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Kimmel answers complaint of ‘lack of education’ on Norwalk charter revision questions

Common Council Finance Committee Chairman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) speaks at Thursday's meeting in City Hall.

Common Council President Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large). (File photo)

NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk leaders were expecting the city’s neighborhood associations to hold meetings on the proposed charter revision, Common Council President Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) said Wednesday.

Kimmel also said that after the election, the Council will look into forming a new Charter Revision Commission.

Norwalk First, a Political Action Committee (PAC), is among those complaining that the city did not follow through with promises last May to get the word out on the four charter revision questions that will be on the ballot Tuesday.

Kimmel said there were four public hearings and public participation at two or three Council meetings.

“I think what we might have done a better job doing perhaps is directing people to the city’s website,” Kimmel said, when asked about these complaints. “I am not quite sure what else we could have had. We were assuming that there would be community meetings throughout the city and stuff like that. The Commission members were ready to go. None of that really materialized. There’s been some charter revisions in the past where it’s been much less (education) than even this. It’s an interesting question: What exactly should we have done differently? One thing I can think of is possibly direct people to the city’s website because all you needed to do is look at the first 10 pages of the Commission’s report, where it is all laid out.”

charter-revision-commission-report

The West Norwalk Association recently held a forum on the proposed revisions, but that was the only one, Kimmel said.

“That’s the issue,” he said, adding, “I think by Tuesday voters will be aware, will be educated.”

He continued, “The issue is, who is calling for educational effort and what do they mean by that? Do they mean another debate? What exactly is meant by education? Or is it the same folks who say no to everything and they want to continue to debate? Or do they want everything laid out, what the options are, and things like that? Because that has been on the website. We had, like I said, four public hearings and participation. So the question is, who is calling for more education and why? Do they perceive more education as a chance for them to debate again?”

He continued, “When I announced that the second public hearing that the Council was going to hold I would focus on folks who had not spoken at the first one, there were some people who were very anxious,” Kimmel said. “They came and they asked me if they would be allowed to speak a second time. I said of course, but I was surprised, it was exactly what we predicted. If we had 10 public hearings they would have spoke 10 times, said the same thing 10 times and never would have been satisfied.”

NancyOnNorwalk sent an email to Norwalk First, asking what the PAC means by education and what the city should have done differently. The email prompted a wordless reply, with several documents attached.

One shows that the New Hartford Board of Selectmen held a town meeting in March to discuss a referendum up for a vote one week later.

charter-15_march_2016_advisory_referendum_revised_legal

The other is a State of Connecticut State Elections Enforcement Commission document, Prohibition on Expenditure of Public Funds Relating to Referenda.

charter-state_elections_guide_to_referendum_pr-1

Some excerpts:

“Historically, an ‘explanatory text’ has been the exclusive method by which a municipality or regional school district could expend public funds for printing and distribution of an explanation of the subject matter of a referendum.”

“With two exceptions discussed below, no expenditure of state, municipal or regional school district funds can be made to influence any person to vote for approval or disapproval of any referendum question. The ban applies when a referendum is pending.”

“By ordinance, a municipality may provide for the preparation and printing of concise summaries of arguments in favor of and opposed to a referendum for which an explanatory text is prepared under § 9-369b(a) or (b).”

“The other exception is that an official can express his/her views on a pending referendum at a bona fide news conference, and may use public funds, facilities, and supplies to prepare a press release to be disseminated at the conference.

“Also, an official may use public funds, facilities and supplies to respond to a constituent request for information concerning the referendum, including the official’s views. The exception is lost however, if the official responds to the citizen’s request with the knowledge that the response will be disseminated to others in the community.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Diane Cece of Norwalk First, who spoke at only one public hearing on the charter revision proposals, met briefly with Town Clerk Rick McQuaid.

McQuaid had drafted an explanation of the ballot questions, to hand to voters. He did not want it released to the public yet because it is just a draft, he said. Cece called it, “Pretty good,” saying it cites the charter, explains the changes and states when they would go into effect.

McQuaid said he had been asked by “numerous people” to write the explainer.

“We’ve done whatever we could do amongst all the other things we have to do for the election,” he said.

Asked why an explainer hadn’t been written months ago, McQuaid said the Common Council didn’t ask him to.

State statute says the town clerk will prepare the ballot questions. The town clerk will write an explainer, but only if the legislative body asks him to, the statute says.

“I probably did more than I had to do,” McQuaid said.

