Lyda Ruijter op-ed: The town clerk’s office re-imagined
The Reform Stamford group is raising awareness of the entrenchment of the local political system.
Planning and Zoning Board meetings are attended by overflow crowds of citizens trying to block yet another quick zoning change to allow a developer to erect another outsized building. Heightened activism is drawing attention to ongoing pollution of the groundwater and the Sound by sloppy work by developers.
Traffic congestion, lack of enforcement of building code violations, property tax escalation, and lack of parking: the level of activism on each of these issues is growing. Citizens want their concerns to be noticed. Protests have been a constant in the city for years. What’s new is that the various protesters are joining forces, bringing neighborhoods together, and elevating neighborhood issues to city-wide concerns. Citizens are fed up with a city that doesn’t take their concerns seriously. In my visits to residents on the campaign trail all over the city, the pent-up frustration by the citizens is palpable. The town clerk’s office has a major role to play in alleviating some of the frustration, and increasing fair citizen participation. Currently, the town clerk’s office symbolizes the out-of-date mechanics of city government and the lack of citizen involvement.
I’m running for town clerk, because I have a vision of how to modernize the office for the benefit of the public, city officials, and staff. The Office of Town Clerk can be transformed into a welcoming hub where information is readily available, where the threshold to participation is removed, and where coordination between residents, staff and officials is facilitated. The Office of Town Clerk is the repository of all information having to do with government and land use. The town clerk’s position can be a catalyst for change by developing a modern, connected and accessible system of information that would empower citizens to learn, engage and become more active participants in the process.
The current town clerk took the seat 16 years ago and hasn’t been contested since then. Term limits are important for all political positions to keep out dust and privilege. Being in any political office for 16 years without being contested is a symbol of the entrenchment widely found within city government. Term limits are important to ensure fresh views, to adjust to an ever changing world, and to let the people contribute their voices and concerns to the government.
Let’s consider some examples of how a comprehensive integrated information system can be beneficial for the city and city government. Currently, building code violations are handled by several departments, and both the citizens as well as city staff appear overwhelmed by the disjointed storage of the data and are at a loss of how to track the cases. A new coordinated information system would pull the disparate pieces of information together and give everyone access to the full history of each case, from building permits, to violations, to enforcement.
While serving on the Parks and Recreation Commission I discovered that it took an inordinate amount of time to learn of the background and context of many items on the agenda. If tax money is being spent on a capital project in a park, and this item comes before the Commission, shouldn’t the background information about this project be available? When was the project started, how were funds
appropriated, who drew up the contract, and how was a vendor chosen? Getting the information was near impossible, yet votes were being cast. A re-imagined town clerk’s office would build an integrated information system where these questions can be answered quickly and easily, increasing the competency of the commissioners. This same informational system would serve members of all boards and commissions, as well as city staff and officials, increasing effectiveness, and promoting coordination and cooperation. A large part of this informational system will be open-access to the public, encouraging citizen participation and engagement.
The tragedy of Houston raises an urgent question for this election: will the leadership of this city be beholden to the developers and push for unabated development, or will they be mindful that mother nature sets the ultimate sacred limits on growth. As a coastal city, the ramifications of over-building, and awareness of how removal of impervious surfaces can lead to calamitous repercussions if a storm like Harvey would come to us, need to be front and center when planning decisions are being made. An integrated information system gives the planners a tool to incorporate long-term consequences into the development projects.
It’s often been said that democracy depends on an informed citizenry. The town clerk’s office can strengthen democracy by turning it into a hub of information accessible to both the government and the residents, building knowledge within all participants, and thereby building democracy.
Lyda Ruijter is running for town clerk. www.Lyda4TownClerk.com.