Updated, 2:26 p.m.: Attorney Steve Keogh responds to Lisa Thomson’s accusation the the Norwalk law department “cherry picked” information.
NORWALK, Conn. — A public shaming – a “no” vote – might make the Common Council think twice before attempting charter revisions that appear self-serving, Isabelle Hargrove said.
This was at a recent Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhood Associations (CNNA) meeting, where two/thirds of the members of the Political Action Committee (PAC) Norwalk First gave voice to some of their objections. Since then, Zoning Commission Chairman Adam Blank has publicly weighed in on demands that Zoning issues be addressed via the charter, and Council President Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) has again promised that the Council will, after Tuesday’s election, consider opening the charter again. In addition, Attorney Steven Keogh has responded to criticisms from Norwalk First member Lisa Thomson.
Some tidbits about the Charter Revision issue:
“The charter is a complex legal document that dictates everything about how this city is run from a government point of view,” Diane Cece of Norwalk First said at the Oct. 24 CNNA meeting. “You’ve got a big problem if you’re opening your charter every year to adjust things. There’s probably something untoward going on if that’s the case.”
“You don’t want to open up the charter and have some arbitrary mandate that says you are only going to look at this,” Cece said. “What you’d do is say you’re going to appoint a Commission that says ‘We’re going to look at everything, we’re going to solicit feedback from the public and then we’re going to have this big pot of things, and then chunk down to really what makes sense in this year, because you also can have special elections as well.”
Former Charter Revision Commission member Glenn Iannaccone said the Commission only had so much time to study possible revisions.
“It was haste makes waste,” Cece said. “It was in my opinion a very limited time frame. There’s also some statutory requirements for charter revision, you have to follow the state time clock.”
The need to comply with the state time clock was a big factor in the previous Council discarding the attempt for charter revision, sources say.
“Almost everything the public asked for was ignored,” Cece said at the CNNA meeting. “Everything. It’s an insult to the taxpayers.”
“One thing that I think would have influenced our thoughts about these four questions: We had been led to believe that even before the November election that they would out together another panel to discuss the Zoning issues and other issues,” Diane Lauricella said. “If that had happened… I think that many of us might trust that next municipal election there would be additional questions.”
“This charter is so out of date that it would take the next election for many elections to try to right it. It does not mean there is something onerous going on,” Lauricella said, responding to Cece’s earlier comment. “I think we are going to take several elections, and that’s only with the political will, to try. We have squandered opportunities before, where we have had only one question. …. We should have and could have looked at structure of government and all the other stuff, that was happening back then, too.”
That would mean a new Commission every year, Iannaccone said.
Right, said Lauricella.
Stamford’s charter must be revised every 10 years, per the charter, Deb Goldstein of Norwalk First said.
There’s at least an appearance of a lack of ethics, it was said as the conversation moved on.
For there to be impropriety, there must be financial gain, Cece said, going on to mention that Kimmel’s wife, Kay Anderson, heads the Yes4Norwalk PAC that is promoting a yes vote.
Kimmel would get a 462 percent pay raise if Norwalk votes to raise the Council members pay from $50 a month to 2 percent of the mayor’s salary, she said.
But that won’t take effect until 2017, and no one knows if current Council members will run again, Goldstein said, explaining, “It does disconnect the financial incentive somewhat.”
“The fact that we are looking at the sausage being made is making it really yucky,” she said.
The thing to do is defeat it on Election Day, she said.
“That sends a message that most people felt very strongly about the process being manipulated,” Goldstein said.
She also had thoughts about the pay raise.
“The Council sets everybody else’s salary by charter,” Goldstein said. “But their salary was in the charter, where they have to ask the people to change it. By tying this to the mayor’s salary they have removed that step, so your accountability for the mayor goes down and the ability to control the costs associated with the legislative body you are removed from the people to the purview of the folks that are actually benefitting from it. At the same time, you have a mayor that doesn’t have to worry about running as often as they did before. It sounds like a dangerous combination all in.”
Will the city open the entire charter for revision?
“My quandary is on the one hand, I support a four-year term for the Mayor, but I also want to send a message that I want to see the entire charter opened up for revision,” Nancy Rosett said last week in an email. “I’m specifically interested in a city manager form of government and rationalizing the structure of government so all department heads report to the city manager.
“Don’t know if you can get a commitment from the Mayor and (Council President) Bruce Kimmel to do that so it can be voted on in November 2017 but that would certainly affect my vote. And probably many others,” she said.
