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Charter Revision: Why Norwalk needs Lisa Brinton

 

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Norwalk needs Municipal reform.  We may not realize it, but we can see it every time we drive on our public roads, open a property tax bill, start a home improvement project or wave the kids off to school.  And Norwalk cannot have true municipal reform without Charter Revision. Among the four candidates for mayor, only Lisa Brinton is committed to Charter Revision in order to improve the way government works for its most valuable resources—its people.

Didn’t we just vote on Charter Revision?  We did and we didn’t.  In January of 2016, the Common Council empaneled a Charter Revision Commission, and gave them a very narrow timeline for making recommendations.  A few months later, the CRC presented four ballot initiatives, including one to extend Harry Rilling’s third term—if he gets one.  The CRC also urged the Common Council to let them continue their work—or to impanel a new commission—to address public concerns about Planning and Zoning—concerns the CRC didn’t have time to explore—not if the four year mayoral term was to make it onto the ballots in November.

Three of the four Charter Revision proposals went down in a blaze of glory at the polls, including the proposal to extend the mayoral term to four years, thanks to the efforts of local grassroots activist like Lisa Brinton.  Lisa knew that the real work of Charter Revision—the work that would most directly impact our day-to-day lives—was not finished.  In fact the real work has not yet begun.  Extending the mayoral term, though reasonable on its face, mostly would have benefitted the incumbent, Harry Rilling.  Lisa Brinton championed the “vote no” effort because she realized, especially after attending most of the CRC hearings, that the four ballot measures didn’t even scratch the surface.

Most citizens didn’t believe that the two year mayoral term was the big thing holding Norwalk back. And that’s how they voted.  But Norwalkers are  frustrated with the way our city is run—bouncing from crisis to crisis, applying a bandaid here, shaking a big stick there, but not really fixing anything. Neighbors are tired of attending Zoning Commission hearings, holding the Plan of Conservation & Development (Master Plan) in one hand, and watching helplessly as the commissioners approve uses that, though not strictly forbidden by code, make hay of the Master Plan.  Suing the city in response to these decisions has become a local pastime.  But funding litigation and settlements is something Norwalk can longer afford to do. Taxpayers simply don’t want to foot the bill.

Lisa knows the kind of municipal reform Norwalk needs is impossible to execute without first amending the Charter to bring the Planning and Zoning Commissions back together so that land use decisions follow the Master Plan, leading to fewer “bad” decisions and costly lawsuits.  Lisa also recognizes that substantive municipal reform is the key to breaking the cycle of dysfunction and cronyism plaguing City Hall no matter which party is in power.  Party loyalties hurt ordinary citizens, impacting everything from land use decisions to schools to state DOT projects.  Norwalk has to change its system of government.  The only way to do it all—realign Planning & Zoning, streamline functionality at City Hall, and end partisan bickering—is through Charter Revision, including a bold switch to a Council-Management system of government.  The Council-Management system has been around for more than 100 years, when the City Manager was conceived as the answer to Boss Tweed. Greenwich employs a City Manager, appointed, hired and evaluated by the Council.  Thriving cities and towns across the country, especially in the southeast, have adopted the Council-Management system. And many have opted out of party designations altogether in local elections, ending partisan bickering.  Lisa is an independent candidate beholden to no one and no party.  And she understands how toxic party politics can be at the local level.

Right now we have a Mayor who’s had two terms and four years to fill up land use boards with cronies and cheerleaders.  Norwalk is lurching from crisis to litigation in land use decisions as a result.  Norwalk is good at answering the call of special interests, one developer and one contract at a time.  But the interests of average people have gotten lost in the shuffle.  It’s time for foundational change.  Lisa Brinton is the only candidate pushing for this change.  And only Lisa is capable of leading the charge.

Donna Smirniotopoulos

Norwalk

28 comments

Bruce Kimmel October 12, 2017 at 9:13 am

Interesting article. Two points that might be worth discussing in the future:

1. If I remember correctly, the city already has the power to combine Planning and Zoning, and thus a revision of the Charter would not be needed. It can probably be done by ordinance. Of course, that would require a thorough discussion of the pros and cons of bringing the “two” agencies back together.

2. The Council/City Manager form of government is indeed popular around the country, especially in smaller cities and towns. But we should be mindful of a number of points, including:

The manager would not create policy, he or she would be tasked with implementing policies adopted by the Common Council. This could prove problematic with the Council having a two-year election cycle and thus a fair amount of turnover in terms of members and vision.

Also, we would need to examine voter turnout in those towns and cities with the Council-City Manager form of government. If the Mayoral position is essentially ceremonial, or if we just got rid of the position, would turnout decline substantially? That is definitely a problem we would need to address.

