In November 2007, I made a tacit endorsement of Republican Mayor Timothy Stewart for re-election, although even then there were concerns about his “anger and paranoia.” If Stewart looks for a fourth term, I hope New Britain decides for another candidate.
It’s not that there’s much to criticize in terms of what we know of Stewart’s efforts to improve or safeguard the city, although the success of some have been on hold. The $6 million purchase of the former Pinnacle Heights public housing site, for instance, is crawling toward a June 30 signing deadline after the Common Council gave its approval in mid-August. The nation’s economic downturn has reportedly stalled the deal, just as it’s caused a halt to the redevelopment of the New Britain National Bank Building downtown. The economy, of course, is not the fault of Stewart, and in the case of Pinnacle Heights, it’s not clear things would be working out differently had the city gone with another company’s $4.5 million bid.
In one regard, Stewart has really stood out: His focus on the securing of jobs for the homeless, in addition to places to stay and a safety net of services, has drawn applause from the White House’s homelessness czar, Philip Mangano.
But most of his work has been less revolutionary. It’s impossible to say another mayor wouldn’t have done as well at bringing business to the city, especially with others in its economic development team — such as William Millerick at the Chamber of Commerce and Donald Courtemanche at the Downtown District — still in place. And in the case of Tilcon Connecticut Inc.’s bid to move into New Britain, Democratic legislators cited Stewart being secretive, untrustworthy and deceptive as a cause for the withdrawal of their support.
Make no mistake: It looked reckless for the delegation to back the plan, then reverse course, and I have no way of knowing if their eleventh-hour concerns were sincere or merely political. And, as longtime City Hall watchers describe the situation years ago, before two Republicans joined the Common Council, Democrats deserve a rebuke for freezing out Stewart. It was an uncalled-for and classless display of power that undoubtedly contributed to the current animosity and lack of communication between parties.
Taken as a whole, though, Stewart’s long-term response has been not just lacking in class, but verging on the dangerous; there has been no healing, and a recurring bloom of suspicion over motives makes the mayor and council function poorly together. His “anger and paranoia” has grown and sometimes burst out in public, and even supporters say he has “a well-documented pattern of using abusive language and bullying tactics.” There is no telling when or how this could backfire (or, if Tilcon is included, backfire again). It may repel other politicians or cost points in economic negotiations if potential business partners consider the point man in New Britain to be unstable or just distasteful.
There’s also another, greater danger. My experience with the mayor, mainly through taking on him and some board members and City Hall workers before the state Freedom of Information Commission (three wins for The Herald, one for City Hall that I truly wish could be appealed) has revealed a disregard and even contempt for transparency in government and the rule of law. Stewart feels he knows what is best for the city, and he doesn’t want petty statutes, political opponents or an ignorant public to get in his way. That’s not right.
Writ large, we have seen before this kind of arrogance, secrecy and hostility for our governing principles. We saw it with President Richard Nixon’s subversion of domestic intelligence in a bid to stay in office and justify war in Vietnam; we saw it when President Ronald Reagan defied Congress and funded the Contras by doing what he said America shouldn’t — negotiate with terrorists; we saw it again as President George W. Bush and his administration manipulated, tortured and spied, diminishing civil liberties and exploiting fears to pursue gratuitous war in Iraq. These are all the results of leaders who didn’t want to bother with the details in pursuit of what they considered the greater good, even if the goals weren’t shared by the majority of their equals throughout the country. They rejected due process and proper explanations, perverting rather than persuading.
This kind of comparison may strike many as over the top. The point is that shadow government and the deciding of public issues behind closed doors is wrong on any scale. Stewart’s tendency toward secrecy happens to be on the mayoral level of economic development and smaller financial matters rather than on the presidential level of national security, but checks and balances are written into every level of government for a reason. Stewart prefers not to bother.
Is he making good decisions for the right reasons? Without access to the decision-making process, citizens can’t know. His efforts to hide information, resulting not just in The Herald’s four FOI cases but in two city FOI statutes passed by the council, are disconcerting and worrisome and may lead to waste and corruption.
We know in February 2008 he decided to make it difficult for The Herald to get information from City Hall, and he did so through abuse of the state FOI law. That’s improper, and it leads to questions of who else he may decide to punish — without discussion or appeal — through the abuse of some other law.
That’s not the kind of concern citizens should have about their mayor, just as they shouldn’t have to worry about what’s going on behind closed doors or when anger will burst profanely and irrationally into the public arena.
Democratic state Rep. Tim O’Brien may be running against Stewart in November. I endorsed O’Brien for re-election when I was editing The Herald and happily endorse him now. He has good ideas, is responsive to his constituents and will likely be a steady hand to oversee the next steps in New Britain’s growth.