Public outrage continues as residents spoke in front of the City Council about blighted conditions and against a comment by former Republican Mayor Timothy Stewart that, “the inmates continue to run the neighborhood.” Stewart’s comment was made in a Facebook conversation about the North Oak neighborhood that has a large Latino and African American population.
Accusations of racism have been leveled at the former mayor and calls have risen for him to resign or be removed from his current powerful position as the President of the Greater New Britain Chamber of Commerce, as well as from city commissions.
The scandal enveloping Timothy Stewart and Republican Mayor Erin Stewart’s third term, in only its first weeks, began when Timothy Stewart made a comment that, “Unfortunately the inmates continue to run the neighborhood,” as part of his response to criticism by neighborhood resident Annette Velez that the city is not doing enough about problems in that neighborhood.
Velez was one of the residents who spoke at the Council meeting. “I take offense to being called an ‘inmate’ by the father of the standing mayor,” said Velez. She discussed the long-standing need for city services, such as paving of Oak Street and the need address dilapidated buildings in the neighborhood. “Nobody is holding the building owners responsible,” she said.
“I am not an inmate, but a resident,” said neighborhood resident Pablo Rodriguez. “Because we spoke out, we had retaliation and we were called names, like ‘inmates’ and other things that I can’t express, here.” He expressed frustration about neighborhood concerns residents have brought up. “Where are the building inspectors? Where are the board of health? Where is the Fire Marshal? We never heard anything from them.” A number of other residents echoed his concerns about blight, while some residents discussed actions that the city has been taking.
Ronald P. Davis, President of the NAACP New Britain Branch addressed the Council about Timothy Stewart’s comments. The NAACP Branch has called on Stewart to resign or be removed from the Chamber of Commerce presidency. “I come this evening also seeking the removal of Mr. Timothy Stewart as a member of the Mattabassett District Commission, as appointed by the Common Council, and the School Building Committee, as appointed by the Mayor,” said Davis. “The Mayor and Common Council must react to Timothy Stewart’s insensitivity quickly. If he does not resign from his current positions, we ask you to terminate his services immediately because of the statement made on Facebook. His lack of empathy shows he cannot represent or lead a diverse community like New Britain.”
Residents have been organizing to make their voices heard about Stewart’s comments. An organizing flyer that circulated around the internet headlined, “I’m a New Britain resident, not a New Britain inmate,” encouraged people to attend the December 13, 2017 Council meeting.
Stewart’s words of apology, after his ‘inmates’ comment sparked fierce public outrage, are widely seen as evasive. In comments in a November 29, 2017 New Britain Herald article, Stewart only apologized, “to anyone who thinks my comments were meant to be derogatory in any way,” adding, “they absolutely were not.” In a later Herald article, he also said that he apologized for his, “poor word choice.”
The scandal has also shed an unflattering light on Mayor Erin Stewart, and the role she has in the Greater New Britain Chamber of Commerce, which employs her father for a salary that was $68,972 as of 2016.
While the younger Stewart has sought to distance herself from the Chamber of Commerce, the New Britain Progressive recently exposed the fact that the Chair of the Board of the Chamber of Commerce, employing Timothy Stewart is, himself, employed by Erin Stewart as the city’s Corporation Counsel. The connection became especially relevant as Gennaro Bizzarro, the city Corporation Counsel appointed by Erin Stewart, was the one speaking for the Chamber of Commerce when it announced that the Chamber’s Board had no plans to remove Stewart as its president.
Meanwhile, the North Oak neighborhood’s community association, the North Oak Neighborhood Revitalization Zone (NRZ), and City Council members in the newly elected Council, recently toured the neighborhood to begin to formulate a plan to address blighted buildings and other neighborhood concerns that residents say have been in need of attention for a long time. Three Democratic Council members, Ald. Eva Magnuszewski (D-AL), Ald. Emmanuel Sanchez (D-AL) and Ald. Iris Sanchez (D-3) introduced 114 petitions at the Council meeting that require city departments to investigate concerns about blight and sidewalks in the neighborhood.
Marie Bachand, President of the North Oak NRZ, spoke at the Council meeting, and discussed the neighborhood survey of blighted properties assembled by NRZ volunteers. “We are all volunteers, working with no money or staff, which makes it challenging to make the neighborhood better.” She said that she looked forward to the city addressing these problem properties.
Bachand discussed strong action that can be taken to address blighted buildings. “As an NRZ, we have the right to ask the city to request that the Superior Court to set up rent receiverships if landlords do not correct blight.” She added, “I would like to make that request now, officially, tonight.” She also discussed that the North-Oak neighborhood did not receive an allocation of federal Housing and Urban Development funding to support its work, as the NRZ had requested, despite the city allocating funding for NRZ capacity building.
Democratic Board of Education member Merrill Gay discussed having attended the North Oak neighborhood walk through, and praised Council members for introducing the petitions on blight concerns. “It is about time that the city got serious about the blight in our neighborhoods,” Gay said. “The city needs to be on the side of its residents, as opposed to absentee landlords.”
Valez commented that Erin Stewart had not attended the walk-through. “We took a walk of the neighboorhood a couple of weeks ago, that the mayor did not attend because she was at a ribbon cutting ceremony. I took offense to that,” she said, “because she didn’t show face for us residents there after her father spoke in the manner that he did by calling us ‘inmates’.”