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.
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.”