Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Path To The Ballot, Part I

Last week, when the Middletown Democratic Party convention nominated candidates to appear on the ballot for the November municipal elections, I tried to gain one of its three nominations for Planning and Zoning. I failed, and am now collecting signatures for a primary. What follows is a personal story of trying to get on the ballot, along with some personal opinions on the municipal democratic process. Please note that this is not intended to be journalism: I believe everything to be accurate, but I am not a disinterested observer.  I have invited the Chair of the Democratic Committee to submit his own perspective on the nominating process.

Why run for Planning and Zoning?
The two most important activities of City government are education and land use regulation. Other city actions like snow removal, public safety, and water supply are obviously important, but their impact rarely extends beyond the lifecycle of an election. In contrast, land use decisions shape the nature of our city for generations to come.

I believe that informed residents who consistently watch government make a substantial contribution to the process of municipal governance, because they provide some accountability for both the elected and the appointed city officials. In the area of land use, Katchen Coley and Arline Rich have been recent exemplars of this type of civic contribution.

I started following our city’s land use decisions very shortly after moving to Middletown 16 years ago. I became active in the Westfield Residents Association, and whenever the Planning and Zoning Commission considered a Westfield property, we examined the proposed plans and attended the public hearing.

The Middletown Eye provides a venue to expand this kind of watchdog citizenship. Anyone who is willing to observe a public meeting can post a record of the deliberations and decisions, to inform others in the city. In the last five years, I have done this for land use, attending nearly every meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission, many meetings of Inland Wetlands, and a few meetings of Design Review and Historic Preservation. I filed a report on each meeting for The Middletown Eye (search for "Planning and Zoning" in The Eye's search window on the upper left).

During my time watching and reporting on Planning and Zoning, I have seen a nearly complete turn-over of Commissioners, Les Adams is the only Commissioner who has been attending meetings longer than I have. In the last 5 years, I have a better attendance record than any of the current Commissioners.

During this time, I realized that I was qualified, and that I have the energy and level of commitment necessary to be a Commissioner. In addition, I grew increasingly frustrated by what I was witnessing on the Commission.  First, the Commission was doing no planning, in the past two years any discussions about the future of our city have been driven by proposals of developers, only occasionally by the appointed staff, and never by the initiative of the Commission. Second, the Commission was too deferential to the lawyers paid for by the developer, and too dismissive of the testimony by Middletown residents.  The balance was wrong.

I realized that if I wanted to change any of this, I needed to be part of the Commission. I decided to run for office. Naturally, the first step would be to get my name on the ballot.

Dear Chairman Pickett: I am writing to express my interest in a nomination …
The most common path to the ballot is a nomination from the Democratic or Republican Town Committee. The Democratic Town Committee is elected every two years: it consists of elected officials, the spouses and children of some of them, and others actively engaged in electing local democrats. The DTC meeting in July is held as a “nominating convention” at which endorsed candidates are submitted for the November ballot.

I wrote to Dan Pickett, chair of the Democratic Town Committee, expressing my interest in receiving one of three Democratic nominations for Planning and Zoning. I described my background and experience (read my letter HERE).

Every person who expresses an interest in being on the ballot as an endorsed Democrat is interviewed by the nominating subcommittee of the DTC. This year, the nominating subcommittee consisted of Pickett, Richard Pelletier (sitting Planning and Zoning Commissioner, not up for election this year), Dan Russo (sitting P&Z Commissioner, up for election this year). Two members of Middletown Young Democrats, Alison Cleary and Will Arther, participated but they were not members of the Town Committee (they were elected to membership after the nominating committee's work was done).

In my interview, I was asked to describe my experience and interest in Planning and Zoning; this discussion took less than 10 minutes, perhaps because there is such an extensive public record of my involvement.

The remaining 20 minutes of my interview was spent on my level of commitment to the local Democratic party. These questions all came from Dan Russo, who has been the chair of the DTC. Some of the questions I expected, and I do not think are unreasonable. I was asked if I would commit to raising at least $500 to support all non-mayoral candidates. Russo explained that this was to cover the cost of brochures, phone lines, office rental, etc. I said ‘yes’. I was asked to enumerate what I had done for local Democratic candidates in recent elections. I admitted I hadn’t done much, later I explained that as a news correspondent for municipal meetings it would have been inappropriate for me to campaign for municipal elections. I encouraged them to weigh the strength of my background for the governance aspect of Planning and Zoning against this weakness.

Russo then asked me, “Do you pledge your support for ALL candidates endorsed by the Democratic Party?” At the risk of appearing hopelessly na├»ve and/or idealistic, I confess I was not prepared for what was clearly the most important question to the Nominating Committee.

With 5 Democratic operatives staring at me across the table, the ‘correct’ answer was obvious, but I could not bring myself to say it. I hemmed and hawed for awhile, to try to disguise my shock and frustration that I would be expected to give blanket approval to the as-yet-unknown recommendations of the three-man nominating sub-committee. I finally replied that the question was unfair, I could not honestly express my support for candidates that had not yet been named.

I left the interview hoping that the committee would recommend my nomination based on my experience and qualifications for governance, even while it recognized that my background in electioneering was less than other possible candidates.

I was disappointed when Chairman Pickett phoned me on the morning of the nominating convention and said I would not be recommended for a nomination. However, this was not the end of the process, and I made it clear to several DTC members that I hoped for a nomination from the floor at the nominating convention.

The Nominating Convention.
The Democratic Town Committee met last Thursday to nominate candidates. The nominations for Mayor and Board of Education went according to the recommendations of the nominating committee. The nominating committee’s recommendation for the 8 Common Council candidates was followed with one exception, Quentin Phipps was removed from the recommended slate, to be replaced by Jim Streeto. This was pre-arranged, as Phipps voluntarily declined the nomination and Streeto was immediately nominated.