“After the election, I am sure both Council Caucuses and the Mayor will discuss the various issues that have emerged during the current Revision Process and how to proceed,” Kimmel said in an email.
NancyOnNorwalk also asked Kimmel for an explanation about the limited purview given the Charter Revision Commission.
“I have repeatedly said that early on we decided to address only those Charter issues that we inherited from previous terms,” Kimmel said.
Thomson provides ‘accurate’ information
There’s misinformation in the Charter Revision Commission’s report, according to Norwalk First member Lisa Brinton Thomson.
“When comparing neighboring towns as means for their justification for four years, the city law department failed to:
– “Distinguish between towns and cities
– “Clarify the difference between selectmen and mayors
– “Clarify the role and responsibility of a mayor versus the different legislative councils, alderman or city boards
– “Clarify the difference in size (membership) of the different legislative bodies in neighboring towns versus a mayor
– “Clarify that some of the towns in their comparison had other major elected bodies (i.e. P&Z)”
Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola provided the Commission with information regarding Fairfield County’s Chief Executive Officers. That’s on page 20 of this PDF:
Thomson provided a chart of what she considers true information regarding municipal government in Connecticut. This is the same PDF she presented to the Commission in March:
Attorney Steve Keogh, who was on the Commission, said Saturday that he considered that and every other piece of information submitted to the public or the law department.
“In regard to the allegation that the Law Department ‘cherry picked’ information, that term implies the selective inclusion and omission of items so as to compile a list that includes only the best examples of the point one is trying to make,” Keogh said in an email. “The list that is referenced presents itself as nothing more than a list, and in fact contains exactly what it purports to: the term information for the chief executive of every city and town in Fairfield County. There is no selective inclusion or omission of any municipalities from the list, and thus accusing the Law Department of ‘cherry picking’ would be incorrect.”
Calls for Zoning reform
Zoning Commission Chairman Adam Blank addressed charter reform recently at a Sixth Taxing District forum on Planning and Zoning.
NancyOnNorwalk did not make the meeting but obtained a recording.
“When it comes to Planning and Zoning, the state statutes pretty highly regulate how that has to operate,” said Blank, an attorney. “So, as an example, absent a new state law that says ‘in the city of Norwalk the Common Council can have say in Planning and Zoning matters,’ the Common Council, they can’t make a regulation change in the Zoning regulations, they can’t tell us anything about it. We are an entirely independent body.”
An excerpt from Chapter 124 of the state statutes:
- “Once municipality adopts provisions of chapter and establishes a zoning commission which then commences its functions in accordance with chapter, commission is not subject to interference by municipality’s legislative body; municipality’s legislative body may not substitute its judgment for that of commission in a matter involving use of municipality’s land.”
Blank said Mayor Harry Rilling could tell new Planning and Zoning Director Steve Kleppin that he has control over planning but Kleppin has no control over Redevelopment Agency.
There are also union contracts involved, he said.
“You can’t tell the head of DPW, ‘You’re no longer the head, you now report to a city planner,’” Blank said. “He has a contract that says he doesn’t. It could change over time. But some of the ideas that I have heard about changing the system, they don’t work under our state law and under our existing union contracts. So, I think it’s very complicated to change the structure that we’ve got.”
Rilling on educating voters
The questions on the ballot are:
- Shall the term of the Mayor and Town Clerk be changed from 2 to 4 years?
- Shall the offices of City Treasurer, City Sheriff, and Selectman be eliminated?
- Shall the annual salary of each Common Council member be set at two percent (2%) of the base salary of the Mayor?
- Shall all Charter references to members of the Common Council be gender-neutral?
Explanatory texts have been prepared by the Town Clerk’s office and the League of Women Voters, Rilling said Saturday. There were also four public hearings and “lots of different op ed articles in the newspaper explaining reasons” for the questions, he said.
“I believe the people who are going to be voting probably have a pretty good idea as to what the charter revision questions are about,” Rilling said. “…. We want to make sure they have the information, they can cast an intelligent vote. If it passes, it passes, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”
Rilling said the Commission considered giving the Council members a four-year term but discarded it. The decisions were the Commission’s, he said.
“I asked them to consider term limits. I felt that two four-year terms was enough for anybody,” he said.
If he ran next year and won, and the four-year term was approved, that would be his last term, he said.
“After eight years, I think if you have not been able to implement your vision, to get your policies in line for the city… it’s time to step aside, because I notice that there tends to be a degree of complacency if you’ve been in office for a really long time,” Rilling said. “I am not making any comments negative about any particular candidate or any particular mayor, but after eight years, you tend to start to relax and rest on your laurels.”