falls on each one of us to be vigilant, to pay attention to what's happening in local politics, and to encourage good people to get involved.

Now that we are switching to Aldermen by District, I hope that Waterbury's neighborhoods will be empowered to get involved, to think about who in their district would be a good representative, and to encourage the Town Committees to select those individuals as candidates.

The system will work if the voters do their part. It starts with finding great Aldermanic candidates for the new districts.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Museum Graffiti

I finally got a chance to take a close look at this new artwork commissioned by the Mattatuck Museum. I had seen photos posted by the museum on Facebook, but seeing art in person is always better. This impressive graffiti was created by New Jersey artist Joe Iurato.

The image of the two police officers is based on a photograph from 1931, of Frank McHard and Bernie Burns wearing the new uniforms issued by the police department. The photograph is part of the museum's great collection of historic images of Waterbury.

The process for creating the graffiti image is similar to screen-printing. The artist builds up the image in layers of color. Each layer of color is added by spraying the paint through a stencil.

In some places, you can see hints of the process--marks that are obviously made by spray paint, and a smudge mark from where the stencil left a little extra paint.

The overall impact of the work is fantastic. Photo-realistic, larger than life paintings of Waterbury police officers from almost a century ago, standing guard on the side of the museum. I highly recommend stopping by to check it out. Since it's on the outside of the building, on Park Place, you can see it any time you want.


Monday, November 10, 2014

The Mayor's Reply

As you probably know, last week I wrote a letter to the Aldermen, telling them that there's a lot of distrust and a lot of concern that they will try to hijack the establishment of Aldermen by District. I came to this conclusion following conversations with numerous city residents from all walks of life. I hadn't encountered anyone who expressed optimism or trust in the Board of Aldermen regarding this issue, and I found this to be very alarming.

The distrust and concerns seemed validated by an article in the Rep-Am last week, "What's minority to do?," which detailed a disagreement between Jason Van Stone, Waterbury Republican Party Chairman, and Alderman Anthony T. Piccochi, Democratic Majority Leader.

Van Stone noted that the Board of Aldermen's "supermajority," the number of votes needed to pass or reject major Board decisions, would be changed from the current 10 to 11, as specified in the Final Report of the Charter Revision Commission. It's a logical change, since the new system of Aldermen by District could result in the Board having ten Aldermen from a single party, as opposed to the current maximum of nine Aldermen from any one party. The concept of the supermajority guarantees that at least one minority party member must agree with the majority in order for Board decisions to pass. Without a supermajority of 11 for the new Aldermen by District system, if there were 10 Aldermen from a single party, they could pass anything their party wanted, without having to work with the other five Aldermen.

Alderman Piccochi was quoted as stating that the supermajority number will remain 10, that the vote in favor of Aldermen by District had no impact on the supermajority. Just in case the readers might have thought he was confused, the article went on to clarify his position: "Under that system, the majority party wouldn't have to "work the room," Piccochi said." In other words, Piccochi fully understands the implications. Readers of the Rep-Am were left to draw the pretty obvious conclusion that Alderman Piccochi is trying to take advantage of the language on the ballot to hijack the intent of the Charter Revision.

The article then noted that Mayor O'Leary can't guarantee that the city will implement all of the details of the Charter Revision, and that he's having the city's Corporation Counsel decide what to do--a standard political speech that does nothing to reassure the voters.

The online version of the article has a comment at the bottom of the page, written by Charter Revision Commissioner Thomas Van Stone, Jr., who expresses immense distrust of the Board of Aldermen based on the way they have handled the measure so far.

It was a very disheartening article, and it contributes to the voter's lack of trust in their elected officials.

The only other commentary I had seen from any of the Aldermen were snide remarks on Facebook expressing ongoing disdain for Aldermen by District. Again, this makes voters feel like they can't trust their Aldermen.

I had not seen any Alderman state support for the measure. I had not seen any Alderman declare that they will honor the wishes of the voters and ensure that the new system is implemented in the most ethical, honest, and open manner.

Our Aldermen had done nothing to reassure voters that they can be trusted to implement Aldermen by District as it was intended. Instead, they have, for the most part, made it clear that most of them will continue to resist Aldermen by District and seek any opportunity to gain an unfair advantage for their party and, presumably, for themselves.