When it came time for the Planning and Zoning Commission nominations, Chairman Pickett announced the recommendation of Dan Russo, Rob Blanchard, and Paul Turenne. Dan Russo is a former DTC chair and was the dominant force on the nominating committee; Rob Blanchard is a former paid employee of the Malloy campaign, and is currently a driver for Attorney General Jepsen; Paul Turenne is the associate registrar at Wesleyan.

After reading the list of recommended candidates, Pickett asked if there were any further nominations. I was nominated and seconded from the floor, and therefore the 40 delegates to the nominating convention (all members of the DTC), were tasked with voting for 3 out of 4 nominated candidates. One of the DTC members asked that delegates hear from each of the 4 candidates, and Chairman Pickett agreed.  This was highly unusual, the delegates normally vote without ever hearing from the candidates.

Russo, Blanchard, Turenne, and I each spoke for 3 minutes. Russo spoke primarily about his work for the DTC, Blanchard and Turenne spoke of their love for our city, and I reiterated my experience with Planning and Zoning and other land use regulative bodies in the city. I also pledged, if I received the official endorsement of the DTC, to support the other Democratic candidates for office.

Ballots were then handed out, one by one, to each of the 40 DTC members present. Each ballot was pre-printed with the three endorsed candidates, votes for me required the voter to write in my name. This was reasonable, because Chairman Pickett had no way of predicting who might be nominated from the floor.

What was more surprising was that each ballot was also individually marked with the name of the DTC member who would be voting. This was not anonymous voting, every voter would know that his or her vote would be known to the Chair and presumably others. The DTC has in the past battled over whether balloting should be secret or not.

When the votes were tallied, I received votes from almost half of the DTC members, but this placed me last among the 4 candidates (Russo, 32; Blanchard, 35; Turenne, 27; Devoto 19). Later I learned that DTC members are expected by the party to vote exclusively for those endorsed by the nominating committee. In that light, I am grateful to have received as many votes as I did.

This is not the end of the nominating process. Any Democrat who fails to get the endorsement of the nominating committee has the right to petition for a primary in which all Democratic voters will decide which candidates to put forward in the November election.

Next: The Primary Petition Process.


Anonymous said...

Not a middle earth dem but there's nothing wrong with expecting endorsed candidates to dance with the person who brought them and supporting other endorsed candidates and party platform. If you cannot do that you should be running as an independent.

From an outsider's perspective you are perceived as a single issue candidate and the dems reluctant to have a repeat of the ed4ed situation of 2 years ago.

Anonymous said...

This is interesting; thanks for posting this report and I look forward to the following reports on the topic.

Anonymous said...

Covering a public meeting for a blog doesn't make one qualified to be on that board/commission. That would be the equivalent of saying someone who likes medical TV shows could practice medicine.

Anonymous said...

I have an issue with the fact that votes were "marked", and therefore, not secret ballot. I find that highly disappointing. -Jonathan Pulino

Anonymous said...

Your analogy is not sound.

You imply that this candidate may be less qualified to serve on the commission than other candidates, who, if we follow your comparison, must have gone through the equivalent of med school when it comes to public planning issues in Middletown. This is far from the case.

Attending all of the meetings and considering all of the the issues thoughtfully and intelligently, with concern for their impact on the entire community, residents as well as devlopers, as this candidate has done, actually puts him far ahead of his competitors when it comes to his qualifications for the position.

cybermom said...

Stephen Devoto is far more qualified to be on Planning and Zoning than any of the dems nominated to be on the commission.
What credentials do the other candidates have that are better than his? Can someone explain this.

Anonymous said...

Most P&Z meetings play like an episode of "Lost". I fear that the script writers do not like the Professor's lack of pliability, nor that he has a functioning memory.

Anonymous said...

If you want support from the party you have to support the others even if you disagree. Other wise you would be a hypocrite.

Anonymous said...

Dem M'Town Dems....not as dumb as they an ed4ed repeat.

johnpauljustlikethepope said...

I would like to see Stephen Devoto on the Realistic Balance party line this November, whether he is nominated by the Dems or not.

Anonymous said...

Ed4Ed begets Steve4Steve.

James Streeto said...

Hi Steven--

The reason we don't use secret ballots is that we've been advised explicitly not to do so by the election attorneys who work with the state party. They've advised us that the vote needs to be public. Paper ballots are acceptable, provided they can be identified by the person casting them. Keep in mind that a party convention is a public meeting, like a session of the PZC or the Council. I assume you and everyone else would have reservations about the council meeting in the mayor's office, and announcing "it was an 8 to 4 vote" without more.

Jon--I'm sorry you were disappointed. I know how avidly you young republicans follow democratic party procedure--but we have to abide by the rules set for us by the legislature and the state party, no?

Jim Streeto

Anonymous said...

Devoto says he didn't advocate for democratic candidates because it would interfere with his impartiality as a "news correspondent." That may be true, but it sure didn't stop him from advocating for republican ones:

Stephen Devoto said...

Just to clarify, I was only expressing surprise, not skepticism of legality. In fact, they day after the convention I was told by the Secretary of The State's office that the party is not required to use secret ballots.

I appreciate your explanation for why this is done. I am in favor of transparency in government, and am glad to learn that the voting record is part of the public record. I will ask for it, solely in order to thank those who supported me.

Anonymous said...

Anon 12:38 -

Care to elaborate on the credentials of Rob Blanchard and Paul Turenne? Exactly what graduate level program on land use planning did they complete?

It would be great if we had people on P+Z that had education and training in land use and were not just political hacks approving every corporate sponsored change to the rules.