Lisa Brinton Thomson October 12, 2017 at 9:50 am

Bruce, Thoughtful questions. You are correct that a city manager would focus on implementation and leave policy to elected officials.
I spoke with one former elected official in another city, who explained their shift to a city manager improved day to day operations and efficiencies across the various city departments. As politicians, they did not possess the professional skills. The structure also encouraged proactive management instead of reactive politics. I think this is certainly something most Norwalk residents can relate to.

In another NON story, John Igneri made the greatest case for a City Manager when he admitted the council had too many city operational issues on their plate to do charter revision. Last November, while poll standing together, but on opposite sides of the charter revision issue 🙂 I suggested a variety of ideas. John admitted the council was overworked with the number of city department committee meetings that volunteer council members had to attend. It makes one wonder how effective we can really be under those conditions. Imagine a city manager helping with all of that. 

A relatable example is/was our Board of Education, which suffered years of dysfunction when we couldn’t hold onto a superintendent. NPS was a collection of schools each doing their own thing instead of a school district. It begs the question, how effective nine volunteers could be when reacting to the ‘firehose’ of different NPS departments and school issues, each demanding their operational issues be resolved? A strong superintendent makes/made that go away and allows the board to focus on what they were elected to do – set policy. I see parallels with that and the different city departments, especially when it comes down to how we handle or bungle our land use issues – the bread and butter of our city revenue stream.

A council/manger form of government is the most common form of municipal governance in the US, according to the National League of Cities. This form has grown from 48% in 1996 to 55% in 2006. Large cities like Phoenix, San Antonio, Dallas, Charlotte, and Rockville are examples of big cities that use this form. There are also at least four cities slightly smaller than Norwalk in Connecticut: Greenwich (pop. 61K), West Hartford (pop ~ 63K), Meriden, (pop 61K), Manchester (pop 58K) versus Norwalk (pop 87k.) that have shifted to a City Manager as well.

Donna Smirniotopoulos October 12, 2017 at 10:02 am

@Bruce Kimmel, the City does NOT have the power to combine Planning & Zoning through ordinance under the existing Charter. Section 189.2 B specifially excludes the Planning and Zoning Commissions from that authority in a list of exemptions. Many thanks to NoN and to Lisa Brinton, who explained the problem in March 2016.

When the CC impaneled the CRC, the commission was given a limited 6 item purview. After the disastrous BJs and Mosque applications, you’d have thought the CC would have included revision of the land use commissions in order to address the disconnect between the Master Plan and zoning. Extending council term limits was part of the conversation then, as was voter turnout.

Voter turnout is a tricky issue. Turnout is low when municipal elections don’t coincide with general elections. The danger of aligning the two is that voters may pull levers without being fully informed. The inclination is to vote a straight party ticket rather than according to local issues and candidates. However, there are ways to engage the electorate in odd years. I would like the City to have city-wide mailings. We forget that not everyone is internet enabled. And not everyone Is equally engaged in the process. Most are just trying to get through the day. So it’s up to the activists and office seekers to engage the public, hopefully with the help of City Hall.

But to your first point again, Bruce, right now the CC cannot blend Planng and Zoning Commissions. Enabling the CC to do this would require a Charter Revision.

Debora Goldstein October 12, 2017 at 12:28 pm

Full disclosure would be to inform readers that Bruce was among those supporting the YES referendum PAC and Lisa was among those supporting the NO referendum PAC (as was I).

Lengthening the Council’s terms were not among the proposals from either the council as a directive or from the issues the CRC voluntarily decided to study. I agree that it may be among the issues that would contribute to better governance when combined with a City Manager.

Most voters recognized that the proposals last year were unlikely, by themselves, to improve the management of the City, and most voters were also leery that items that should have been a higher priority would be covered by an eventual second CRC effort.

I was disappointed that our current councilpersons were unwilling to take on the second charter revision effort that was promised throughout the fall before last year’s referendum.

Donna’s correct. The charter would have to be amended to give the council back the authority to re-combine Planning Commission and Zoning Commission by removing those two commissions from the section of the charter Donna references.

§ 1-189.2. Authorization of Council to reorganize certain departments.
(Added by Charter Amendment 11-3-1970.)

A. The Council shall have the power to establish, reorganize and consolidate departments, agencies, commissions, authorities and boards of the city, hereinafter referred to as administrative departments. Provided, however, there shall be a Department of Health, a Department of Public Works and a Department of Public Welfare. The Council shall have the power to establish and amend by ordinance such rules, regulations, policies and procedures as it may deem necessary or appropriate to define and govern the powers, duties, responsibilities and operations of such administrative departments. Said powers of the Council shall apply to all administrative departments, including but not limited to all administrative departments in existence at the effective date of this section, whether established by Charter, Special Act, or ordinance; and ordinances enacted by the Council pursuant to this section shall supersede any prior inconsistent provisions of this Charter, Special Acts or ordinances.