On Friday morning, I was listening to WATR on my way to work and heard a snippet of Mayor O'Leary stating that the Board of Aldermen would be responsible for appointing the commission to draw up the boundaries of the new Aldermanic districts, and that the Board of Aldermen would have the final say in the implementation of the Charter Revision. My heart dropped into my stomach. I would have trusted Mayor O'Leary to appoint the commissioners, but I don't trust the Board of Aldermen. They've proven themselves to be biased and petty in regards to this issue.

So that's where my thoughts were when I wrote my letter to the Aldermen. I had listened to voters express their ongoing distrust, and everything I had read or heard from the Aldermen indicated that voters' distrust was warranted.

I wrote the letter so that the Aldermen would know how people feel, to politely admonish them for their biased statements, and to encourage them to reassure the voters that they can be trusted.

I sent the letter to them as an email on Friday. To date, I have received three replies.

The first was sort of a form letter, from Aldermen DePillo, who thanked me for my interest and encouraged me to speak more on the subject at the next Board of Aldermen meeting.

The second was from Aldermen Lopez, who thanked me for my comments, and added "As City elected officials, maintaining the public trust is paramount. It is important to keep an open-minded approach and cultivate a behavior which does not compromise the trust our electorate has placed in us. Just within the last days we have witnessed how far Waterbury has removed itself from the days of corruption and mistrust. As a member of the Board of Alderman I am delighted the voice of the people has been given the power to make history in our City."

Aldermen Lopez's response was fantastic, exactly the sort of statement that should be coming from all the Aldermen.

The third response was from Mayor O'Leary. I've debated whether or not to share it publicly, but he copied John Murray and Penny Overton, as well as all the Aldermen, on the email, so that does imply it's for public consumption.

Dear Raechel,

I have waited to respond to this email as I wanted to thoroughly digest it. When I first read it I thought it was insulting to both the Alderman and myself. In my humble opinion each member of the Board of Alderman understands what the “will of the people” is from the vote concerning alderman by district. While many did openly state they weren’t supportive of the proposed plan they are all professionals and very dedicated to their elected positions. For you to suggest that people do not “trust” them just is not fair to them and I’m surprised you would say that to them. As far as your statement of witnessing “years of political corruption in this city” I take personal offense to. This administration had tried to be as open and transparent as possible and your cynical remarks sadden me.

I have always respected you Raechel for your tenacity and commitment to this city. Don’t fall into the trap of naysayers and draw conclusions before you get an opportunity to see how things are going. You are better than that.    

Neil M. O’Leary
Mayor, City of Waterbury

Now, I've taken a little bit of flak over the past few days from people who are opposed to Aldermen by District, but none of that really bothered me. If you voice your opinions, sooner or later someone is going to argue with you. That's just how it goes.

This letter from Mayor O'Leary was very upsetting to me. I have a lot of respect and admiration for the job he has done as Mayor of Waterbury. He has really turned this city around and set us on the right path to success.

His letter left me shocked and dismayed, not because he's apparently angry with me, but because he is completely oblivious to how Waterbury's voters feel about their Aldermen and the city's politics.

It is absolutely fair to say that people do not trust our Aldermen. It's the truth.

It is absolutely fair to say that Waterbury has witnessed years of political corruption. It's the truth. It will take more than three years of one good mayor to restore the people's trust in their elected officials.

I've seen "how things are going" regarding the implementation of Aldermen by District. So far, they're going very poorly. That's why I wrote the letter, in the hopes of turning things around, in the hopes of alerting the Aldermen to an alarming problem that only they can fix.

If the Aldermen and the Mayor bury their heads in the sand and pretend that there isn't a problem, if they find it insulting to be told that voters don't trust them, what hope is there for Waterbury?

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Fun with Maps!

The big question on everyone's mind is the drawing of Aldermanic district boundaries. We're unlikely to see the official boundaries until later this winter or in the spring, but I'm an impatient kind of woman, so here's a first effort at what the map might look like.

To start, here is a map showing the existing House District boundaries. If you read my previous post, you'll see that the new Aldermanic District boundaries will need to be based on the House Districts. Because the 71st District includes Middlebury, they can't be exactly the same.

State House Districts

Next is my first attempt at drawing boundaries that are based on the House Districts, are modified for hypothetical population figures, and make sense in terms of geography and neighborhood issues.