One of the four ballot questions asks the public if the terms of the Mayor and Town Clerk should be extended from their current two year-length to four years.

“I can explain the question to the point where it doesn’t concern my position,” McQuaid said.

On another matter, Kimmel said in May that the Council would begin to consider the possibility of another Charter Revision Commission in the summer. Many citizens have asked what happened to that.

“We will look into this issue after the election,” Kimmel said in an email. “The summer and fall were much busier than we anticipated, plus we had vacations, etc.”

27 comments

Debora November 3, 2016 at 9:07 am

Our team was not interviewed for this article, we were only asked to respond a question posed by an advocate for the other side.

We think that the notion of educating the public is self-evident.

When I lived in NYC, the city printed and mailed voter guides to every household in the City before elections. This would have been shot down as two expensive…however, a one-pager could have been designed with NEUTRAL explanatory language and promoted on the front page of the web site, for example. Email alerts could have been sent out, similar to the ones sent out to promote the weekly “Walk With Me”.

It is interesting that he thinks that the job of educating the public on a ballot measure falls to the neighborhood associations, which is a sly way of blaming Norwalk First for the lack of an education campaign, since we three are active neighborhood representatives. Anyone comparing the web sites of the two PACS would see that we provide a lot of information with our advocacy, but the PAC of his wife has only political speech. They still do not have a link to the CRC report, as one of the former members of the CRC advocated both groups do, in the spirit of educating the public.

It is also interesting that he conflates the public hearings BEFORE the questions were drafted as educating voters that there are measures on the ballot for election day. Many, many people do not know that.

The fact of the matter is that the political advocacy of the Mayor and the Council President to pass the measures can be reasonably confused with the missing “education” communications.

He has to be able to see this. I have great respect for his diligence on many matters, even when I do not agree with him.

We ask that the Voters educate themselves and Vote NO.

Debora November 3, 2016 at 9:12 am

We think that the notion of educating the public is self-evident.

When I lived in NYC, the city printed and mailed voter guides to every household in the City before elections. This would have been shot down as two expensive…however, a one-pager could have been designed with NEUTRAL explanatory language and promoted on the front page of the web site, for example. Email alerts could have been sent out, similar to the ones sent out to promote the weekly “Walk With Me”.

It is interesting that he thinks that the job of educating the public on a ballot measure falls to the neighborhood associations, which is a sly way of blaming Norwalk First for the lack of an education campaign, since we three are active neighborhood representatives. Anyone comparing the web sites of the two PACS would see that we provide a lot of information with our advocacy, but the PAC of his wife has only political speech. They still do not have a link to the CRC report, as one of the former members of the CRC advocated both groups do, in the spirit of educating the public.

It is also interesting that he conflates the public hearings BEFORE the questions were drafted as educating voters that there are measures on the ballot for election day. Many, many people do not know that.

The fact of the matter is that the political advocacy of the Mayor and the Council President to pass the measures can be reasonably confused with the missing “education” communications.

He has to be able to see this. I have great respect for his diligence on many matters, even when I do not agree with him.

We ask that the Voters educate themselves and Vote NO.

Debora November 3, 2016 at 9:12 am

When I lived in NYC, the city printed and mailed voter guides to every household in the City before elections. This would have been shot down as two expensive…however, a one-pager could have been designed with NEUTRAL explanatory language and promoted on the front page of the web site, for example. Email alerts could have been sent out, similar to the ones sent out to promote the weekly “Walk With Me”.

Debora November 3, 2016 at 9:13 am

It is interesting that he thinks that the job of educating the public on a ballot measure falls to the neighborhood associations, which is a sly way of blaming Norwalk First for the lack of an education campaign, since we three are active neighborhood representatives.

Debora November 3, 2016 at 9:13 am

Anyone comparing the web sites of the two PACS would see that we provide a lot of information with our advocacy, but the PAC of his wife has only political speech. They still do not have a link to the CRC report, as one of the former members of the CRC advocated both groups do, in the spirit of educating the public.

Debora November 3, 2016 at 9:14 am

It is also interesting that he conflates the public hearings BEFORE the questions were drafted as educating voters that there are measures on the ballot for election day. Many, many people do not know that.

