Opinion: Four-year executive terms is norm in American government

Election 2016Of 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.


David McCarthy November 6, 2016 at 5:54 am

Only 7 of 23 municipalities have four year terms. 4 of those are Selectmen who all have the same term. Of the 3 who are mayors, I believe 2 have legislative bodies with identical terms, leaving Bridgeport the city with this same cockamamie set up as is proposed here. Anyone feel copying Bridgeport is a good idea? I also encourage people to look at the report on the city’s website. I believe you will react as I did.

At this point I understand these gentlemen feel they have to defend their work. Guys, I get it. When logic is so against what you’ve done, and I’ve pointed out only one major flaw of many here, it might have been better to let it go.

Sue Haynie November 6, 2016 at 6:28 am

For many, the idea of a 4 year term for Mayor is a practical idea. But why didn’t the revision start in 2019 instead of 2017?

A 2019 start date would have produced the same result but erased any pretense of self-interest or political advantage in the public’s mind.

Call me old-fashioned, but a charter revision of such importance should be above reproach.

Debora November 6, 2016 at 6:57 am

This is the “me too” argument. Everyone else does it, so we should too.

Whether the Mayor sits for two years or four, if you don’t fix the root cause of Norwalk’s problems, she or he is still managing the same dysfunction.

Voters will send the same message to the proponents of this political maneuver (Chamber of Commerce, the sitting Mayor and the sitting Council President) on Tuesday when the vote NO on Questions 1 and 3

Bob Welsh November 6, 2016 at 8:50 am

Here are two questions for both sides.

1. Supporters of a four-year mayoral term contend that four-year terms are necessary for any meaningful change to occur. What, in your opinion, are the most meaningful changes that have occurred – or failed to occur – under the current system of two-year mayoral terms?

2. If the Mayor is granted four-year terms, and the Council continues to run every two years, should we be concerned that the Mayor will have outsize influence on the council’s makeup through fundraising and campaigning for council members during years that the Mayor is not on the ballot?

Pibeman November 6, 2016 at 9:17 am

If City mayors had appropriate business experience to manage a $300 million budget who would object to 4 year terms. But they would not be candidates to run the local Wal Mart or Chan Drug store. NO surprise we have puntive taxes from unprofessional mgmt. of our City. That’s the real issue here. Low cost City services requires professional management, not politicians at the helm. Only politicians want 4 year terms. No business savvy voters.

Lisa Thomson November 6, 2016 at 9:48 am

Gentlemen, I’m sorry you have taken this NO campaign personally. Under the circumstances, you were given an impossible task for thorough analysis of the issues, given the deadline set by the council.

This is an election year, where voters are pretty disgruntled with the political party class. From the beginning, the CRC was hamstrung by its marching from the council, both in terms of issues and time. Instead of being able to address issues repeatedly raised by residents, the CRC was simply allowed to add them, like a grocery list, at the end of the report.

Today’s headline is also a little misleading, since according to ICMA – the most common form of municipal governments is now via a professional City Manager (56% of cities over 10,000 have them.) The majority of Norwalk voters would greatly benefit from the depoliticizing of the mayor’s office, allowing it to revert back to a popular ribbon cutting position. However, as it stands now – we’re stuck somewhere in-between, with a well paid, but politically charged position that encourages a lot of insider horse trading within the party, excluding voters who fund 80% of the city budget. Extending the office by two more years simply brings more of the same.

Andrew November 6, 2016 at 10:51 am

@Sue – I agree and this has been where the issue I have with how it was handled and who is going to benefit from the way it was handled.

Had the current mayor directed for the change to occur in 2019, or stated that he would not run in 2017, therefore not becoming a beneficiary, then there is a good chance that the Sunday before election day I would be in the YES column and not have a NO sign on my lawn.

Whatever the outcome on Tuesday – I hope that the powers to be realize from the debate that has been occurring over the past couple of weeks (which I think has been a good conversation for Norwalk to have amongst ourselves) – that this city has a desire for change and changes are needed and should be explored further for the hopeful betterment of the residents.

Lisa Thomson November 6, 2016 at 10:59 am

Regardless of the outcome of the vote:

If the 4 year term PASSES – the mayor/council need open a second charter revision commission as promised.
If the 4 year term FAILS – the mayor/council need to re-open the charter and do it right.

Either way, their political sincerity and credibility are on the line.

Adolph Neaderland November 6, 2016 at 12:19 pm

The issue of a Charter Review is far to important to have been rushed thru for a vote this year – there should have been far more time for public involvement.

Our city has many administrative issues that require “refacing”, including but not limited in importance to the Mayor’s term of office. None of these issues were included “because they were too complicated’ and/or the desire to get the term issue on the ballot quickly.

lets rethink the process and get it done right, with full time for discussion.

Vote “NO” this time.

THE TRUTH November 6, 2016 at 1:05 pm

This 4 year Mayor term is just Rilling looking out for Rilling once again.It seems his biggest fear is not having a pay check from the taxpayers of Norwalk to supplement his pensions from the taxpayers of Norwalk.

EveT November 6, 2016 at 7:39 pm

To the question of what has / has not been accomplished in a 2-year mayoral term, we have very little history to go by because the last few mayors have been re-elected at least once, and one served for (what was it?) 7 terms?
If the Town Clerk term 2 vs. 4 years had been a separate ballot question, it might have been considered less controversial.
If all the changes were to take effect with the 2019 municipal election cycle, that would have removed the argument that current incumbents stand to benefit from a YES vote.
If the publicity for YES4Norwalk had not been identified with the current mayor, it would have looked less self-serving. I received 2 voice messages from YES4Norwalk, both stating that the caller was calling on behalf of the mayor.

piberman November 6, 2016 at 8:07 pm

How many residents really believe that electing Mayors and Councilmen without business experience makes makes fora well managed City – one for affordable taxes ? Why do our neighboring towns plus Stamford, Greenwich, Fairfield insist that their elected officials all have strong business backgrounds ? Is it our bad water that explains stagnant property values for almost a decade ? Could it possibly be our governance ? Or is it just one of lives “enduring mysteries”. Why is it that many who believe Norwalk is poorly governed are leaving ?

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