Remember, this is a hypothetical map based on guesswork, not data. If I spent some more time with it, I'm sure I would make some alterations. Generally, however, this is what I expect to see next year (unless the whole thing gets hijacked by the Board of Aldermen, who clearly don't want to see districting happen).

Hypothetical map of Aldermanic Districts

But why stop here? Everyone can get involved! Right click on the blank map below to save the image to your computer, color it in, then send it to me, I'll post all entries on this blog in December.

When coloring in the map, please adhere to the following rules:

1. There must be five districts of substantially equal population (use the existing House Districts to gauge population density);
2. Districts must be as compact and contiguous as practicable;
3. District boundaries must follow geographical divisions and currently existing State Representative Districts wherever practical.

(Rules are taken from the Final Report of the Charter Revision Commission.)

When you send me your map, please indicate if you prefer to remain anonymous. Otherwise, I will use your first name and last initial, or your email handle if I don't know your name.

Any images containing profanity or similarly inappropriate content will not be posted.

This is a chance to have some fun with representative government, while also giving some serious thought to an important change in our city government.

I look forward to seeing your maps!

Aldermen by District Charter Language

After a flurry of campaigning led by John Murray, publisher of The Waterbury Observer, the Charter Revision establishing Aldermen by District was passed by Waterbury's voters. So what happens next?

We're changing from a system in which Aldermen are elected at large to a system in which they are elected from within set districts. This requires rewriting a portion of the City Charter, as well as drawing up the boundaries of five districts.

The Final Report put forth by the Charter Revision Commission on August 25, 2014 proposes the following charter description for the Board of Aldermen. Read this closely. This is what is supposed to happen.



Section 3A-1. Board of Aldermen vested with the Legislative Powers of the City

(b) Composition of the Board of Aldermen. The Board of Aldermen shall consist of fifteen (15) Aldermen and Alderwomen (collectively referred to as "Aldermen") with three (3) Aldermen from each of the five districts as approved by the Board of Aldermen. The three candidates with the highest votes in each district will be elected. Of the three Aldermen elected by each district no more than two shall be from one political party.

            (1) Voting Districts. The City shall be divided into five (5) voting districts. Said voting districts shall each contain substantially equal population. Voting districts shall be established in as compact and contiguous form as practicable and boundaries must follow geographical divisions and currently existing State Representative Districts wherever practical. Such city districts must conform to applicable state and federal laws.

              (2) District Reapportionment. On or before the fifteenth day of February next following adoption of this charter revision, the Board of Aldermen shall appoint a District Reapportionment Commission to determine the five (5) districts. The District Reapportionment Commission shall be comprised of eight (8) electors, no more than four members from any one party selected by the majority leader and the minority leader of the Board of Aldermen. The District Reapportionment Commission shall report to the Board of Aldermen within sixty (60) days after appointment, and may utilize demographic data assembled by the planning Board, computer resources of the City, and such other resources, facilities and funding as the Board of Aldermen may deem desirable to carry out the purpose of this section. Within sixty (60) days after receipt of said report and after a public hearing thereon the Board of Aldermen must either accept or modify the report and enact any necessary ordinance to implement the proposed districts, in compliance with this charter and all state, federal and general laws.

             Thereafter, within sixty (60) days after any new decennial federal census figures are made available to the City, the Board of Aldermen shall use this same procedure to appoint a new District Reapportionment Commission to review and, if necessary, revise said districts to conform to the new census, and state, federal and general laws. No elected official shall have his or her office vacated by reason of a district boundary change until completion of his or her term of office.

               (3) District Aldermen Eligibility. In order to be eligible to be a District Alderman the candidate must be an eligible elector in the district. Any District Alderman who moves out of the district which he represents during his term of office, shall be rendered ineligible and shall cease to hold his office as of the date of said removal. The vacancy shall be filled in accordance with Section 2B-4 and paragraph four (4) of this section, below.

                (4) Vacancy. Vacancy of an office of any Aldermen is to be filled according to Section 2B-4. With respect to any District Aldermen, any vacancy, from whatever cause arising, including ineligibility from ceasing to reside in the voting district he represents or by reasons of expulsion or removal as set for in Sec. 3B-3(c) of the Charter, will be filled according to Section 2B-4; however, said vacancy must be filled with an eligible elector who is from the same district and party as the incumbent.