B. This section shall not apply to (1) any elected departments, agencies, commissions, authorities or boards, including those elected by taxing districts; (2) the Police Department or its boards or commissions; (3) the Fire Department or its boards or commissions; (4) the Planning Commission; (5) the Zoning Commission; (6) the Board of Estimate and Taxation; (7) the Comptroller; (8) the Corporation Counsel.

Donna Smirniotopoulos October 12, 2017 at 1:06 pm

@Bruce Kimmel, you were President of the Common Council when the CRC made their recommendations. John Igneri, the current CC president, has said there was little interest among the dems in continuing the Charter Revision work when he asked them early this year. Can you perhaps speak to that issue? I know you’re now running for BOE, but you may recall how you felt about a renewed stab at Charter Revision when Mr. Igneri asked you last winter. By your own admission in an opinion piece your wrote for the Hour in favor of the four ballot proposals, the Charter Revision Commission did not have time to address all of the public concerns. As an insider, maybe you have more information on why the CRC was given so little time and such a limited scope of work. Priority seems to have been given to extending the mayoral term, with no suggestion from the Common Council that the CRC look into problems with land use decisions, which is odd given the Al Mandany settlement that cost the City 2 million dollars. Any idiot would think that if change was in order, the first place to look would be the Planning and the Zoning Commissions.

@Debora, while we’re at it, can we get a show of hands of those candidates for Common Council who support impaneling a Charter Revision Commission shortly after the November elections? They could empanel in January and give the Commission until after the budget passes to present their findings. And this time, instead of a narrow list of suggested areas of review, allow the CRC to explore merging the Planning & Zoning Commissions AND changing City government to a Council-Management system. Empenaling a Commission is not that time consuming. Hard to account for reports of “fatigue” and “after the last CRC, no one wants a new one” that passed for explanations for the current CC’s refusal to allow Charter Revision work to continue.

To those who doubt a City Manager system will work for Norwalk, let’s do the homework first.

Debora Goldstein October 12, 2017 at 2:29 pm

One correction. The council did recommend that the CRC look at 4 year terms for the council. Mr. Kimmel himself noted that at the time.

Debora Goldstein October 12, 2017 at 3:14 pm

Donna,

That’s a very good question to ask of all of the council candidates running this year. Now if only there were some intrepid news outlets that distribute candidate questionnaires every municipal election season and report the results of those questionnaires. Would this be a good question? Hmmm….

Rebel INS October 12, 2017 at 4:14 pm

@Bruce Kimmel

It looks like voter turnout in Norwalk is under 30%. Lower than cities with a town planner, such as Greenwich and West Hartford. Perhaps these towns have better traffic flow that facilitate making it to the polls.

Donna Smirniotopoulos October 12, 2017 at 4:33 pm

@Bruce, the conversation we need to have—in the future mind you—about the implications of a City Manager and ceremonial mayor on voter turnout is a non sequitor. You might well ask what we can do to make voter turnout better because it already can’t get much worse. We’re approaching the point of more yard signs than votes.

Bryan Meek October 12, 2017 at 4:45 pm

One thing I never see mentioned is the size of the Common Council itself.

Blenko and Mankins published research in 2011 that shows correlation between board size and performance. An interesting read you can get at Amazon, or if you have Harvard Business Review, they covered it.

https://www.amazon.com/Decide-Deliver-Breakthrough-Performance-Organization/dp/1422147576?ref_=nav_signin&

Optimal board size is 7. Seven members. Board effectiveness drops 10% for each additional member.

This suggests in part that the BET is optimal, but that our Council is only 43% as effective as it could be.

While the charter is being looked at for city manager / mayor / 4 years / etc…. perhaps it should also be looked at for other areas of modernization considering our council was designed at the same time the horse and buggy were winding down. Maybe back then it made sense given how long it might take to get from Silvermine to Sono without a car to have redundancy. Today, it just seems to gum up the works.

Bryan Meek October 12, 2017 at 7:46 pm

Right size the council while we are at it.

Research shows that effective governing bodies have 7 members. Each additional member reduces effectiveness by 10%.

Redundancy in the horse and buggy era was probably a good idea. We need to modernize.

Donna Smirniotopoulos October 12, 2017 at 9:24 pm

@Bryan, I agree too many cooks spoil the broth. But if Norwalk moved to a 6 or 7 person at large CC, you’d need an RTM or similar to address the diversity of interests and needs in tn city.

