DEFIESTA: Smart governance?

New Havener

The new year brought some much-needed change to New Haven politics: a new mayor, new faces (and a new gender-neutral name!) for the Board of Alders. But soon after the fireworks, champagne and inaugurations came yet another scandal to a city that has seen far too many in recent years.

defiestaEven before he was elected to the position last November, Town Clerk Michael Smart was plagued by accusations of improper handling of absentee ballots. A complaint filed at the office of the State Elections Enforcement Commission charges that at least eight voters in Wooster Square gave their ballots to a woman who illegally picked them up, and may have filled out some of the ballots. Those ballots were signed out and distributed by Smart, a former alderman who wrested the part-time, $46K position from longtime Town Clerk Ron Smith.

In a strange and troubling twist, Smart is now directing the office in charge of overseeing absentee ballots, as well as assisting the Elections Commission with its investigation of his campaign. This is a position in which New Haven requires a competent, accountable public servant, given its history of ballot fraud — the city has seen four such incidents in the past four years.

With Smart’s integrity already called into question with regards to the public office he occupies, the last thing New Haven needs is another headline decrying his handling of town clerk duties. Yet it seems he has failed his constituents once again.

His most recent misstep — either the result of a willfully illegal action or one borne of careless oversight — continues to harm the overall mission of his office.

Just last week, he issued an illegal order to workers in his office. Smart, whose duties include providing public documents to the public when requested, sent a memo to his staff ordering them not to release documents to the media without his express permission. As Smart is often not in the office due to the position’s part-time nature, the memo dictates his staff reach him by cell phone if the need for public documents is urgent.

That’s not how things have worked in the past, nor how they currently do in other Connecticut towns. Under former clerk Smith, office staffers were directed to provide routine public documents promptly upon requests from the public — including reporters.

The sort of documents that are kept on record by the clerk’s office include election reports, land transactions and absentee ballot submissions, the nuts and bolts of any functioning democracy.

The new policy for the office, it seems, would make it much harder to access public records. Indeed, an attorney for the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission confirmed to the New Haven Independent that the new rule is illegal under state law.

The policy is particularly ironic coming from Smart, whose campaign emphasized his goal of making the office’s information easier for the public to access. With the policy’s implementation, he seems to undermine the very principles his office stands for. Sound familiar?

Initially, Smart defended the policy by explaining that the town clerk should know what is happening in the office. But he later clarified the memo to explain that he only intended it to pertain to press interviews about the office, despite the original memo’s vague reference to “documents.” He added that workings of the town clerk would continue as they had under Smith.

Even if this interpretation was what Smart had intended all along, it’s troubling that his office was rocked by scandal so soon after he assumed the role of town clerk. With all eyes on the position as the State Elections Enforcement Commission investigation continues, one would think that Smart might be more clear when directing his staffers. At the very least, this incident demonstrates a worrisome carelessness when it comes to Smart’s handling of his public duties.

It is a strange irony that the city office that exists to provide a certain level of government transparency finds itself plagued by so many scandals, casting doubt on the reliability of the position. Let us hope that, going forward, we will see Smart embody the values of the office he holds — more transparency, not less.

Nick Defiesta is a senior in Berkeley College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at nick.defiesta@yale.edu.

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