[Note: "elector" is any person who has the right to vote in an election.]

This next part clearly establishes the "supermajority" as eleven Aldermen. Some of the current Aldermen apparently neglected to read this section (as reported in the Rep-Am article, What's Minority To Do?), perhaps because they assumed/hoped the Charter Revision wouldn't pass.

Sec. 3A-2. Powers of the Board of Aldermen.

The Board of Aldermen shall have the following powers:

(c) to oversee and adopt legislation pertaining to the finances of the City, including, but not limited to the following:

               (2) to manage, regulate and control the purchase of real property, subject to the approval by an affirmative vote of eleven (11) members of the Board of Aldermen;

(d) to adopt ordinances, by a majority vote of the Board of Aldermen, pertaining to the management, regulation and control of the finances and property, real and personal, of the City, including the disposition of the improvements thereon, including, but not limited to the sale and lease thereof ("Disposition");

                (1) All said Dispositions shall be subject to the approval by an affirmative vote of eleven (11) members of the Board of Aldermen;

...and so on. Every place where the charter specifies a majority vote, that majority is defined as eleven (11) members of the Board of Aldermen.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Open Letter to the Board of Aldermen

Dear Aldermen,

After listening to Mayor O'Leary on WATR, it is my understanding that the boundaries for the new Aldermanic Districts will be drawn up by an outside consultant, guided by a commission to be selected by the Board of Aldermen. It is also my understanding that final approval of the plan rests with you.

This is an incredibly important moment in Waterbury's history. Unfortunately, it seems that many of Waterbury's voters do not trust you, their Aldermen, to honor the intent of the Charter Revision. Everyone I have spoken with has expressed concern that you will hijack the democratic process and disregard the will of the people. Some of this distrust comes from the fact that many of you openly stated that you are opposed to the Charter Revision. Some of it comes from a general mistrust of Waterbury politicians, developed from years of witnessing political corruption in this city.

You have been given an opportunity to restore the public's trust in their elected officials.

It is vital that the appointed commissioners be people who understand the city's neighborhoods, who know where the neighborhood boundaries are, and who are in support of the Charter Revision for electing our Aldermen by District. The commissioners must respect the citizens of every neighborhood and must be free from prejudice toward any racial or economic group.

Waterbury's citizens will be watching you closely in the coming months. Now is the time to set aside your opposition to the Charter Revision, and to do your part to ensure that this process is handled in an ethical, honest, and open way. I hope that you will rise to the challenge.

Raechel Guest

Monday, October 27, 2014

Underhanded Opposition to Aldermen by District

It was very disappointing to read today's coverage of the Aldermen by District issue in the Rep-Am. At first I was confused by their one-sided, inaccurate, and unappealing reporting. Then I went back and read today's Editorial, in which they clearly state that they think Aldermen by District is a bad idea. Then their appalling coverage made sense--forget journalistic integrity, the Rep-Am is trying to torpedo the Charter Revision.

First off, let's look at their excessive use of the word "ward." Nobody has been referring to electing Aldermen by Ward. Nobody has been talking about dividing Waterbury into different Wards. It's an ugly word that conjures up images of ghettos and urban corruption. The Rep-Am's decision to change the language of the debate is a sneaky, underhanded ploy to manipulate the voters. They should be ashamed of themselves, but they probably aren't.

Secondly, let's look at their choice for front-page coverage of the story. "Charter change seen boosting minority clout," an article that makes it sound like the point of Aldermen by District is to take power away from the white people in Town Plot and Bunker Hill and give it to the blacks and Hispanics in the inner city. Again, this is a sneaky, underhanded ploy to manipulate voters, the same trick that was used to defeat a similar proposal during the 1990s. Opponents of Aldermen by District are hoping to play on the latent racism, the fear of urban minorities, that still exists in Waterbury. It worked in 1999, and they are hoping it will work again in 2014.