Piberman November 3, 2016 at 9:14 am

The main recommendation of the Charter Commission – longer terms for our political mayors – speaks loudly about both the Commission and Common Council. If these “august bodies” can’t figure our that Norwalk with its punitive taxes and stagnant property values for nearly a decade is a City in “distress” then what “education” could possibly change the result ? That neither the Council nor the Commission a change to a City Manager bringing professional management to our amateurly governed City speaks for itself. Presumably the purpose of Charter Change is to markedly ‘improve” City governance. Norwalk’s reputation is not measurably ‘enhanced” with the recommendation to extend the term of our mayors who bring no business experience to the task of overseeing a $300 million plus budget. For those of us who have had senior management roles in major corporations that it just “astonishing”. Why is it so difficult to elect City officials who truly look after the interests of City residents ? Is enhancing the City’s political Parties more important than creating a City government that provides efficient low cost municipal services at affordable cost (property taxes) ? Why is Norwalk seemingly the only City whose properties remain stagnant for nearly a decade ? Shouldn’t that be cause for some “soul searching” by elected officials of both Parties ? Why does that require as Councilman Kimmel suggest some “education” ?

Debora November 3, 2016 at 9:14 am

The fact of the matter is that the political advocacy of the Mayor and the Council President to pass the measures can be reasonably confused with the missing “education” communications.

EveT November 3, 2016 at 9:47 am

How many voters even know how to get to the home page of the city website? I’d guess the website gets used mostly by the people who are already involved in city government in some fashion, and they already know about these ballot questions.
Surely you can’t expect ordinary people to wake up one morning and say, “Oh, I think I’ll go dig around on the city website to see if there’s going to be anything on the ballot this November other than the usual candidates”???

Donna S. November 3, 2016 at 10:07 am

When the head of Norwalk’s legislative body thinks the public education burden regarding suggestions of the Charter Revision Commission falls to local neighborhood associations, which have ZERO legislative function, and he further assumes everything will go according to plan, you know you’re in trouble. Really too bad the CC seems to have an accountability problem here. Yesterday Bruce Kimmel commented in another thread that public calls for a revision to allow the CC to override Zoning Commission decisions could not be acted upon because of state statutes. Knowing this, why didn’t Kimmel and others on the Common Council charge the Charter Revision Commission with amending the charter to make Zoning Commision spots elected with term limits? I find the omissions in the CRC process much more troubling than the actual ballot questions.

Isabelle Hargrove November 3, 2016 at 10:16 am

While they “were assuming that there would be community meetings throughout the city and stuff like that.”, they did not leave to chance setting up a PAC and raising over $20K for propaganda.

We are less than a week before the election and the explainer is still not available to voters. So, no explainer was received with absentee ballots and if voters asked about more details, no information was available.

“Asked why an explainer hadn’t been written months ago, McQuaid said the Common Council didn’t ask him to.”

It is hard for me to understand how anyone can justify any of this. Beyond deciding on whether any of the proposed changes are in the interest of our city, I wouldn’t be surprised if voters rejected them as a result. And regardless of how any of us feel about the questions, it is a shame.

MsB November 3, 2016 at 11:49 am

My first reaction to Eve’s post was “How dumb do you think Norwalk voters are, that we can’t even get to the City’s homepage?” It reminded me of the discussion months ago about Norwalkers being too dumb to know the difference between “shall” and “should.”

Then I went to the homepage. NOTHING on charter revision in all the expected places, e.g. voting info, city charter….after 20 minutes of poking around I searched for “charter revision commission report” and found it (earlier searches for “charter revision” didn’t do it.) NOT voter friendly. If I hadn’t known the exact lingo I’d still be searching. So, thanks, NON, and no thanks to the City!

Debora November 3, 2016 at 12:17 pm

Isabelle,

To be fair, the statute says that the appointing body (in this case, the council) has to vote to include the language, because this referenda is a municipal issue. (Ballot referenda from the Secretary of the State comes with the explanatory language that is to be used).

For whatever reason, they did not undertake to do so. Perhaps Mr. Coppola can explain why it wasn’t recommended.

That said, Mr. McQuaid is doing the best he can under the circumstances and is a difficult position, having his office included in Q1. I think he has shown remarkable restraint in not pointing that out, or in any way showing bias on this.

Perhaps if we hadn’t rushed things through so quickly?

Isabelle Hargrove November 3, 2016 at 12:42 pm

Debora,
I apologize for not making my comments clear. They were not directed to Mr. McQuaid at all. I agree with you on his professionalism and the tough spot he was put in. I was trying to point out that the council didn’t do its job starting with the first and most basic step of writing and approving the explainer. Voters should ask why that was not done, especially as the council president tries to blame the community at large. The community did not even have the explainer to pass out, even if it had been its job to do, which it is not.

