Dec. 02--BRIDGEPORT -- When Mayor Bill Finch looks out at the new City Council during its inaugural meeting Monday night, he's going to miss seeing some friendly faces.
Seats once filled by M. Evette Brantley, the Rev. John Olson, Warren Blunt and Richard Bonney will now hold Robert Halstead, Patricia Swain, the Rev. Mary McBride-Lee and Richard Salter.
The one that Steve Stafstrom briefly held in Black Rock now belongs to a Republican for the first time in six years. And that Republican, Rick Torres, has never been afraid of being heard.
The new council members, along with their 15 colleagues, were sworn in late Sunday afternoon. Four of the five new Board of Education members and several city sheriffs also were administered oaths.
On Monday night, the new council meets for the first time to choose a president, various leaders and receive committee assignments.
And in the weeks ahead, Finch may wish he could turn back the hands of time.
"It is going to be real interesting to watch if this group sticks together," said Donald Greenberg, a Fairfield University professor of politics who has spent years observing the Democratic process play out here. "Tom McCarthy, (expected to be re-elected the Council president) has no real experience in dealing with controversy and the mayor is thin-skinned when bristled ... These could be interesting times."
In recent conversations Halstead, McBride-Lee, Swain and Salter said they won't be "yes men" for the mayor.
"Those days are over," said McBride-Lee. "I can be a team player, but never a yes man. We will have discussions, and I am going to look at everything put before me."
Salter, Swain and Halstead echoed that view.
"I feel I've always been pretty independent," said Salter, a 68-year-old who has spent nearly 30 years as a school counselor at Dunbar and now Waltersville. "I'm not easily swayed by political leaders. I'm not buyable. I'll listen to what's being said but take action that's best for my community."
Salter, who with McBride-Lee defeated incumbents Blunt and Bonney in a primary last fall, said the big issues in his East Side district are crime and taxes. Those are issues he intends to press.
"I'm no yes man," said Salter. "The mayor works for us. We represent the people. They elected us to serve. It's our purpose to serve their needs."
He said if the city wants legislation passed, contracts approved or money spent, "we all need to read it and then talk about it."
That's something Swain and Halstead said they intend to do.
"My main issue is to bring more transparency to city government," Swain said. "We got some new people here, and I think we can all work together to change the way things are done."
"I'll do all I can to change that perception," Halstead said. "We have to be more user-friendly."
Council meetings in recent decades have involved little more than a closed-door Democratic caucus followed by affirmative votes. Rarely is there debate, and almost never is an agenda item rejected.
And when controversy erupts, like the transfer from the harbormaster's account to pay for former Mayor Joseph P. Ganim's$1 million life insurance policy, pension funds moved to a mayoral friend's control for a price or, more recently, the sweetheart $400,000 driveway for a multi-millionaire developer -- all hidden in passed legislation -- council members express surprise and profess ignorance.
"It's clear to me that a caucus is not meant for city business, and I intend to be the cop," said Torres, who as the sole non-Democrat voted himself the council's minority leader. "I will not tolerate it."
In his hands Torres held a June 26, 2006, opinion written by Associate City Attorney John H. Barton. It reads: "A caucus is not a public meeting, therefore the requirements of a public meeting are not applicable ... City of Bridgeport business may not be conducted nor may votes be taken. Political affairs of the particular political party may be conducted at the caucus."
On June 28, 2006, Barton expanded this in a follow-up opinion reading: "... No public affairs of the city may be conducted, no votes may be taken and attendance at the caucus is limited to the members of the caucus. If any of these limitations are breached, the lawful caucus may be transformed into a meeting of the City Council, therefore violating the FOIA."
So what transpires behind those closed doors? Only the participants know.
McCarthy said much of the council's business and debate occurs "during lengthy committee meetings." He said he looks forward to working with the "new council and the new ideas they bring."
But Torres said he intends to challenges McCarthy's authority to serve as president, as well as that of any council member employed by the city, to consider much of the business conducted. McCarthy is the city's deputy director of labor relations.
Torres points to section 5 (f) (1) of the city charter, which reads: "No member of the city council shall take any official action or attempt to influence the official action of another person, with respect to any vote, resolution or matter whatever in which he/she has a direct or pecuniary interest or where his property will be directly or especially affected thereby."
"I'm not looking to block the process, be a rabble-rouser or even stick it to the mayor," said Torres. "What I am is a believer in is transparency of government. This city has had a historical past of corruption."
He has and will reach out to Halstead, McBride-Lee, Salter and Swain for support, he said. Together, Greenberg said this group could become a voice -- a fearsome fivesome -- something Finch has not had to deal with in his six years as mayor.
"I don't think they will be difficult to get along with," Finch said following Sunday's ceremonies. "I've known many for several years. I see the benefit of new and diverse opinions."
In his remarks to the new council, Finch told its members that they share the responsibility "of making decisions, some of which will be difficult, and you will be called upon to compromise -- something that happens every day in this local hall of government, but seems rare today in Washington."
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