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Norwalk charter revision moves ahead, over Hempstead’s protest

Norwalk Charter Revision Commission Chairman William Fitzgerald explains the Commission's decisions to the Common Council on Tuesday in City Hall.

Norwalk Charter Revision Commission Chairman William Fitzgerald explains the Commission’s decisions to the Common Council on Tuesday in City Hall.

 

Correction: The recommended Council salary equals 2 percent of the mayor’s salary, not 20 percent.

 

NORWALK, Conn. — The choices made for a proposed charter revision this fall were questioned Tuesday to no avail, with the planned changes set to be sent to the public for a vote as is despite the best efforts of Common Councilman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large).

It’s best to keep the terms of Council members at two years while the mayor goes to four years because the Council serves as a check and balance for the mayor, and because of voter turnout issues, Charter Revision Commission members Bill Fitzgerald and Steven Keogh said in a debate with Hempstead and others.

Opponents lost on multiple votes in a meeting described as “sausage making” by observers – the final motion was repeated three times as legal procedures were scrutinized in a discussion that Councilman Michael Corsello (D-At Large) said was “going in circles.” The Council ultimately voted 12 to 2 with one abstention to approve the Commission’s proposal and put it on the fall ballot, in the first charter revision in years.

There was also a comical moment, provided by Councilman Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large).

“I am going to vote no because I am going to support Mr. Hempstead so … I don’t leave my colleague hanging by himself,” Bonenfant said.

“What about your constituents?” Council President Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) asked.

“I am not in favor of 4-year term so, that’s for the constituents, I would vote no anyway,” Bonenfant said.

“It was all worth it just for that,” said Fitzgerald, sitting in the audience, as Majority Leader John Kydes (D-District C) choked on laughter.

“That’s the stuff I miss,” Charter Revision Commission member and former Councilman Jerry Petrini said, also in the audience, his only comment of the night.

The one thing that everyone agreed on was that the Commission did a great job.

“We appreciate all of your hard work,” Kimmel said, beginning the discussion.

“We are not insensitive to some of the issues that came up during the charter revision process, specifically during the four public hearings,” Kimmel said. “… We are very much concerned about our Planning and Zoning. We will look into that. There are questions raised regarding the Police Commission. There’s been issues raised that make a lot of sense, to me at least, on the language of charter itself. … I think we will begin to consider the possibility of another charter revision commission in the summer.”

“We have to tread carefully because often what is a charter issue, what is not a charter issue, what is legal under state law, is something that we have to look into before we look forward,” Kimmel said, going on to list the four concepts that will be put on the ballot:

  • Eliminating the positions of selectman, city treasurer and sheriff
  • Making the language of the charter gender neutral
  • Increasing the pay of Council members to match 2 percent of the mayor’s salary
  • Extending the mayoral term to four years

Then waters got muddied for the general public, as Kimmel started to explain the “two-step process” to approve the changes and Hempstead made a motion to send the issue of Council terms back to the Commission for review.

That’s not how it’s done, Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola eventually said, explaining that the proposal would remain a “draft” until approved by the Council, and could not be separated out by each question as it would violate the legislative intent of the statutes, although those are totally clear.

But enough of that.

Common Councilman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large).

Common Councilman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large).

Hempstead protested that Council members should have four-year terms, as the mayor will, saying that apparently the Commission was “not as concerned as I am” that the voter turnout in off years would be reduced without the mayor on the ballot.

Fitzgerald and Keogh stepped up.

The proposal was carefully considered, an exhaustive review of other cities was done and Norwalk Democratic Registrar Stuart Wells presented much voter information, Fitzgerald said. Citizens speaking at the public hearings

“The pattern of an executive serve four years and a legislative body serve for a two-year term is a pattern you see replicated at the state level and also to a large extent at the federal level,” Keogh said. “… Having a term for the Council that would be longer than the term for state legislators, longer than the term for members of Congress… was not a step that we were prepared to advise at this point.”

Yes, there would be voter drop-off in non-mayoral years, but there also are issues when there is a mayor on the ballot, as people vote for a mayor and no one else, he said.

Moving the Council to four years would affect other races; while Board of Education members have four year terms there is an election every two years for the BoE and there would probably be even lower voter turnout without Council members on the ballot, Keogh said.

Kimmel explained that the Council cannot change a Charter Revision Commission’s decisions.

“We felt it appropriate to take it one step at a time, see how (the) four-year mayoral term works,” Keogh said. “If over time it is something that works well and is responsive and if people want to revisit the question of the Council it would be something that would be open to future Councils, future charter revision commissions.”

A mayor can be removed for malfeasance while a Council member cannot, Kimmel said.

A lot of time was spent studying configurations and “you could very easily try to come up with a system that balanced off voter turnouts,” Keogh said, but, “Simplicity is the friend of voter turnout.”

“Let’s put our egos in our pockets here – how many people actually know who their Council person is?” Bonenfant said. “A lot of this is tied to mayor’s coattails, whatever side you are running on. In order to get your name and recognition out there…  It’s going to cost a lot more money I think to run for city council.”