Donna S. November 3, 2016 at 12:54 pm

Agreed Isabelle. I do not find any of the questions objectionable on their own, but the process was dubious enough to have elicited vocal criticism. That the head of the CC and members of the Charter Revision Commision are dumbfounded by the backlash kind of proves the point. Either the idea of accountability to the public they serve is lost on them or they deliberately circumvented reasonable methods for soliciting buy-in and educating the public. Neither scenario is heartening. Bruce Kimmel clearly thought someone else was going to do his job for him.

THE TRUTH November 3, 2016 at 12:59 pm

In typical Kimmel fashion he blames everyone but himself. This is yet one of the many reasons to vote NO to a pay increase and vote NO to a 4 year Mayor term.

James Cahn November 3, 2016 at 3:36 pm

“The issue is, who is calling for educational effort and what do they mean by that? Do they mean another debate? What exactly is meant by education? Or is it the same folks who say no to everything and they want to continue to debate?…So the question is, who is calling for more education and why? Do they perceive more education as a chance for them to debate again?”

So to be clear here, Bruce’s assessment of whether or not the need for education on this issue is a valid ask is dependent on who exactly it is that’s asking?

Is Bruce the president of a Council that’s only really representative or Norwalk residents who agree with him and them? Rather than the “same folks that say no to everything” that Bruce always makes sure to wring his hands over?

Also, I didn’t understand that the public hearings were viewed by the council and commission as a “debate.” I had been led to believe that they were for the purpose of considering public input on changes to our charter. That they saw them as a “debate” is revealing.

Lisa Thomson November 3, 2016 at 3:56 pm

“Or is it the same folks who say no to everything…”

Bruce: I fought FOR education reform and a bi-partisan BOE that put kids first over party affiliation. Sadly, that is not how the mayor and common council operate. I also recall putting your campaign signs in my yard FOR you, over the last several election cycles, but now that I dare disagree with you on how charter revision was handled, I am suddenly someone who says ‘no’ to everything. lol

Mike Mushak November 3, 2016 at 4:36 pm

It is ironic that the “small government” Republicans commenting here apparently want our city government to hand-feed them information with flyers hand-delivered to their doors, info that anyone can easily find online on any device including their phones.

I am also astounded that many commenters here who are opposed to the first Council pay raise in 36 years, are also relatively financially secure, while nearly a third of the city (30% to be exact) falls into the low-income ALICE definition by the United Way that is at or just above poverty level. Basically the working poor., who may decide to run for office if they can afford babysitters or the extra travel and expense of serving their community through public service.

With all the accusations of hidden agendas and absurd conspiracy theories being spread around by many of the “no” crowd, I offer one theory here that actually makes sense to me of where some of the opposition may be coming from: If it is truly unaffordable for any low-income folks to run for office, as has been described on the record, then the urban core loses many potential candidates including many women and minorities who may be struggling to feed their family on smaller paychecks than the more secure suburban folks commenting here.

I also don’t understand how the RTC was once for 4 year terms and increased pay raises, but now they are not. The politics of obstruction is astoundingly transparent now. Here is the comment form Peter Torrano, former RTC Chair, in a NON article on January 31st, 2016:

“Republican Town Committee Chairman Pete Torrano said he supports charter revision, with some caveats.
“I think the Democrats and the Republicans are on the same page with the basic idea of extending the mayor’s term to four years,” Torrano said. “We will also be exploring extending the term of office for the Councilmen, and possibly increasing the pay for the Council people, which is a paltry $50 a month right now.”
But, “We don’t want to turn this into a situation where everyone has input into this and, ‘We’d like to have everything in the charter changed.’ We’d like to focus on these two or three specific items initially,” Torrano said. “That doesn’t mean that in the future we can’t open up the charter for other things. If we can agree, then our committees will focus on just these things, the salaries and the extended terms for the Council and the extended term for the mayor, then we’ll move forward on that and we’ll put it out for a vote.”

I absolutely agree with my friend Pete Torrano! What happened to the RTC’s original position? It may just be itself a victim of obstructionist politics that is not in the best interest of the city.

