The rift between Derby’s Democratic mayor and members of her own party surfaced again Thursday (July 24), derailing Mayor Anita Dugatto’s first “open door” session with the public.
The open door session was billed in a press release from the mayor’s office as an ‘informal setting where people can talk about ‘all things Derby.’”
But the informal get-together was scheduled at the same time and place as another very formal get-together — the monthly meeting of the Derby Board of Aldermen, in the Joan Williamson Aldermanic Chambers on the second floor of Derby City Hall.
The mayor and the Aldermen were unable to come up in advance with a way to make both events happen smoothly.
Just before 7 p.m., members of the Board of Aldermen, most of whom had gathered in the hallway outside Aldermanic Cambers, left the second floor and headed to another meeting room in the City Hall basement in order to start their meeting.
But Dugatto had been planning to use the Aldermen’s public comment period as her “open door” forum, which would have opened with a short speech by the mayor followed by comments from the public.
Dugatto was surprised as Aldermen walked the stairs to the basement. She left the meeting room to find out where the Aldermen were going and noticed someone had posted a typed note on a bulletin board telling the public the Aldermen’s meeting had been moved downstairs.
“Who put that there?” she asked, then removed the note from the bulletin board.
Dugatto then walked downstairs to the basement room where the Aldermen had gathered. A smattering of the public remained in the Aldermanic Chambers upstairs, while about 20 members of the public sat in the audience in the basement room.
Dugatto talked to the Aldermen in the basement meeting room, hoping to get them back upstairs.
They didn’t budge.
She talked briefly to Derby Fire Marshal Phil Hawks about whether the basement meeting room posed a capacity problem because of the number of people in the room.
Hawks said people could not stand in the aisles.
The mayor left the room, then returned a few minutes later to tell the Aldermen her forum had ended, and that the Aldermen should come back upstairs.
The quick video below shows the decision to go back upstairs.
The Aldermen and the audience then climbed the stairs back to the second floor. Three people with ailments had trouble with the stairs, but couldn’t use the City Hall elevator because it was out of service.
The regularly scheduled Aldermen’s meeting then began at about 7:15 p.m., or 15 minutes late.
Derby resident Harvey Finkel was miffed — and out of breath.
“I’m not laughing, at all. I’ve had some health issues, and I’m trying to catch my breath,” he said during the meeting’s public portion.
The incident, however minor in the grand scheme of issues on planet Earth, underlined the schism between Dugatto and her fellow Democrats on the Board of Aldermen, particularly Alderman Carmen DiCenso and Barbara DeGennaro.
DiCenso and Dugatto clashed publicly in March, over work Dugatto authorized at the dilapidated Derby Parking Garage on Thompson Place.
Some Aldermen have criticized Dugatto generally for not keeping them informed of issues — a critique they also leveled at Dugatto’s predecessor, Republican Anthony Staffieri.
Earlier this year, DiCenso also took umbrage with Dugatto’s use of volunteers in the mayor’s office, saying that volunteers had potential access to private data stored on city-owned computers.
The Aldermen also met in several executive sessions but never took action on the employment duties and employment contract of Vicki LaRue, a Dugatto for Mayor campaign staffer who was hired by Dugatto after taking office.
The Aldermen’s lack of action prevented Dugatto from keeping LaRue on in her office working in a “community engagement” capacity.
At past Aldermen meetings, DeGennaro has repeatedly raised concerns regarding procedural issues involving Dugatto’s administration, including the manner in which items are added to the Aldermen’s agenda.
After Thursday’s upstairs/downstairs drama, the Valley Indy interviewed DeGennaro briefly. She said the room was simply double-booked, and that the mayor was told in advance it was double-booked.
DiCenso said the Aldermen decided to move the meeting because Aldermen meetings can last up to four hours, so starting at 7 p.m. is imperative.
The Aldermen also noted Dugatto’s “open door’ session has been advertised as a separate and distinct event.
The Valley Indy asked whether the upstairs-downstairs adventure is indicative of a rift between the Aldermen and the mayor.
“Ya think?” DiCenso asked.
DiCenso said the mayor has to work within the city’s charter and do a better job communicating.
In an interview Friday (July 25), Dugatto said the incident stems from a difference of “perspective” between she and the Aldermen’s leadership.
“My perspective is whatever is for the common good. Every decision I make, every initiative whether it is for the common good of the city. It has to pass that test,” Dugatto said.
Dugatto said she tries to concentrate on progress, which has conflicted with the board’s procedure.
“I know there is process, and I don’t disrespect the process, but sometimes the process is becoming bigger than the goal,” she said.