When tens-of-thousands of music lovers convened this weekend at Seaside Park for the first Sound on Sound music festival, some of the city’s elected leaders and department heads were among them.
But unlike those other ticket-holders, these officials did not pay big bucks to enter. Their admission was free.
The city’s ethics policy prohibits under certain circumstances the solicitation or acceptance of gifts if it can reasonably be inferred that the gift is intended to influence him/her in the performance of his/her duties or employment in the public interest.
I called him. I said, ‘I’d like to go. I’ve never seen 30,000 people come to Bridgeport,’ Councilman Ernie Newton said Monday, citing the daily attendance estimates for Saturday and Sunday.
Him is Howard Saffan, the developer behind the concert amphitheater that opened in 2021 as well as one of the partners behind Sound on Sound.
While the council-approved 2017 contract for the publicly-owned, privately-run amphitheater set aside a suite for the city’s use, no such arrangement was made for the festival when the legislative body approved that event a year ago.
But Newton and his council colleague, Jeanette Herron, both confirmed Monday that they approached Saffan, sought and received complimentary 2-day general admission passes worth $219.
This was in contrast to what Council President Aidee Nieves said she was told.
“We were told there were no free passes, Nieves said. People asked and I told them what I was told by the administration — no one in the council was getting free tickets.
When Hearst Connecticut Media subsequently contacted Mayor Joe Ganim’s office to find out who else in City Hall received free entry, the request was forwarded to Saffan. The local developer in an interview Monday said, The Ganim administration got zero tickets.
Instead, Saffan said, certain individuals — the mayor, his communications director, his events planner, the head of economic development, the emergency management and health directors, police chief and fire marshal — all were granted credentials for access.
They’re all part of the ‘command central’ so they could come and go through the concert as they were part of the emergency team, which in fact was very important in dealing with the weather last night, Saffan said, referring to Sunday evening’s thunder storm that cut the festivities short.
In Ganim’s case, Saffan noted, the mayor also needed to be present to hand out a couple of keys to the city to certain performers.
Saffan said when Herron and Newton contacted him, he obliged with tickets from out of his personal set asides. He said it was nothing more than a show of thanks that both were strong supporters of bringing the festival to town. He said had other council members who backed Sound on Sound reached out, he would have done the same.
I don’t think he would have told anybody ‘no’, Herron said.
When the council voted last October on the deal to allow the festival to take place annually for a decade, both she and Newton lauded Saffan, the amphitheater and the Sound on Sound proposal.
The amphitheater was the best decision we’ve ever made, Herron, at the time a contracts committee co-chair, had said.
We have not seen that kind of excitement in this city in a long time, Newton had said.
But Bridgeport’s ethics code forbids the solicitation or acceptance of any gift, directly or indirectly, whether in the form of money, loan, gratuity, favor, service, thing or promise, or in any other form, under circumstances in which it can reasonably be inferred that the gift is intended to influence him/her in the performance of his/her duties or employment in the public interest. It would be up to the ethics commission to determine if any violation occurred in this case should someone file a complaint.
Nieves said the offer should have been formally extended to all 20 council members or to none of them. For example, Councilman Scott Burns on Monday said he paid for his tickets and did not know freebies were available. Burns has sometimes been critical of Saffan and in 2020 opposed the developer’s request for an additional $4.5 million on top of the city’s initial $7.5 million contribution to building the amphitheater.
Another prominent city politician, state Rep. Steve Stafstrom, also spent the weekend enjoying the festival and said he too bought his own passes.
The issue of free access to major events in town for elected officials and municipal workers has been controversial in the past. Proponents argue as municipal leaders who often play a decision-making role in bringing these events to Bridgeport, council members in particular should be allowed in to inspect and experience what they voted for. Critics say council members, for ethical reasons, should not be getting perks from people doing business with the city and pay their own way or at the least use their annual $9,000 council stipends to foot the bill.
Herron said in the case of Sound on Sound, she believes it should have been arranged for all members of the legislative body to have had free access. That was not unusual when the now-defunct Gathering of the Vibes, which had similarly been held at Seaside Park, was still being produced.
Councilman Tyler Mack was elected last November and seated in December after Sound on Sound’s contract was approved. He is one of two members of the legislative body who represent the South End where Seaside Park is located. Mack said he had prior plans and did not attend the festival, and was unaware that Saffan was providing tickets.
It doesn’t bother me that I didn’t get free tickets or no one asked, Mack said Monday. But, he added, the passes should have been made available to all council members.
I think everyone should have had the same offer, Mack said.