Sara sikes November 3, 2016 at 5:12 pm

I would vote yes to a 4 year term IF there was a provision for recall. Perhaps this is not possible in CT?
What I would really like a Charter Revision Commission to consider is a City Manager type of government.
I wish that I could say that Norwalk City staffers are hard at work looking after the interests of its citizens and neighbprhoods, but that has not been my experience. perhaps a City Manager would be more effective than the current system.

Patrick Cooper November 3, 2016 at 5:54 pm

@Sara Sikes –

A flock of pork bellies will fly over POCO Wall Street & the Duleep building before the CVC will consider a City Manager – in spite of the merits. The status quo is digging a bunker.

I read this and I laugh – I hope and believe the journalism is accurate – because this is a masters degree text of political speak. Bruce – having walked talked caucused and shifted from both sides of the aisle, you’ve earned a special invite by the Maritime Aquarium to swim with the otters.

You “assumed” the neighborhood associations would …. see the Odd Couple. After the election we’ll “look into” it…assurance you won’t. Education = Debate. Can you say constituency? The “say NO to everything” folks…..look, I get you feel the need to do something, but we – the taxpayer of Norwalk – we don’t have to do something stupid.

The issues affecting this town turned city are not addressed in any meaningful way in this revision. The clear turn to pure politics is but truly expected and hugely disappointing from this group – it’s why the two party pendulum swings.

I’m voting NO.

Moderate me as you wish NoN

Debora November 3, 2016 at 7:13 pm

Sara,

I’d hate to change your vote, but i believe the CRC records discussed that the Mayor CAN be recalled. Council can’t.

But a recall is no less difficult than, say, charter revision.

EveT November 4, 2016 at 2:59 pm

In defense of the limited amount of voter information, let’s remember that there were at least 3 meetings of the Charter Commission open to the public, 2 public hearings by that body and 2 more by the Common Council.
Guess how many *different* members of the public attended the meetings and spoke at the public hearings? Yes, you can count them on your digits probably without having to take off your shoes. The comments made at the hearings were mostly along the lines of “what you’re proposing is fine, but it’s just housekeeping and what you really ought to be addressing is…” (city planning & zoning, or words to that effect)
It’s not like people were waiting in the aisles to speak in opposition (unlike the mosque debacle), so can you really blame the Council and Chamber of Commerce for figuring the 4 seemingly innocuous “housekeeping” ballot questions would be noncontroversial?

Debora November 4, 2016 at 4:47 pm

@Mike,

Can I respectfully point out that you are arguing both sides of the economics here?

You argue that people of limited means should be able to run for council. But then you insist taxpayers should all have smart-phones? Do you know how many people in my district don’t have smartphones or computers? In yours? In the city?

The impact of limited means affects far more residents than common council members.

I specifically said doing mailers wouldn’t be an option because it would be too expensive. Would it be a burden for the city to send out one email advice for election day each time it sends out a notice of a Mayor’s Walk With Me event? How about a posting on the front page of the web site?

Perhaps, maybe, just perhaps, the Mayor shouldn’t have promised that the City would do it if the City had no plans to do so.

diane c2 November 4, 2016 at 6:55 pm

Government education for voters on charter revision begin AFTER the recommendations are approved by Council and immediately following the State approval of the ballot wording. Any public comments, questions or recommendations prior to that are essentially generic input, possibly including from non-residents, non-voters, and Martian aliens if they were so inclined.

At that time, with the approval of the four questions and ready for print on the ballots, it would have been right, fair, and incumbent on the city (as promised) to provide easy and clear access to Norwalk voters to know:
A) that there are 4 questions for them to consider.
B) that each question is independent of each other, and one or all can be answered.
C) that each question has a simply Yes or No vote
D) The affect of a Yes vote and a No vote
E) the effective dates of all or each question

This could have been accomplished with any combination of
A) An article in the print media providing a link to a Charter Revision Voter Information page on the city website
B) Postcard mailers to all registered voters
C)Poster boards in city hall, libraries and public agencies
E) Robocall providing webpage link and phone number for appropriate city hall staff (town clerk)
F)facebook, twitter and other social media
G) the city’s e-notification system
H)flashing “alert” on the city website
I)radio ad, billboards, electronic signage
J)requesting agenda time on civic, social, faith based agendas
K) public outreach at community centers and events (Senior Center, veterans groups, public schools and NCC, neighborhood groups, service clubs (Lions, Exchange, Rotary, Kiwanis, etc)
L) newspaper front page stickers
M)leaflets at debates and other election-related events

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