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Bill would end one-party dominance on New London's City Council

New London — Democrats in the city hold all seven City Council seats and six of seven Board of Education seats.

For some, it’s a testament to the Democratic Party’s dominance in the city and reflective of its citizens' values. For others, it’s an impediment to a diversity of ideas and debate.

A bill proposed by Republican State Sen. Paul Formica would put a check on the power of Democrats in the city, or any other party in the majority, and end an exemption written into state law that has allowed its two major governing bodies to be controlled by Democrats.

Formica said the bill, S.B. 962, would break down a barrier in New London that has only served to disenfranchise voters and potential candidates running in political parties not in the majority. Specifically, the bill would amend a state statute to remove an exemption clause that allows New London’s Charter to supersede state law.

“My bill is an attempt to say ‘Hey, that shouldn’t be the case.' There’s an inequity. If just about every other town in the state has to abide by (state statute) I don’t know why New London shouldn’t,” Formica said.

The state enacted a minority representation law in 1959 to ensure no more than a certain number of members of boards, commissions and other elected bodies would come from the same party. Typically there is a two-thirds rule that, for example, would allow only four members of the seven-member City Council to come from the same party. If the top seven vote-getters were Democrats, only the top four would get in. The highest vote-getters from other parties would fill remaining seats.

State statute provides for several exemptions to the minority representation rule, however. New London’s exemption dates back to the 1980s, when an amendment was inserted into the existing statute that exempts New London based on wording in its charter, which predates the state statute.

Article II, Sec. 18 of the city’s charter, related to the determination of election winners, reads: “The candidates for any office in any city election, in number equal to the places to be filled in any office, who receive the highest number of votes shall be declared elected.”

It means the top vote-getters are seated on the school board and City Council. The same is not true for other boards and commissions in the city, many of which had some form of minority political representation built into them when they formed.

Groton carved out its own exemption to the state statute and currently has Democrats filling all available seats on both its town and city councils. That exemption, also enacted in the 1980s, appears to be written specifically for Groton and related, in part, due to the existence of a Representative Town Meeting. Formica’s bill does not apply to Groton.

Reaction to the proposal in New London is, not surprisingly, mixed.

Margaret Mary “Peg” Curtin, often considered the matriarch of the city’s Democratic party, who has served on the city’s council and school board, said it is only recently that the city has swung so overwhelmingly Democratic. She said she can’t recall a time when not having minority representation was an issue.

“I believe people should have a right to vote and their vote should count,” Curtin said.

Martha Marx, chairwoman of the Democratic Town Committee, said the bill sounded like a reaction to the drubbing Republican candidates had received over the past few elections.

“If you can’t put up the candidates that can get the votes, too bad. We’re a Democratic city,” she said.

Marx said she believed it was misleading to make a blanket statement that Democrats are all in lockstep with one another in the city. Democrats, she said, have a variety of opinions and range from progressive to conservative in their viewpoints on different topics. The diversity among Democrats has served to fuel rivalries and close races.

“I would be pretty mad if I voted for a candidate and they didn’t get a seat. It says to me your vote doesn’t count,” Marx said.

Marty Olsen, the last Republican to hold a seat on the City Council, said that while local elections should be about the candidates and not the party, many people are swayed to vote the party line.

“The Republicans could run Lincoln or Reagan and they wouldn’t win that seat,” Olsen said. “I think not having a minority representation is reflected in a couple of issues that have occurred in New London recently, one being the vote on the community center and the other on the police staffing ordinance — there was really no discussion or pushback.”

The police staffing ordinance repealed by the City Council in a 6-1 vote was recently the subject of a petition by a group pushing for a citywide referendum.

Olsen said a City Council controlled by one party is able to meet in private and come to a decision “without having a diversity of opinion.”

“There’s no check on that, no obligation to do their business in the open. It’s legal but it's not healthy,” Olsen said.

Olsen was also a member of the last City Council, in 2011, in which Democrats were outnumbered. At that time Olsen was joined by Republicans Rob Pero, Adam Sprecace and Green Party member John Russell. Pero was the lone non-Democrat to earn a seat in the last election. He is a member of the Board of Education.

Nancy Cole, a resident and a Republican, said Republicans in the city are less active than they used to be. She said the fact that the city has a Democratic mayor and council limits debate and silences challenges.

“I’ve supported Republicans but my whole position was always it doesn’t matter if you are Green or Libertarian or Republican. But you should hear other voices. I don’t even think within the Democratic Party you’re hearing other voices. That’s unfortunate for the city. We kind of had a monopoly of thought there,” Cole said.

Cole said she would work to support the bill but surmises that “it has no chance,” since Democrats control the state House and Senate.

Fomica said he’s introduced similar legislation in the past and it failed to gain traction. He said it was unclear how far the proposal would go.

The lone submitted public testimony on Formica’s proposal, S.B. 962, came from Kat Goulart, chairwoman of New London’s Republican Town Committee. She has tried and failed to win a seat on the City Council.

“As it stands there are nearly 2,000 Republicans in the City of New London who have no representation on City Council for the past two years, as Minority parties are discouraged from participating in the process, feeling as if their vote doesn’t matter,” Goulart wrote.

“Minority party representation exists across our State and across our nation, and for good reason — governments function best when there exists a semblence of balance and everyone has a seat at the table,” she said.

Ronna Stuller, chairwoman of New London's Green Party, said Formica’s idea has merit, though she fears it is the result of a Republican Party in New London without a platform with broad appeal to voters.

“I think having a monopoly party in town is not a good idea even if it was my party,” Stuller said.

“Of course I am empathetic to the Republican Party’s frustration with New London’s party monopoly, and our current set of rules also sets up the Democrats for internal conflict as many political hopefuls join their party regardless of whether their views are compatible, just because it’s the easiest path to getting elected,” Stuller said.

Stuller said if minority representation were to be enacted, she’d be interested in limiting the number of candidates who could run from each party, similar to how some municipal elections are run. She said the result would be stronger candidates regardless of party.

A more important reform, in Stuller’s opinion, is revision of the state’s election ballot format, which she said encourages party-line voting and favors established parties.

The breakdown of voters in the city is 7,850 Democrats, 1,542 Republicans, 6,976 unaffiliated and 224 others.

Formica’s bill was referred to the joint committee on Planning and Development. Another bill introduced by Sen. Matthew Lesser, a Democrat from the 9th District, would extend the minority representation rule to fire districts.

g.smith@theday.com

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