Of the four Charter Revision questions that will be on ballot on Nov. 8, the one that has attracted the most attention and discussion has been the proposal to extend the Mayor’s and Town Clerk’s terms from two years to four years.
When we were members of the Charter Revision Commission, we both voted for this proposed change because it makes sense for our city. As individuals speaking for ourselves, we believe this is the case for several reasons, which are set out in the official Report of the Charter Revision Commission. The entire report can be downloaded from the City’s website. (Hint: The report itself is the first nine or so pages; the rest is exhibits.) The pertinent part of the Report sets out the Commission’s reasoning as follows:
The reasons for adopting a four-year term for Mayor and Town Clerk are several.
First, the members of the Commission believe that adoption of a four-year term will promote effective administration in both offices.
The Office of the Town Clerk, while selected as part of the political process, once elected is almost entirely administrative and ministerial in nature. The duties of that Office are both extensive and complex, involving maintaining the town’s land records and vital statistics, as well as administering certain state functions such as the issuance of hunting and fishing licenses. The Town Clerk’s office also plays an important role in the election process in regard to the issuance of absentee ballots. Given the extent and nature of the Town Clerk’s responsibilities, the consensus of the Commission is that a four-year term gives even a new Town Clerk a sufficient period to familiarize himself or herself with those responsibilities and provide the voters with a sufficient track record to judge his or her success in that office.
While the office of Mayor is more political than that of the Town Clerk, the administrative duties of the Mayor are a core function of that office as well, and a large portion of the Mayor’s time is spent overseeing the provision of basic municipal services. In this respect, the argument in favor of a four-year term is the same as for the Town Clerk, i.e., that a new Mayor has an extensive learning curve, and that a four-year term allows a Mayor sufficient time to learn the ropes of the position before being judged by the electorate on his or her performance in the job.
Beyond the purely administrative functions of the office, the Mayor has an important governmental role that has no equivalent in the Town Clerk — that role in defining and promoting public policy on a wide range of local issues. This function is carried out in conjunction with the Common Council and other city bodies, and is a function not just of the Mayor’s day- to-day involvement with municipal administration, but also and importantly: 1) as a function of the Mayor’s appointment powers; and 2) the Mayor’s role on city boards and commissions, most notably the Board of Estimate and Taxation, and the Police and Fire Commissions. In this area of public policy, the lengthening of the mayoral term to four years would allow the Mayor to focus on a longer time frame for policy decisions, enabling her or him to play a leadership role in adopting policies that may require several years before they can be appraised in their full context by the electorate.
As the cost of mayoral election campaigns has increased over the last decades, our city is approaching a point where continued biennial elections contribute to a political culture where the Mayor (and the Mayor’s prospective challengers) will need to fund-raise from the very beginning of the two-year term in order to meet the financial demands of election or re- election. Shifting to a four-year term opens up a greater space for governing rather than campaigning and fundraising.
And in conjunction with the longer-term policy focus discussed above, the four-year term creates greater possibilities for thoughtful and well-planned policy and leadership at the Mayoral level.
While the Commission does recognize the perception that less frequent elections provide fewer opportunities for voters to hold the Mayor accountable, the four-year term puts a Mayor in office for a long enough period to allow voters to fairly judge the entirety of that term at the next election.
Added to these considerations is another important point. The structure proposed for Norwalk’s municipal elections – every four years for the executive branch (Mayor) and every two years for the legislative branch (Common Council) – is not some wild-eyed experiment cooked up by the Commission. From the federal level, to the state level, down to many municipalities (including Stamford, Wilton and Westport), the four-year executive term is truly the norm in American government. It is a governmental structure that voters expect and voters understand. Yes, it means that the executive is not up for election as often, but it does provide its own checks and balances, by giving the electorate an opportunity at the mid-term legislative elections to send a message to the executive if it is unhappy with the direction of things. That is the way we do it in our political system at both the federal and state level, and it makes practical sense for us in Norwalk to do it that way at the municipal level as well.
Finally, the rhetorical flurry on this Charter Revision question over the last few weeks has sometimes grossly oversimplified the issues. The formulation of: “Longer Terms = Less Accountability = Higher Taxes” that has been promoted by the opposition to this proposal does not really help the voter who wants to think seriously about this proposal, whether or not that voter supports or opposes it.
If one takes that formulation serious, does that support the idea that shortening the mayoral term to one year would promote even lower taxes? And doesn’t it ignore the possibility that a Mayor seeking to cut spending in order to lower taxes and lessen the burden on taxpayers might benefit from a four-year term to allow the wisdom of such a policy to bear fruit? Striking the proper balance between executive leadership and executive accountability is not a Democratic or Republican issue. It is not a liberal or conservative issue. It is an issue about promoting municipal government that is both effective and accountable, and should be considered as such, not as a simple and distorted slogan on a lawn sign.
In the end, while reasonable minds may differ, we personally choose the four-year term for Town Clerk and Mayor.
It is true that there is no more effective political slogan in the history of human civilization than “Vote No”. It is simple, it is direct, and it benefits from our hard-wired resistance to change in our lives.
But it is our duty as citizens to look beyond the simplicity of slogans and look to the underlying rationale of the policies being proposed. Question 1 of the Charter Revision proposes a reasonable balance between executive effectiveness and executive accountability, no matter how many political slogans are arrayed against it. It is not a magic bullet that will solve all of our problems, but it is a thoughtful step in improving the quality of our governance, and on that basis, we support it.
We urge your readers to vote “Yes” on this proposal, which is contained in Question 1 of the proposed revisions to the City Charter.