Front page of the Rep-Am, October 27 2014

Then there's the Paul Pernerewski factor. Pernerewski, who has served as President of the Board of Aldermen for many years, has been a vocal opponent of Aldermen by District, but he's been clever about his opposition. Instead of coming right out and saying he thinks it's a bad idea, and instead of saying why he thinks it's a bad idea, he spins it to make it sound like you shouldn't bother voting for it, because no one cares about it. When Pernerewski was talking to Larry Rifkin on WATR last week, he said something to the effect that he voted to put it on the ballot so that voters would feel like they had a voice, but that of course it won't pass. In other words, toss them some crumbs, it won't change anything. The Rep-Am included a quote today in which Pernerewski again says that it won't pass because no one is interested in it.

But here's the thing. The Rep-Am almost did some good journalism on this. They used velvet gloves, but they did point out that Pernerewski is at risk of losing his seat on the Board of Aldermen if the measure passes. They spun it to make him sound noble--oh gosh, he voted to put it on the ballot, even though he could lose his position, what a great guy!--when in fact he's been actively trying to sabotage the measure. If you're going to quote someone who is opposed to a ballot measure, and it's obvious that person has a personal stake in the game, call them out on it. This applies to pretty much all the aldermen, as well as all the major players on the Town Committees. If they are opposed to Aldermen by District, we have to consider how the shift in power will effect them personally.

As for the other reasons to vote against Aldermen by District:

1. Aldermen by District will pit neighborhoods against one another.

This argument is being made by people who live in the neighborhoods with plenty of representation on the Board of Aldermen. They are in the privileged neighborhoods, so they don't see that we currently have neighborhoods pitted against one another. That's the system that has existed for decades: the "nice" neighborhoods vs. the "bad" neighborhoods. The "nice" neighborhoods get represented. The "bad" neighborhoods get ignored. We already have "little fiefdoms," it's just that the folks currently in power don't want to give up that power. The fact that people in the "nice" neighborhoods think everyone is being treated equally is proof that we have a problem. Aldermen by District will give representation to all neighborhoods, ending the current system of inequality and injustice, ending the domination of three or four fiefdoms over the rest of us.

2. If certain neighborhoods had better voter turnout, they would be better represented.

This is one of the biggest lies in town. It's a trick I've seen used repeatedly for years. When a group complains that they are being ignored, they're told it's their fault because they aren't more like the group in power.

Here's how the current system really works. Each political party has a Town Committee with members from each of the five legislative districts. Membership to the Town Committee is all about cronyism. If you're on the Town Committee, you nominate your friends and family members to join the committee whenever there is a vacancy. The Town Committee decides who their candidates will be in every election. The selection has nothing to do with where the candidates live. It has to do with who is the right "fit" for the political party. It has to do with who has political clout. It has to do with whether or not the Town Committee is feeling pressure to include a minority candidate. Ultimately, however, most of the candidates are pulled from the same small group, who tend to live in the same small handful of neighborhoods. It's cronyism, with an occasional minority allowed in to keep up the appearance of inclusive government.

3. The current system works just fine, everyone's happy with it, and no one really wants to change it.

Waterbury is well known for its history of political corruption, so I suppose it makes sense that the people in power are insisting that the system isn't broken, and I suppose it makes sense that the people in power are trying to mute the voices of the disenfranchised voters who want to change the system.

4. Voters will lose power, because they will be limited to voting for only 2 candidates, instead of 9.

It took me a while to figure this one out. The way I see it, voters will be empowered, because instead of trying to choose between 27 candidates, they'll be presented with a manageable, realistic 4 to 6 candidates. And the three candidates who win in their district will be directly accountable to them

Then I noticed that this criticism is pretty much always tied to a concern that neighborhoods with low voter turnout will be electing inferior Aldermen, and that people in the neighborhoods with high voter turnout will suffer as a result. Translation: people who live in the outer ring neighborhoods, the ones near the borders with Middlebury, Wolcott, and Cheshire, don't want the people living in the inner city to have any say in what happens with our city government.

The Rep-Am claims that there haven't been any groups organizing to support Aldermen by District, that there "isn't much chatter about it," that there hasn't been any community outreach campaign, that there have been no leaflets distributed--but those things have been happening.

Hiding the truth is a sneaky trick used by people in power to suppress people without power. It's usually associated with countries like North Korea or Russia, who use the media to control what information is available to their people. The Rep-Am and certain political players have done a good job of trying to suppress the truth about what's going on with the Aldermen by District issue this year. We'll find out next week if they've succeeded.

