BRISTOL – This Election Day, Bristol voters will get a chance to decide whether to give the city greater power to deal with workplace harassment by elected and appointed officials and if the Board of Education members should have staggered terms.
On Tuesday, Nov. 6, the ballots will have six questions for proposed changes to the City Charter.
Because there will also be two statewide ballot questions, the local questions begin with number three.
3. Shall elections for members of the Board of Education provide for staggered terms so that only 5 of 9 members are elected in one election year and only 4 of 9 members are elected in the next election year, alternating thereafter?
If the question passes, starting in November of 2019, and every four years thereafter, five board members will be elected to serve four-year terms. Also that year, four members will be elected to two-year terms. Then starting in 2021, every four years thereafter, four members will be elected to four-year terms.
No more than three people for the four-year term and three people for the two-year term could be from the same political party, to preserve the charter’s requirement that no more than six board members be of the same party.
As the Charter Revision Commission began its work earlier in the year, some board members raised concerns that term limits imposed a few years ago will cause eventually cause problems for the board.
A previous commission recommended term limits for the mayor, City Council members and the school board in 2013, and voters approved the changes at referendum. The limits applied only to people elected to successive terms after the provision took effect Dec. 5, 2013.
Board Chairman Chris Wilson and member Jeff Caggiano have been trying to get city officials to recognize that the term limits could eventually cause an entire board membership to be term limited at once, leaving new members with no experience to draw from. Having staggered terms would prevent that.
Currently all nine of Bristol’s school board seats are up for election every four years.
“Meanwhile the irony of all of this is we had staggered terms when we first implemented Board of Education elections. For some reason Charter Revision changed it, and then they changed it to the term limits,” Wilson said earlier in the year.
The next question reads:
4. Shall a new Sec. 56 be approved to prohibit workplace harassment by elected and appointed officials?
This change would authorize the City Council to establish procedures for the investigation of workplace harassment to adopt penalties for violations, to the extent permitted by law. The issue stems from former mayor Ken Cockayne’s involvement with a member of his staff during his term in office, which was found to be in violation of city policy.
In 2016, the City Council voted unanimously to censure Cockayne over his relationship with Noelle Bates, which had taken place eight years previously. Cockayne had previously taken responsibility and publicly apologized for his relationship with Bates, a legal secretary for the city’s corporation counsel office.
At the time, then Councilor Anthony D’Amato said the council lacked the power to take further action against the mayor. The council also voted to have city staff undergo intensive training on civil rights matters and to revisit the charter to address how to handle further situations like this.
An investigation by the Hartford-based law firm FordHarrison found that Cockayne had threatened Bates and Assistant Corporation Counsel Richard Lacey, but that Cockayne was not guilty of sexual harassment “per se” and that he couldn’t find any evidence of political harassment or retaliation.
Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu said the proposed charter change stemmed from “frustration in the last two years with our inability to take corrective action or discipline is because the charter is silent on that. They had no ability to suspend him, to put him on leave, or to do anything.”
It’s “a very minor tweak of the language” in the charter, she said. “But now, God forbid, if we ever find ourselves in a situation like that again there will be teeth in our ability to take action.”
The other ballot questions deal with more routine changes to procedures for the city government:
Zoppo-Sassu said number five is the most consequential:
5. Shall sewage disposal be removed as a responsibility of the director of public works and transferred to the water department?
The change would allow the city’s water department to control both “the water that flows into your house and the water that flows out of your house,” she said. “There would be a lot of efficiencies achieved with that. The water department already does the back office and the billing for sewer that comes in a combined statement.
“Right now the public works director is responsible for eight divisions, which I think is too many,” she continued. “It doesn’t allow him to really adopt best practices and do a thorough review to ensure that all departments are running at peak capacity.”
The final questions on the ballot are as follows:
6. Shall a personnel committee be established as an advisory review panel, the title of the director of personnel be changed to director of human resources, and the director’s qualifications be removed from the Charter?
7. Shall the name of the meeting between the City Council and Board of Finance be changed from joint board to joint meeting?
8. Shall the procedures and authority for bonding be clarified to include bonds, notes, and other obligations?
Susan Corica can be reached at 860-973-1802 or firstname.lastname@example.org.