Accusations and mistrust poison relationship between Bridgeport city attorney and council

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BRIDGEPORT — Mistrust has complicated interactions between the legal department and city hall for several years.

But as he prepares to step down the first week of June from his powerful role as Bridgeport’s chief city attorney, City Attorney R. Christopher Meyer leaves behind a more damaged and bitter relationship, one that Mayor Joe Ganim picks as a replacement will have to fix.

Meyer was accused by the board of favoring Ganim and not treating the panel as an equal client. Meyer, meanwhile, said this week that council members were unwilling to “cooperate” with his attempts to engage with them.

“Good riddance,” said freshman councilman Aikeem Boyd, one of several members of that legislative body who, particularly during their recent budget battle with fellow Democrat Ganim, complained about Meyer.

Meyer has always insisted that he and his team of lawyers represent the entire government of Bridgeport, not just Ganim, who hired him after Meyer served as a key adviser during the mayoral campaign in 2015.

“I tried to be the town’s attorney,” Meyer told Hearst Connecticut in late March when he announced he was preparing to leave in the spring. “A lot of people mistakenly understand that the city attorney is only the mayor’s.”

“He’s acting more as an attorney for Joseph Ganim than he does on behalf of the city,” Boyd said.

“We are two branches of government, and at this time, our branch does not feel supported in any capacity by this office,” Councilor Jeanette Herron agreed.

“He has to go,” said city councilor Jorge Cruz.

These comments contrasted sharply with the praise Ganim offered Meyer. In a statement to Hearst Connecticut Media, the mayor said, “He will be missed not only as an accomplished lawyer, but as a true leader.”

Ganim has not disclosed anything about his plans to fill one of the most influential roles at City Hall, including whether, as has been the case with other high-profile vacancies, he could appoint a acting city attorney while launching a search for a permanent position.

At variance

Council chairwoman Aidee Nieves, who fought Meyer over the limits of her and the council’s powers, said the mayor should consult with members on which it would be “as a good faith effort, given the controversy which has been exposed.

Freshman Councilman Tyler Mack said it would help “rebuild trust”.

“It’s a very critical nomination,” he said. “The board should also be given the opportunity to speak to or verify the appointee.”

Councilman Marcus Brown urged Ganim to “contact Tyisha Toms again”. As reported in late April, Toms, whom Nieves, Brown and several council members hoped would be considered to replace Meyer, was hired by the Norwalk City Legal Department.

“I’m open to any suggestions anyone might have,” Ganim said.

Meyer, in an interview this week, said he has worked hard to establish good working relationships with members of the legislature.

“I opened my office, had board members on many, many occasions, spending my own money and inviting them to (office) lunches to discuss issues,” he said. “I don’t think they can find anywhere in history another attorney in town who contacted them. That said, I don’t feel like I got the co-op back.

Some tension between the board and the legal department is historically not unusual. But the climate as Meyer heads for the exit is one of great mistrust and animosity. Nieves accused him of wanting to obstruct rather than help the council do its job.

“There are lawyers in the legal department who will come up with a solution,” Nieves said. “He does not offer a solution.

Budget issues

Earlier this month, in the final days of Bridgeport’s annual budget season, the council’s budget committee recommended amending Ganim’s proposed 2022-23 budget plan to eliminate $500,000 of mostly low-cost jobs. high-profile spots occupied by allies of the mayor who critics say were either underperforming or simply unnecessary.

But the full board, in order to pass its budget before the May 10 deadline, had to hold a special meeting. And, according to the charter, only Ganim can call them. He did not, ensuring that his budget would go into effect and save the jobs at risk. When the board then scheduled its own special meeting, Meyer had it canceled without, the members complained, consulting them.

“No one could get their hands on any of our city attorneys while this was going on, and that’s a direct reflection of which side they decided to stand on,” Brown said. “It goes against their argument that they represent the whole city and not just the mayor. If you had, you would have been on the phone with the chairman of the council, all the members of the budget committee, to discuss ways to achieve this.

Meyer insisted he was just doing his job – preventing the council from doing anything illegal and violating the charter – and said it was “easy” and “convenient” for people who don’t disagree with his views to complain of bias.

Shortly thereafter, Nieves, Mack and a few others identified a state law they believed could be used to extend the May 10 deadline and allow for a council vote. Meyer claimed that this too would be illegal. So last Monday the council voted to send the matter to its ordinance committee and hire its own attorney to advise on the matter.

Councilwoman Maria Pereira, a vocal critic of Ganim, said Nieves and other council members had chosen a budget battle with the mayor and were ill-prepared to fight it.

“You don’t go to war and don’t have a big strategic plan,” Pereira said. “What Chris Meyer did was respect the charter.”

Leak of documents

Meyer also came under fire for another controversy that erupted during the power struggle with Ganim over passing a budget. On May 11, the Only in Bridgeport blog published a complaint filed with the legal department by the Deputy Director General, the Reverend Herron Gaston. In it, Gaston accused Councilman Ernie Newton, chairman of the budget committee, of threatening earlier this year to remove Gaston’s position to prevent him from running for the state Senate.

Gaston is one of the two assistants and the budget committee recommended eliminating one, but left this one to Ganim.

Newton has denied Gaston’s allegations, and several other council members have said they were unaware of them until they were posted online.

Meyer said neither he nor his office released the document, but acknowledged he also never shared it with the board. Nieves and other board members said Meyer should have done so and warned them against eliminating an assistant general manager if the Ganim administration had concerns about legal liability involving Gaston and Newton.

“As a lawyer who is supposed to inform the board of any ongoing exposure, it was his job to communicate that,” Nieves said.

“It was a personnel issue, so the exact details shouldn’t have been shared,” Brown said. “But at least let the council or council chair know there’s been a complaint and it could affect the budget process.”

According to Gaston, who also denied making his allegations public, he filed his complaint with the legal department in early May and also verbally informed other unidentified “upper echelon” officials in the Ganim administration of the alleged threats. of Newton in early spring. The mayor did not respond to questions about whether he had been made aware of the concerns raised by Gaston.

Meyer this week offered various reasons why he didn’t tell the board, from the fact that he had the coronavirus roughly to the possibility that the allegations against Newton simply became public before the legal department could share them. .

“My office didn’t really weigh in on what should be cut and what shouldn’t (in the budget),” Meyer also said.

As for advice for his replacement, Meyer said: “Do your best, don’t be jaded by some people who want to encourage fights between branches of government and individuals (and) keep trying to promote working together. “

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