Councilman Steve Serasis (D-District A), who abstained on the final vote, said he agreed with the Republicans.

“The problem I have is with the mathematics of our elections, which have steadily shown that we barely reach 30 percent of the registered voter turnout even for the mayor’s election,” Serasis said.

The complicated legal issues meant that there was no vote on this idea before Councilwoman Michelle Maggio (R-District C) came up with another issue – the Council pay.

Leave it as is, she said, because, “I believe that most of us are up here because we are doing it for the love of our city and not for the paycheck.”

Fitzgerald said the compensation for Council members – $50 a month, less taxes – is insulting and it would be better to either eliminate it or raise it significantly.

Democrats agreed that raising the pay would make the Council more inclusive, as the financial burden of serving prevents some people from running.

It’s not in the hands of the Charter Commission but in the hands of the voters, Keogh said.

The vote on whether to recommend changes was 11 in favor and 4 against, with Hempstead, Bonenfant, Maggio and Shannon O’Toole Giandurco (R-District D) voting no.

The draft was then made into the final report, leaving the second vote for the process.

Move it as a whole, and specify the date it will be on the ballot, Kimmel said.

Coppola agreed, but Hempstead pushed to separate the questions. That died in a 6 to 9 vote, with Faye Bowman (D-District B) and Serasis joining the four Republicans.

Hempstead said he has always been against a four-year term for mayor, no matter who was in office.

“I think it’s worked for our system, I think honestly it’s kept our city pretty much on the straight and narrow compared to other cities that get longer terms. I think they have to be held to a higher standard because they report to the public,” Hempstead said.

Kimmel spoke in favor of the extended mayoral term, explaining that a new mayor just learns who is who and then has to begin running for re-election.

“We talk until we are blue in the face about planning, but yet we don’t want to provide four years for the person who oversees the whole thing?” Kimmel said.

Mayor Harry Rilling was silent through the entire debate.

Only three speakers addressed the Council.

“Four years certainly gives a chief elected official much more time to get their vision moving and to work on it without having to quote/unquote play politics in the interim,” Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce President Ed Musante said. “I can tell you that, communities, and you see this, cities that have been very successful in terms of development, in terms of revitalization, more often than not you will see there is long-standing chief elected official that has been there to guide this and get this done.”
A four-year mayoral term “would enable the mayor to execute long-term strategy because he or she is not in long-term re-election mode,” Teresa Polley, chairwoman of the Chamber’s Board of Directors, said.

“I believe it helps bond holders and investors because they will have confidence that the administration will be able to get done what they are planning to do and have an administration that is stable. That results in lower cost of capital when the city tries to access the bond markets,” Polley said.

“We are growing, we should not be running ourselves like a small town from the past century,” former Zoning Commissioner Mike Mushak said. “We are a different item now and we need professional management and we need professional Council. Certainly the current Council is very professional, but we need to offer an incentive for people to run. That would be an increase in pay, a mere drop in the bucket overall.”

15 comments

Debora May 25, 2016 at 7:13 am

Why was Mayor Rilling allowed to remain in the room while the length of his term was being debated? Conflicts or potential conflicts don’t just require that the person refrain from voting or participating in debate, but that they leave the room.

Adding 3x the Mayor’s salary to future city budgets for council pay is going to be expensive and counterproductive. Ms Maggio is correct. Low pay ensures that the people who are running are doing so because they wish to serve the public.

Mark Chapman May 25, 2016 at 7:58 am

Debora,

They were not discussing Rilling’s term. The were discussing the mayor’s term starting with the 2017 election. That could be anybody. Perhaps anyone with a potential future but retroactive conflict should have to leave the room for ant revavant discussion. That would like preclude any layers or paralegals who could wind up representingg for or against the city from participating…

And a reminder, our comment policy requires full names of elected and appointed officials, and candidates.

Bruce Kimmel May 25, 2016 at 8:02 am

The story is wrong regarding Council pay. The proposal is make it 2 percent of the Mayor’s salary, not 20 percent. The budget impact is miniscule.

Editor’s note: This has been corrected in the story.

Stuart Wells May 25, 2016 at 8:16 am

The council pay suggested by the Charter Revision Commission is 2% of the mayor’s pay for each councilman, not 20%. A long overdue raise from the current $600 per year to about $2,700 per year per council member.
The point of setting council salary at a percent of the mayor’s salary, rather than a fixed dollar amount, is that it can keep up with inflation over the years as the mayor’s salary is slowly adjusted.

Mike Mushak May 25, 2016 at 8:26 am

Great reporting from NON as usual. It was an exciting night of “sausage-making” to say the least.

I felt sorry for my friends who are our GOP Councilmembers, who obviously tried hard to find excuses not to support the charter revision based solely on politics, not what was best for the city and allowing the voters to decide.

It was embarrassing for them, and hard to watch, but I understand that obstructing progress is in the GOP DNA, and they just have to do it. It’s what they do best in DC, Hartford, and right here in Norwalk. Preserving the status quo is unwise when it’s broken, whether it’s planning and zoning, or obsolete 2 year mayoral terms and council pay that insults common decency.