For reasons to vote yes on Aldermen by District, check out my blog post on all the ballot questions, and read John Murray's article for the Waterbury Observer.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Delinquent Property Tax Rules

After reading coverage in print and online of Andre Michaud's difficulties with the Tax Collector's Office, and knowing how overwhelmingly frustrating it is to be railroaded by bureaucracy, I decided to figure out what was going on. The "he said, she said" coverage of the story in the Rep-Am did nothing to help readers decide who was right. The official report issued by the city's Corporation Council did little to clarify the matter, as it avoided answering any questions about how the delinquent tax system works.

It's taken me hours to unravel what really happens, even though this is information that should be readily available to the general public. What I discovered is that the system by which real estate property is auctioned off for delinquent taxes is shrouded in mystery and confusing legal jargon.

I had always assumed that if you failed to pay your real estate property taxes, and if the city seized the property and sold it at auction, you lost the property and no longer had to pay the delinquent taxes. The truth is that you lose your property and still owe the difference between the sale price and the total taxes owed. In other words, if you have $30,000 in back taxes owed on a property, and the city sells the property at tax auction for $10,000, you still owe $20,000 in taxes.

A quick glance at a sampling of tax auction sales suggests that most of the delinquent properties are being sold for less than what is owed in back taxes on them. My understanding of the law (but I'm not an attorney, so don't quote me!) is that the delinquent taxes remaining after auction can be forcibly collected only through a lawsuit, or through other legal means such as booting your car if you owe taxes on it.

If you owe the city back taxes for a property that was sold at tax auction, the city can sue you and get a court order to garnish your wages or seize your bank account. Bear in mind, however, that unless there is a court order, the city can't just take money out of your bank account without your permission. They can report your delinquent debt to the credit rating agencies, lowering your credit score. In other words, delinquent taxes owed post-auction are the same as any other debt owed to a corporation.

Some municipalities have a clearly written policy for delinquent taxes readily available on their websites (for example, Manchester, East Hartford,  and Norwalk). It would be helpful if there was one for Waterbury.

If you want to spend hours delving into Connecticut property tax laws, start with the website of the Connecticut Tax Collectors Association.

Now for the rules. These rules are taken from Chapter 204, Section 12 of the Connecticut State Statutes and are "translated" from barely decipherable legal speak to layman's language. Waterbury's ordinance regarding delinquent taxes adheres closely to the state statute.

1. Taxes are due by a set date every year. If you don't pay your taxes on time, interest of 1.5% will accrue monthly.

2. Unpaid real estate taxes are subject to an interest rate of 18% per year on the delinquent principal. Interest will continue to accrue from the date is was due, until the date on which it is paid. The Tax Collector can round up any part of a month to a full month's worth of interest.

3. Partial payments are applied to reducing the interest owed, not to the delinquent principal. The principal owed is reduced only if the interest is paid off. It gets more complicated if you are delinquent on multiple properties.

4. Businesses can lose their license or permit if they are delinquent on their taxes for more than one year.

5. The city can withhold any payments due to a business if that business is delinquent for more than one year on its property taxes; the amount of payment withheld can not be larger than the amount owed by the business. This rule applies only to a business enterprise, not to the individual person who owns the business.

6. This next rule is from 2003 and is oddly temporary, but apparently is still on the books. If you or your spouse are in the military serving active duty in Iraq, you are exempt from being charged interest on delinquent property taxes.

7. If you do not pay your taxes on time, the Tax Collector "shall make personal demand of such person therefor or leave written demand at such person's usual place of abode" or send a notice in the mail. There's also a few mentions of posting information on the town sign post, even though that's really antiquated.

8. If a corporation or LLC or other legal entity is delinquent on their taxes, the Tax Collector can send the written demand for payment to the person who officially represents that business ("upon whom process may be served to initiate a civil action against such corporation").

9. After demand for payment of past due taxes has been made, the Tax Collector can place a lien against the property.

10. The Tax Collector can sell the property for unpaid taxes. The person who owes the delinquent taxes is not allowed to purchase the property from the Tax Collector.

11. The delinquent property owner will be sent a notice, at least twice, of the pending sale of his or her property by certified mail, return receipt requested. That notice will include the amount of taxes owed, as well as all the various fees involved. Notice will be sent between nine to twelve weeks before the sale is scheduled. Notice will also be posted in the local newspaper at least once a week for three weeks.