Mike Mushak October 14, 2017 at 12:59 pm

Lisa, could you please share the name and city of the elected official you spoke with who praised their City Manager after they switched to the “Council-Manager” form of government that is the main plank in your platform? Thank you.

And, with all due respect, Greenwich doesn’t have a Council-Manager form of government, according to the Greenwich official website. They do have a Town Administrator who works at the direction of the First Selectman, who is basically the mayor under another name. This is similar to the current system in Norwalk with a Chief of Staff working for the mayor.

It appears you are basing your main platform plank to reorganize Norwalk’s city government into a Council-Manager system, that removes direct accountability to voters and taxpayers by handing over enormous power to an unelected official, on one website source which has made a mistake on Greenwich’s form of government. We should wonder what other mistakes they have made, and which you may be quoting.

Are you aware that once staff are hired, it can be very difficult to end their employment? Imagine if that applied to a City Manager who turned out to be incompetent or played partisan tricks, as has happened in other cities resulting in dysfunction? What if an incompetent or difficult City Manager were protected by a partisan Common Council? This has already happened in Norwalk in the past.

Also, did you know all large cities in CT and the largest cities around the country for that matter, have maintained the more accountable Mayor-Council form of government that Norwalk currently has? Have you ever asked yourself why that might be?

Why would Norwalk want a City Manager who was not directly accountable to voters and taxpayers every election cycle as our current system allows with the mayor’s position?

Are you aware that some very successful cities with diverse economies and populations, such as Richmond VA and San Diego CA, have switched from Council-Manager systems to Council-Mayor systems, just like Norwalk currently has, in order to restore accountability to voters and officials and reduce bureaucracy and inefficiency?

Why would Norwalk want to switch to a system to that other growing smart cities have rejected?

This is from an article in the San Diego Union Tribune on Jan. 28, 2016, about San Diego’s switch in 2006 from a Council-Manager system to a more accountable and transparent form of government that Norwalk curently enjoys:

“It has been 10 years since San Diego’s strong mayor-council form of government became operational on Jan. 1, 2006. A lot has happened since then with city government. This governing system was approved by voters in November 2004 as a six-year pilot experiment that would self-destruct in December 2010 unless additional action was taken prior to the expiration date.

The single most important difference between a strong mayor-council form of government and the city’s former council-manager system is the position of chief executive. Previously, the nine-member City Council, which included the ceremonial mayor as one single vote, appointed an unelected city manager who was the chief executive with all of the authority most associated with such a position.

Everyone was in charge, but no one was in charge. Everyone was accountable, but no one was accountable. Each City Council member and the ceremonial mayor were each one-ninth accountable for the day-to-day administration of the city. The buck stopped nowhere.

On Jan. 1, 2006 that all changed. The City Council and its powers stayed the same, but the authority to select the city’s chief executive was transferred from them directly to the voters of San Diego. The authority that most people thought that the mayor’s position already had actually became a reality. The mayor was removed from the City Council and separate executive and legislative branches of government with their inherent checks and balances became operative.”

And there’s this discussion in an article in the Portland Phoenix on June 27th, 2017, on the contentious City Manager system being debated in that progressive city:

“City managers were first adopted in the early part of the 20th century. Most of the original managers were civil engineers, but today they generally have a Masters in Public Administration or, increasingly, a Masters of Business Administration. The theory behind the position is as a non-elected executive, the city manager is less subject to political pressure from the electorate and is seen as the adult in the room.

However, if a manager were so inclined, he or she could use a budget item, policy initiative, or staff access to hold considerable influence over councilors by making them look good or bad on the issues that are most important to them.

Were a manager to take such an approach, she or he could gain majority support from the council while at the same time strengthening or weakening the reelection bids of his or her political allies or enemies respectively. What’s more, the manager needn’t worry about taking politically unpopular positions — much less getting reelected. To keep his or her job, the manager needs only to stay in the good graces of the majority of councilors. In other words, five people.

So while the city manager model offers many things, accountability isn’t one of them. And though a city manager may not be given particular incentive to maneuver politically, there isn’t much to prevent it.”

Lisa, if you were to be presented with enough evidence that City Managers reduce accountability to voters and taxpayers, and have created so many conflicts in some cities like Richmond VA and San Diego CA that citizens there decided to go back to the system we currently have in Norwalk, and that in other cities like Sacramento and Portland ME they are currently debating the lack of accountability and political partisanship of their City Managers, that you may have been wrong in your main platform plank?

Thank you.

Donna Smirniotopoulos October 14, 2017 at 2:24 pm

Thanks Mike Mushak for very extensive preliminary research of the kind that a Charter Revision Commission might undertake. I’m sure the next CRC will appreciate having a “leg up” on their work.