Change is frightening to some folks, I guess. And increasing Councilmember pay to about $200 a month from $47 a month to cover needed expenses like babysitters and fuel costs, as well as missed work time, especially for our current and future lower-income elected officials, is not too much to ask of a city of almost 90,000 people with a $300 million budget.

Unless of course you want to keep the Council limited only to those with more wealth at their disposal. Shame on them for dismissing these concerns, but then, hey, when you vote only to obstruct and not your conscience, that’s what happens.

Lisa Thomson May 25, 2016 at 8:29 am

Glad I was working the BMHS concession stand for FCIACs last night or I might have felt compelled to come and waste my time at the council meeting.

What’s the difference between an 11-4 Dem or GOP council majority in Norwalk? Absolutely nothing! For the sake of democracy, the 4-year mayoral term should have been made effective in 2019, such that a sitting mayor (ANY sitting mayor of EITHER party) didn’t have unfair advantage. This was recommended by the League of Women Voters and CNNA, but to no avail.

The comments made about P&Z are disingenuous because 4/7 zoning commissioners are this mayor’s appointments. So far, the biggest reform eked out the commission was last week’s vote, in favor of earlier neighbor notification for special permits, should somebody want to build a ‘Trump-like Tower’ next to their home! They’ll still likely be able to build it in Norwalk, but neighbors might have a fighting chance of compromise with earlier notification!

Sadly, these charter revision changes satisfy the ‘wants’ of politicians not the ‘needs’ of residents, with council ‘members’ dutifully falling in line with their votes. It’ll be interesting to see if the ‘rigged system’ messages from both presidential primaries has any effect on Norwalk’s charter revision vote this fall.

Bruce Kimmel May 25, 2016 at 10:00 am

Much of what was asked for regarding Planning and Zoning was either not related to the Charter or illegal under state law.

Having said that, the Council has promised to look into the concerns raised during the four public hearings; we also intend to look into the possibility of a second Commission.

Moreover, many of the concerns that relate to P&Z are being addressed right now — with the search for a City Planner, the Zoning Task Force, and some changes in procedure for the Council’s Planning Committee.

Adolph Neaderland May 25, 2016 at 10:03 am

I have never met Lisa Thomson but I agree with her points.
At minimum, any change in the Mayor’s term should be offset to at least 2019.
As it relates to Charter Revision, my recent discussions with 2 prominent Public Defenders (in California) conclude that the current statutes enabling an irrevocable P&Z are clearly unconstitutional and should be challenged. An important issue for Charter Revision to protect Norwalk’s residents.

Lisa Thomson May 25, 2016 at 2:43 pm

Bruce,

Could you please clarify what you mean by what was asked for was ‘illegal’ under state law?

How can the ‘people’ asking the Common Council to commission a group, commission, somebody- ANYBODY to look into the city processes, that we so loosely call planning and zoning and ask them to benchmark some of them against other cities in Connecticut (like you did term extensions) be illegal?

Is this your job as President of the Common Council or the mayor’s prerogative since it was his campaign promise last year to clean up P&Z? Other cities don’t seem to have the regular crises Norwalk has or do they? Even that would be nice to know.

Rob May 26, 2016 at 8:44 am

I take offense to being called an obstructionist and having my DNA questioned and believe that the comment should be removed. Just because we disagree doesn’t make it OK to resort to name calling and generalizations about ones views and values.

The Other Shoe May 26, 2016 at 11:07 am

Rob – I totally agree. As someone in that fold, you should look to someone who truly represents your party, and aspire to bring class and dignity to whatever is being discussed… like Donald Trump.

Rob May 26, 2016 at 3:16 pm

Donald Trump? Not all that familiar with his political history. Obstructionist? Doubt it. Opportunist? more likely.

Steve Colarossi May 28, 2016 at 5:45 am

Let’s pretend that it’s our first post-Charter revision day at the polls. How will any of our lives have changed despite months of dedicated volunteer service by members of the Charter Review Commission?

1. No more lawn signs and robo-calls from all those candidates for selectmen and city sheriff.
2. The ability to read the City Charter as a bedtime story for our sons and daughters without having to change pronouns on the fly.
3. The joy of knowing that the Common Council members will still be paid less than minimum wage for their many hours of meetings.

I don’t know if that’s what anyone had in mind when we heard grand plans for Charter Revision. It might not have garnered the same headlines or attracted the same high-powered volunteers if it had been more appropriately named “Charter Tweaking”- but at least the public could have saved hours of angst trying to achieve meaningful reforms into our inefficient, slightly-feudal and overly-politicized City government.

Joe May 28, 2016 at 1:29 pm

It’s not a surprise that the TV visual was missing during this historic council meeting where the newly elected Kimmel-Rilling Gang vote themselves more money and double length terms.

We didn’t get to see all those guilty democrat eyeballs.

They only collect $200 million from us each year and they can’t afford us a clear video like the folks get in the smallest towns in Alabama.

These Norwalk democrats have a lot to learn about democracy from the good people of Alabama.

One of these guys even had the audacity to blame the price of gas for his ill-advised vote. If you can’t afford driving around your small part of town, do us all a favor and quit … or take the bus.

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