12. The Tax Collector can sell the property at auction to the highest bidder to pay the taxes, as well as the interest, fees, and other charges allowed by law.

13. The Tax Collector can sell the property to the city if there has been no bidder or if the bid amount is less than the amount due.

14. The Tax Collector shall post a written notice of the amount due on the property at the auction.

15. If the city hires an auctioneer to run the auction, the cost is shared equally by all the properties being sold.

16. The Tax Collector shall issue a deed to the purchaser or the city within two weeks of the auction. The deed shall remain unrecorded for six months, allowing the original owner time to redeem the property by paying the delinquent taxes and fees.

17. The original owner will be sent notification of the amount they need to pay, and the date by which it must be paid, if they want to reclaim their property after the tax auction.

18. If the original owner does not redeem the property in time, the person who bought the property at the tax auction becomes the legal owner.

19. The property can be redeemed by someone other than the original owner and other than the person who bought the property at auction, provided that person has a legal interest in the property.

If the property was abandoned (or for other reasons as outlined in the City Ordinances, Chapter 32, Section 24) and was sold for less than the total amount owed at the auction, anyone with an interest in the property other than the original owner has 60 days from the date of the auction to redeem the property for the full amount owed.

If the property was not abandoned, anyone with an interest in the property other than the original owner has six months from the date of the tax auction to redeem the property for the full amount owed.

The person who pays off the full amount owed will then have a legal claim against the person who was responsible for paying the taxes. The person who bought the property at the tax auction will be notified and reimbursed within ten days.

20. The city will insure the property against fire and other loss during the redemption period. The person who bought the property at the tax auction is not liable for the property during the redemption period.

21. If the property sells at auction for more than what is owed on it, the excess amount shall be placed in an interest-bearing escrow account. If the property is redeemed, the amount held in escrow shall be returned to the person who tried to buy the property at the auction; the interest accrued shall remain with the city.

If the property is not redeemed, the amount held in escrow may be used to pay other delinquent taxes owed by the original property owner. The details of this are complicated and involve the Appellate Court. Since this scenario is unlikely to happen anytime soon, I'm going to skip it.

22. All taxes owed are a legal debt that must be paid. The city may pursue the payment of that debt by any legal means, which means suing the delinquent taxpayer. The results of the lawsuit can include garnishing wages and seizing bank accounts, but these actions must be court approved.

23. The city can attempt to collect the taxes owed through levy and sale, enforcement of a lien, or any other legal proceeding (i.e., the city can sue for the taxes to be paid). The delinquent taxpayer has to pay all the related costs incurred by the city in its efforts to collect the debt.

24. The Tax Collector can serve a warrant for the collection of any tax assessed.

25. The city can petition the Superior Court to place a rental property into receivership. The appointed receiver shall collect the rent payments and use them to pay the delinquent taxes, and then any utilities that would normally be paid by the rent payments. The receivership ends when the delinquent taxes are paid.

26. The Tax Collector has 15 years in which to collect delinquent taxes; after 15 years, the delinquent tax is expired and can't be collected by the city. Improvement liens are exempt from this limitation.


While I believe firmly in paying taxes on time, and I know how important the tax revenue is for the city, I also know that sometimes people make mistakes, and sometimes people are lose their jobs and aren't able to keep up with all their bills.

Over the years, I've known a few people who have fallen behind on the property taxes for their homes. Usually these are older homeowners who are going through difficult financial problems and don't have enough money to make ends meet. In these instances, they were able to resolve the problem by going to the Tax Collector's Office, explaining the situation, and agreeing to a payment plan. However, it is usually an extremely stressful process, since the Tax Collector's Office continues to send warning notices and threatens to take their homes for tax auction, which would leave them homeless.

The Tax Collector's Office shouldn't be too quick to seize properties. If a property is owner occupied, it's better to work out a payment plan than to take someone's home away from them.

If a property is a rental unit, the city is more likely to see the back taxes paid if the owner still has a source of revenue from the property. The law allows the city to place a rental property into receivership, using the rent to pay the taxes (see Rule #25 above); this seems like the best solution if a landlord is delinquent on property taxes.