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August 19, 2008

In Henrici’s Closet

By Ron Gambardella

Well, the verdict has officially come in. The Ethics Board announced last week that it has determined that there wasn’t enough information to draw any conclusions with respect to the matter of the mayor misappropriating funds to provide reimbursement for unsubstantiated mileage. (Click here and here for background stories.)

If you recall, the mayor initiated this investigation by requesting the Ethics Board review the details behind the transfer of funds between accounts for his travel reimbursement. It appeared that the mayor was attempting to right a wrong. (Editor's note: Henrici actually only asked for an advisory opinion; meanwhile several councilmen were talking publicly about filing a complaint of charter violations to the Ethics Board.)

With this assumption in mind, it would be logical to conclude the mayor would make every resource available to the Ethics Board to conduct a thorough investigation.

And you would be wrong.

It seems Finance Director Michael Betz refused to comply with requests by the Ethics Board to appear before them to explain why he shifted funds from other accounts to reimburse the mayor for undocumented mileage. His testimony was essential for the commission to draw any conclusions with respect to the intent of the transfer. The commissioners expressed concern that without Mr. Betz’s testimony, they were at a standstill for determining the ethical outcome of the transfer.

There are several key questions left unanswered. Why did Finance Director Michael Betz refuse to appear before the board? Why didn’t the mayor insist that his finance director appear before the board to resolve the open issues raised by the board? Why has Council Finance Chair Curtis Balzano Leng been silent on this matter, choosing to avoid any potentially embarrassing discoveries by the commission?

It is a shame that the taxpaying public cannot get straight answers to questions that don’t appear to be all that complicated -- unless, of course, you have something to hide.  The mayor’s lack of follow-through would suggest there are facts that are better off left undiscovered. Think about it. Why should the mayor press the only person who is able to provide the necessary details to appear before the Ethics Board?

The answers may call into question the entire fiduciary responsibility on the part of the mayor, his finance director and the council. It seems from the mayor’s perspective, some things are better off left alone to grow and fester in the interior recesses of his administration.

Former Republican Councilman and '07 mayoral candidate Ron Gambardella will comment on town affairs in this column. He can be reached at rongam@yahoo.com.

August 11, 2008

Outdated Charter Fuels Bully Machine

By Ron Gambardella

Over the years Hamden has been increasingly dominated by a party machine. While some may cheer this as a great achievement, others view this situation as nothing more than concentrating power in the hands of a few individuals with little opportunity for dissent.

We need only look at New Haven to see how party machine politics has created an absolute taxpayer nightmare. I recently read that New Haven taxpayers will be experiencing on average a more-than 14 percent tax hike on top of a steady parade of tax increases over recent years. Hamden will soon go the way of New Haven if something isn’t done to prevent single-party rule. It is never good for one party to have such a monopoly of power.

Charter revision will be the right approach to prevent a quagmire of fiscal mismanagement and allow for diversity of opinion.

I applaud community activist Mark Sanders for taking the initiative to strike up a new debate on charter reform. Several surrounding communities are now undertaking this task.

There are many parts of the Hamden Charter that need revision. For starters, I suggest both longer terms and term limits for the mayor and council members. It takes time to understand how town government operates, and the current two-year term is simply not enough. I propose that we extend it to four years and limit the term of office to no more than two terms. Four-year terms would allow for the continuity of government while at the same time implementing term limits to prevent concentrating power into the hands of a select few.

Another needed change is expanding the current minority representation from two seats on the 15-member council to perhaps four or five. Greater minority representation would allow ideas to be challenged and foster discussion and consensus on key issues facing the town. The idea is to open up government as much as possible to restore transparency, honesty and a sense of democracy that has not been evident in Hamden for quite some time.

The budget process has become completely political. The mayor makes promises and the council carries out his/her wishes. In order to free Hamden taxpayers from this backroom approach to budgeting, we need to let the people decide. As we have seen, with the recent historically high tax increases of the past few years, the council can no longer be trusted to do the right thing. The budget process has now become payback time for promises owed.

So we need a budget referendum. With a referendum, the council will create the budget but the people of Hamden will approve it. This approach will produce budgets that the people of Hamden can afford.

These are but a few ideas of what could be accomplished with charter revision. However, in order for the process to get started there must be a real commitment on the part of the council to get it done. While on the council I requested monthly progress reports from the council committee established to look into the matter. As I recall, every month the status report was the same: “No progress to report.” (Click here, here and here for a chronological background of the town's latest "effort" at charter revision.)

Unfortunately the status reports were nothing more than a stall tactic to give the public the appearance that the council was committed to charter reform. In reality, powerbrokers like Council President Al Gorman, Majority Leader Matt Fitch and Finance Chair Curt Leng have no intentions of sharing power with anyone, especially the taxpaying public.

Friends, Hamden government is seriously broken and needs new leadership. Hoping it will get fixed, without action, will not get it done. Doing it will! For this to happen, we must elect a new council and mayor to chart a different course. Otherwise expect more of the same: significant tax increases for the foreseeable future and an unresponsive town government concentrated in the hands of the few.

Former Republican Councilman and '07 mayoral candidate Ron Gambardella will comment on town affairs in this column. He can be reached at rongam@yahoo.com.


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