A couple of points:
The Town Administrator in Greenwich is both chief of staff and City Manager. Check out the job description. Also you might want to read the accomplishments of the previous town admin, who was able to reduce the size of town govt through early retirement packages, saving Greenwich money in the long term while treating town workers humanely.

Richmond is the ONLY city in Virginia that does not use a city manager. That’s an important point that you chose to leave out.

As for accountability, are you suggesting the mayor of Norwalk be held accountable at the polls for what happens when we try to do business at city hall? I don’t think Mayor Rilling believes the dysfunction there is completely his doing. Similarly, if voters don’t like certain land use decisions, to the extent the mayor fills those commissions through appointments, should he be politically accountable for those decisions? If we’re unhappy with the Walk Bridge project or with Firetree, do you suggest we take it out on the Mayor at the ballot box?

Debora Goldstein October 14, 2017 at 3:53 pm

Good afternoon,

I see its another installment of the Mushak Missive.

Mike, with all due respect, you keep asking the same questions over and over again, all over the internet and ignoring the answers when you get them. Is there anything Lisa could tell you that would change your mind about City Manager or get you to stop assigning research to her for your personal benefit? I can remember a time when you weren’t all that happy about the existing governing structures.

I recommend you start with reading up to get an understanding the role of a Mayor (or a First Selectman) under a Manager-Council structure. She (or he) has a role in that governing structure–it just doesn’t happen to include direct management of the day to day operations. That may clear up the Greenwich question for you.

There is a very clear difference between a City Manager and the existing “Chief of Staff” as relates to accountability, and in Norwalk’s case the issue of getting rid of an employee you illustrated above is exactly the problem here.

A City Manager is accountable to the Council, who answers to the voters. The Chief of Staff (a position that does not exist in our charter and has no power except the ones the Mayor is supposed to have and delegates to her/him instead. To get rid of a City Mgr, the electorate need only convince the council to do so. To get rid of the COS, we have to elect a new Mayor and hope that the new one has the ability to remove that person. Hardly accountable to the electorate.

The main platform plank is not based upon a single article, and you know it. It is based upon data from all over the United States, by two organizations that do nothing but collect and analyze data from all over the country–a data set that is far larger and far more complete than your cursory google searches and anecdotes from your personal travels.

We are all aware that once staff is hired, it can be very difficult to end their employment, which begs the question of why you are defending exactly such a hire in the current administration. The current Chief of Staff role (which was pitched to the council as an “assistant to the Mayor” during the budget process in which the job was funded) is not an appointment, nor is it elected and could have been VERY problematic indeed, if Laoise King weren’t a very responsible and compentent individual.

Before looking to expand the Mayor’s office, you all might have brushed up on what the Charter says about who steps in for the Mayor in certain instances. Yes, the Charter specifies these things with people who ALREADY serve in our government, through more accountable elected or appointed positions.

Interesting enough, since the cost of the Mayor’s office has ballooned over the course of Mayor Rilling’s term, the new budget has separated the administrative costs out into a completely separate budget summary section, so it’s hard to see how much its grown from the BET’s cover sheet. How’s that for accountability?

Your factoid about large cities in CT and the largest cities around the country having maintained a Mayor-Council form of government is irrelevant. Norwalk is not a larger city. Also, a lot of those larger cities reside within an extra layer of county government–something that Connecticut in general, and Norwalk in particular, is vehemently against.

Some cities HAVE switched from Council-Manager systems to Council-Mayor systems. And some cities have voted to unincorporate. So what? The data, as a whole supports a Manager-Council form of government for cities of our size. What’s more, the endless treadmill of litigation and massive opposition by the neighborhoods relating to land use decisions, while our mill rates are growing faster than the value of our properties, suggests that the current model (this does not attach to the existing administration alone) is not working for the people who live here. What is wrong with opening up the decision to the people of Norwalk how they want their city run?

The quote from an article in the San Diego Union Tribune on Jan. 28, 2016 simply shows that they hadn’t structured their Council-Manager structure correctly. Council is not supposed to manage the day-to-day; the City Mgr is. If they were doing it correctly, it would look more like the way the BOE and the Superintendant functions in Norwalk. The BOE sets policy, strategy and budget and Dr A carries it out.
Your article from the Portland Phoenix sets up a series of hypotheticals. It doesn’t say it happened.

Lisa’s position is clear. San Diego and Richmond have their own governance to manage. Lisa’s concern will be Norwalk’s, and the process for making this happen would involve plenty of input from and transparency for, the electorate…unlike, say, a series of unelected, unaccountable task forces that also do not appear in the Charter.

