By Common Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-District D)
NORWALK, Conn. – A few weeks ago, the Common Council adopted an expenditures cap that could raise property taxes almost four percent. With revenues flat, with pension and benefit costs rising between 15-20 percent, we felt we had no choice if we were truly intent on properly funding education.
This year’s budget debate was strange. Actually, there was no debate at all. Four members of the Democratic caucus voted against the spending cap, but did not explain their votes; in fact, they said nothing during the debate. And the fifth member of that caucus, after a long discourse on the flaws of the budget process and the need for the city to begin Performance Based Budgeting, quietly voted for the cap without commenting on its merits or why he was voting for the results of such a “flawed process.”
Some personal political history might provide a reason why the Democratic caucus members were either silent during the budget discussion or, in the case of one member, tried to have it both ways by critiquing the process while implicitly lauding the result.
My first four years on the Common Council, 1997-2001, happened to be the final four years of the administration of Republican Mayor Frank Esposito. The Republicans had 11-4 majorities in each of those years. We Democrats had an extremely tough time, to put it mildly. I recall coming home from meeting after meeting and telling my wife that we “won all the debates, but lost all the votes.”
In all honesty, we probably did not “win” all the debates, but I can say with certainty that we lost all the serious votes. Then, as now, I always made a point of explaining why I voted one way or the other. I strongly believe all elected officials should constantly explain their actions to their constituents. On more than a few occasions, I have written about my reasons for voting for or against various items.
Looking back on those four years as a member of a small minority, I recall only one vote that I regret making, and it was a doozy: the charter revision that transformed citywide noncompetitive elections to the Board of Education into a combination of district and citywide competitive contests. Although I knew the prevailing method of electing members of the BOE was non-competitive and a disservice to voters, I still voted against the revision.
Why I regret that particular vote is not because I was wrong, but because I “caved in” to the intense pressure from the Democratic Town Committee, which vehemently opposed the charter change. Nonetheless, I felt compelled to conjure up a rather lame rationale for my negative vote: The city was in the midst of hiring a new superintendent, now was not the time to embark on what would clearly be a contentious path. In hindsight, that was nothing more than an attempt to avoid the real issue, which was the non-competitive nature of those elections.
And now back to the debate that never really happened. My guess is that some or all of the Democratic council members are in situation not unlike what happened to me during the charter revision debate.
The crafting of the 2013-14 operating budget is taking place in an unusual context: With local elections approaching, the Democratic Town Committee has been pressing the members of its council caucus to oppose or raise incriminating questions about any issue backed by Republicans and Mayor Richard Moccia. Moreover, that town committee has recently adopted a new kind of nominating procedure that requires candidates to complete an obviously loaded questionnaire that has been aptly characterized as a party loyalty oath. (The questionnaire is attached below.)
These new procedures, by their very nature, will undoubtedly have a subtle chilling effect. Crossing the Democratic party leadership on an issue as important as the city’s operating budget could possibly jeopardize an incumbent’s chance to receive an official nomination. Better to be safe and not say anything, especially if the spending cap is reasonable and especially if it could ultimately enable the BOE to fully fund its budget after all factors, including state aid, are factored in.
Perhaps that’s the reason the Democratic caucus members did not explain their negative votes. Perhaps that’s the reason the Democratic mayoral hopefuls have not weighed in with comments on the recently adopted spending cap. Take it from me, it’s not easy to incur the wrath of the local Democratic leadership.