Mike Mushak October 14, 2017 at 4:36 pm

Donna, a few points:

Your statement in your endorsement letter of Lisa, posted above, is of interest, “Greenwich employs a City Manager, appointed, hired and evaluated by the Council.” I’m baffled by this declaration, none of which is true by a reading of the Greenwich website. Even in the job description you pointed me to never mentions the phrase, “City Manager”. There is no Council in Greenwich, and the “Town Administrator” is directed by the First Selectman only. The Board of Selectmen, which you may have meant when you said “Council”, does not hire or evaluate the Town Administrator according to their duties and responsibilities.

Where did you get your information that is so wildly off base?

Also, you insulted all land use volunteers in Norwalk in your letter above, by describing all of them, on both sides of the aisle, as “cronies and cheerleaders”. Since you call for the end of “partisan bickering”, in your words, how do your own insulting words and actions contribute to the end of that “bickering”? It seems to me you are adding to it!

And why would you insult so many dedicated volunteers who give up their time and energy to debating the issues and making Norwalk better? Is the need to disparage so many folks necessary in your mind to make your point? You have that right of course, but Im just calling it out as probably diminishing any point you are trying to make.

I wonder if Lisa endorses your opinions of all land use volunteers as “cronies and cheerleaders.” Perhaps she may chime in on this at some point.

Lastly, it seems you are suggesting that Lisa will break the law and interfere with land use decisions as you expected Mayor Rilling to do somehow with Firetree, as well as deny the recommendations of dozens of licensed engineers at the state and federal level who have made public safety decisions about the Walk Bridge that far exceed any legal authority the mayor has over these decisions.

I would like to know how Lisa would have handled these issues differently, and still remain within the law. Because from what I have seen, Mayor Rilling has handled these difficult issues with dignity and professionalism while respecting the law.

Thank you.

Debora Goldstein October 14, 2017 at 5:27 pm

Speaking of questionable budget requests, does anybody care that some of the cost for these is being paid out of school construction money?

http://www.norwalkct.org/Bids.aspx?BidID=577

The City of Norwalk is soliciting bid submissions for the design/build of tennis courts at Springwood Ely Park. The scope of the work entails: Site work, the renovation of the four (4) existing tennis courts, the installation of two (2) new tennis courts and two (2) new junior tennis courts, electrical service improvement, and installation of new lighting. The budget for this project is $900,000.00.

For more information concerning this solicitation click here.

The Q&A period for this opportunity starts Sep 22, 2017 5:00 PM EDT. The Q&A period for this opportunity ends Oct 05, 2017 2:00 PM EDT. You will not be able to send messages after this time.

Donna Smirniotopoulos October 14, 2017 at 5:29 pm

Both Richmond and San Diego have Strong Mayor—Weak Council forms of government, whereas Norwalk has Weak Mayor—Strong Council system. Richmond is a city of over 200,000, with a metro area over 1.2 million. San Diego is a city of 1.4 million. The next CRC will hopefully limit their relevant research to cities and towns of comparable size. West Hartford, which has a council-manager system, is a better model of comparison than either Richmond or San Diego.

Donna Smirniotopoulos October 14, 2017 at 7:24 pm

@Mile Mushak, thanks for asking those questions about Greenwich Connecticut’s town government and allowing me to clarify. I’m afraid the need to keep the length of the LTE reasonable prevented me from fleshing out Greenwich’s system. They do have an RTM but the real work of government takes place with the board of selectmen, who are elected and accountable. The town administrator reports to them. The last one was so believed that there was no talk of lack of accountability, however. And Peter Tesei seems poised to win easy re-election. So I guess the voters are happy. But the process for hiring the town administrator is rigorous. Here’s the link if you care to learn more:

http://www.greenwichct.org/upload/medialibrary/12f/PR-Town-Administrator-Annoucement.pdf

As for disparaging volunteers, I’ve been a community volunteer since 1990. And I’ve never believed that volunteers should be above reproach because they’re volunteers. Land use Commissioners in Norwalk get there by mayoral appointment. There is no job posting. They aren’t accountable to the voters unless the voters tie their decisions, good and bad, to the mayor who appointed them. There are lots of great volunteers on Norwalk boards and commissions. There are also cronies and cheerleaders. Sometimes they’re the same people. In fact it’s common on appointed boards. This would be less likely to happen if the land use boards were elected, though I’ve heard solid arguments against this as well.

Thanks!

Donna Smirniotopoulos October 14, 2017 at 7:45 pm

@Mike Mushak, no one expected Mayor Rilling to break the law and interfere with land use decisions. Allow me to elaborate. The mayor appoints commissioners. Who is accountable for the decisions of those commissions populated by mayoral appointees if not the electorate in November 7? Elsewhere a poster defended mayor Rilling’s impartiality to outside influence because, having received money from AMEC, the mayor still denied them a permit. So even among the mayor’s supporters there is a perception that he “owns” the commissions to the point of being able to direct their decisions. I do not believe this is so. But I’m not the one who said it. And I do believe that when appointed are pre-approved “behind the scenes” to avoid embarrassment, you remove a layer of transparency and accountability. I admire the impulse to shield volunteers from criticsicm. But I don’t find the practice helpful or conducive to better government.

Mike Mushak October 15, 2017 at 9:57 am

Donna, please share your community volunteer experiences since 1990, including any boards and commissions.

I’m just curious what your experience has been where you may have been openly criticized publicly for your volunteer activities, something you support and encourage.

Donna Smirniotopoulos October 15, 2017 at 4:29 pm

Mike Mushak, why does this feel like an interrogation instead of a healthy dialogue about Charter Revision? I’m not running for office. But I have been through tough experiences as a volunteer. I’ve managed other volunteers who were inappropriate or who could not tolerate criticism. I’ve been personally maligned in public when I chaired the Staples Task Force. The chair of the ZBA chose to single me out for rebuke during a closed public session. Guess what? We got our variances. The project was approved. Volunteers who serve on land use boards should be able to take the heat. Some do better than others. Volunteer or not, it’s a job. The standards should be no less than in other jobs.

Mike Mushak October 16, 2017 at 7:54 am

Donna, have you ever served in any land use board or town commission? I see you were chair of the Staples Tuition Grant committee. Was that ever controversial? Is that your only volunteer experience in the last 27 years? I didn’t bring it up, you did, so that’s why I’m asking.

{…} insulting volunteers in Norwalk, most of whom you’ve never met, just strikes me as aggressive. As Lisa’s Main spokesperson, I assume Lisa endorses everything you say, including going after volunteers on with petty name-calling. For someone who calls repeatedly for an end to partisan bickering, while continuing yourself to insult folks you never met or have never seen in action, strikes me as odd.

And I wonder why you would {…} mislead the public in your endorsement letter of Lisa that you published above.

The link you provided to the hiring process of the Greenwich Town Administrator does not prove anything at all that your original comment was factual about Greenwich government having a City Manager who is “appointed, hired, and evaluated by the Council”, in your words.

That link describes clearly that the appointment of the Adminstrator position is SOLELY the responsibility of the Greenwich First Selectman, and the hiring and evaluating is by a small committee of city staff and FORMER elected officials, NOT the “Council” which they don’t have or the RTM.

Nothing about your claim that Greenwich has a Council-Manager system of government that Norwalk should emulate has proven true, yet you continue to make that claim publicly without a shred of evidence. That is the {…} spreading of misinformation, no?

On other articles over the last few months you have made the same kind of authoritative statements about subjects you later acknowledged you know little about, such as the entire Walk Bridge issue and dredging.

The concept of accountability goes both ways, and when you make untruthful claims as you have done repeatedly as Lisa Brinton’s main spokesperson as I have pointed out, I think the public should understand that everything you say should not necessarily by taken as proven fact, but as opinion based on hunches or outright misinformation to help support your chosen candidate.

I wonder if Lisa agrees with the idea that spreading misinformation is a good way to try to get votes. She still hasn’t answered my questions I asked in my comments above. And since she blocked me, a citizen of Norwalk, from her campaign page for asking good questions in a civil manner about her main platform plank to replace Norwalk government with a system proven around the country to be LESS accountable to voters and taxpayers, I have to wonder if anything she claims about wanting an “open and approachable” government in City Hall is actually truthful. Because so far, there has been little evidence that she is running her campaign that way.
This comment was edited to remove an instance of ascribing motives without proof, and possible ascribing of motives.
NancyonNorwalk is not aware of Donna Smirniotopoulos being a spokesperson for Lisa for Norwalk.

Donna Smirniotopoulos October 16, 2017 at 4:08 pm

@Mike Mushak, while I’m flattered by your interest in my volunteer work, I doubt anyone else is. For those who are, raise your hands and I’d be happy to oblige.

For the record I have never run for elected office, and therefore never served on any land use board in Westport. How many land use boards have you been elected to serve on, Mike?

Interestingly, I was asked the other day—by someone fairly high up in Norwalk—if I’d ever considered serving on a land use board, and my response was that while I had considered this in the past—in Westport—I prefer being an activist (it suits my argumentative temperament), and running for office would require that I censor myself, which I prefer not to do.

Mike, I really appreciate your interest in Lisa and in the issues surrounding governance and land use. You’re a marshmallow (that’s a compliment), and I wish you the best!

Donna Smirniotopoulos October 17, 2017 at 2:02 pm

@Mike Mushak, I had to do additional research on Greenwich before I could respond to your remarks. You are correct, and I apologize for my error. Greenwich does not have a strict Council-Manager system of government. I reached out to Town Administrator Ben Branyan to gain greater clarity. He described his position as that of a Chief Operating Officer, serving First Selectman Peter Tesei, whom Branyan described as the CEO of Greenwich and not the mayor. FYI, Branyan is unaffiliated and Tesei is a Republican. Branyan is accountable to the First Selectman and serves at his pleasure, but his position is not that of Chief of Staff. He described Greenwich as an unusual hybrid in terms of municipal structure.

If the main concern is accountability, I’d like to know where the accountability for city management lies now. Mike Green’s tenure as Director of Planning & Zoning was legendarily dysfunctional, with frequent complaints about the lack of accountability. The Town Admin in Greenwich is a position that is reappointed annually. Norwalk does not have that luxury for many municipal employees, whether or not they are protected by a union contract. .

Prior to applying for and receiving the appointment as Town Administrator, Branyan was the operations manager at the Greenwich Public Schools. A self-described municipal government wonk, Branyan described the Charter Revision process as one in which the benefits and liabilities of the various options would unfold as commissioners conducted their research and listened to input from the public. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that a council-management system would benefit Norwalk. But there is no one size fits all in municipal government.

Donna Smirniotopoulos October 17, 2017 at 2:53 pm

The organization that promotes professional city management is ICMA—International City/County Management Association (icma.org). Greenwich is a member community of the Connectictu affiliate group, cttcma.gov, as is West Hartford. According to ICMA, “responsiveness to citizens is enhanced by centralizing administrative accountability in an individual appointed by the elected governing body. Local government managers or administrators are appointed by and serve at the pleasure of the elected legislative body.” By that definition, Greenwich is much closer to a city manager system than they are to our “weak” mayor—“strong” council system.

http://www.cttcma.govoffice3.com/index.asp?Type=B_BASIC&SEC={D4B6C620-295D-41A8-BB14-A658D7159AA4}

Mike Mushak October 18, 2017 at 9:51 am

Donna, the “organization that promotes professional city management” is a member-based lobbying organization that tries to find jobs for its members.

Nothing wrong with that, but lets be real here, and show a little scrutiny. Of course this organization will promote its own membership-thats what they and any other professional lobbying group are paid to do!

If you think you will get an objective view of unelected city managers from this organization, I got a bridge I can sell you in Brooklyn.

I still haven’y heard from Lisa after I asked her about who and where this quote she made in her comment above relates to: “I spoke with one former elected official in another city, who explained their shift to a city manager improved day to day operations and efficiencies across the various city departments.”

Who was it, and in what city was it that shifted to a City Manager system? Since Lisa blocked me from her campaign page when I asked her questions in a civil manner, I cant ask her directly. So much for all that talk about”accountability”. I guess that only applies to everyone else, lol.

Donna Smirniotopoulos October 18, 2017 at 12:43 pm

@Mike Mushak, Ben Branyan, the Town Adminstrator for Greenwich you said was more of a Chief of Staff like Laoise King, redeemed me to that organization which also lists Greenwich among its CT members. You misinterpreted my intent, which was to validate the assertion that Greenwich does use a City Manager type of system.

If you have read the entire post, Mike, you would have seen the part where is said that ICMA promotes professional city management. Other points I made that you seem to have glossed over related to the importance of embarking on Charter Revision so we can engage in the work necessary to see if a Council management system would work well for Norwalk. As Mr. Branyan said, there is no one size fits all. I believe there are strong indications that Norwalk would benefit, and I’ve outlined those reasons above.

You were blocked from Lisa’s FB page as I understand it because you were in continual interrogation mode and the tone of your questions there were similar to what I have experienced.here—a kind of character assassination through innuendo along with ascribing motives without proof and making remarks that I consider libelous.

If you’d like to see my resume, ask Namcy for my email. Also you never answered my question. How many elected boards have you served on? Mayoral appointments don’t count.

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NancyOnNorwwalk.com was conceived as the place to go for Norwalk residents to get the real, unvarnished story about what is going on in and around their city. NancyOnNorwalk does not intend to be a print newspaper online; rather, it exists to pull the curtain back and shine a spotlight on how Norwalk is run and what is happening regarding issues that have an impact on taxpayers’ pocketbooks and safety. As an independent site, NancyOnNorwalk’s first and only allegiance is to the reader.

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Nancy came to Norwalk in September 2010 and, after reporting on Norwalk for two years for another company, resigned to begin Nancy On Norwalk so she engage in journalism the way it was meant to be done. She is married to career journalist Mark Chapman, has a son, Eric (the artist and web designer who built this website), and two cats – a middle-aged lady and a young hottie who are learning how to peacefully co-exist.