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Opinion: The mayor needs to stop the political pandering

Lisa Brinton Thomson.

Lisa Brinton Thomson is an unaffiliated mayoral candidate.

Never has the need for professional, non-political leadership in the City of Norwalk been demonstrated more clearly than in the last couple of days.  Members of the Norwalk Federation of Teachers (NFT) along with state reps and Mayor Rilling staged a protest because of a provision in the bipartisan budget, approved by the legislature, but facing a veto from Governor Malloy.  The provision increases the pension contribution for teachers from 6% to 7% in 2018 and then to 8% in 2019.

Teachers deserve a fair salary and contractual promises made do need to be kept.  However, facing a budget crisis that has resulted in no approved budget through the entire first quarter of the fiscal year, we no longer have the luxury of protecting ‘sacred cows.’  The increase to 8% is one that perhaps displeases everyone, and therefore means it is a true compromise.

Unfortunately, due to political pandering and an overly close relationship between the mayor and the president of the NFT, Mary Yordon, he has chosen to act more like a union rep than a mayor. Rather than try to represent the citizens of Norwalk, who are overtaxed by a state on the verge of bankruptcy, the mayor is cheerleading union members in an attempt to woo votes.
While I feel for the teachers, who are not paid the six figure salaries that many state workers who have been shielded from changes such as this are, the move is fiscally sound and proper.  As union workers, the teachers certainly have a right to voice their discontent.  However, I question the appropriateness of our mayor participating in the protest activity.  I believe it represents a conflict of interest.

The proposed state budget increases teacher pension contributions a nominal amount, commensurate to a level most non-public workers and taxpayers already contribute for their own retirement.
However, this instance and the constant political bickering demonstrated the other day at the Norwalk Community College rally is another example of what is destroying our state.  Government leaders need to be responsible stewards of the public trust, not political cheerleaders.  Now, more than ever, city leadership needs to be contemplating the modernization and revision of our city charter and moving away from the political grandstanding. Norwalk needs a professional system of management that does not pander or seek favor, but instead dispassionately serves ALL the constituents of Norwalk.

16 comments

Sue Haynie October 1, 2017 at 7:10 am

Spot on editorial.

Mayor Riling put politics and party before Norwalk and her taxpayers this week when he advocated FOR a veto of a bi-partisan budget that spared Norwalk cuts in funding.

One can only assume that ‘politics and party’ came first in how Rilling has advocated for Norwalk and her taxpayer’s interests for the Walk Bridge or the Wall Street Train Station or Norwalk Public Schools, or anything else of interest or need to Norwalk that has the misfortune of crossing the path of partisanship.

Sue Haynie October 1, 2017 at 7:11 am

Spot on editorial.

Mayor Riling put politics and party before Norwalk and her taxpayers this week when he advocated FOR a veto of a bi-partisan budget that spared Norwalk cuts in funding.

One can only assume that ‘politics and party’ came first in how Rilling has advocated for Norwalk and her taxpayer’s interests for the Walk Bridge or the Wall Street Train Station or Norwalk Public Schools, or anything else of interest or need to Norwalk that has the misfortune of crossing the path of partisanship.

Rebel INS October 1, 2017 at 8:53 am

@Lisa

How dare you suggest that Mayor Rilling stop cheerleading. If you take that away you leave the man nothing.

Donna Smirniotopoulos October 1, 2017 at 9:24 am

While I realize the Mayor has a role as a public figure—to cut ribbons and shake hands and smile broadly and so forth—Mayor Rilling’s performance last week was Oscar-worthy. First he went to NCC to scare the children. Not satisfied with that, he moved on to scaring the teachers. In between, he shook hands with a few lobsters, though I’m surprised there was no crustacean counter-protest—Lobster Day Unfair!

There’s no longer a wall between the Mayor’s office and the teacher’s union, led by Nate Yordon’s wife Mary. I agree that teachers, like every other working person, deserve to be treated fairly. But not one month ago, Governor Malloy was ready to drop 30% of the costs of funding teacher pensions back on the cities and towns of the state. Funding pensions is breathtakingly expensive no matter who’s doing the paying. Increasing the employee contribution was never a “secret tax” on teachers in the compromise budget. It was a compromise. It was a fair thing to ask of the teachers, and not a punishment.

Mayor Rilling is now sending his minions to troll our public spaces—Facebook, NoN, CNNA meetings. But the problems that plague this administration remain unaddressed.
1. Still no Charter Revision
2. Weak advocacy for the City on the GGP deal
3. Poor attendance at WestCOG meetings
4. Populating land use bodies with cronies pre-approved “behind the scenes”
5. For Fix It First until he was against it
6. Botched library parking lot deal
7. And my personal favorite—DROPPED the BALL when Firetree sent Rilling a certified letter in 2014 from a well-known law firm, Carmody & Torrance, spelling out their intended use for 17 Quintard. At that time, they did not yet own the property. Had Rilling not punted to others, the deal might have been averted. This was an unmitigated failure, and the residents of these South Norwalk neighborhoods have not forgotten. A Mayor who can’t be bothered to attend to certified letters from lawyers but has time to drive to New Haven to sign murals isn’t the kind of leader we need.

Vote for Lisa!

Mike Mushak October 1, 2017 at 9:29 am

Lisa, can you please provide more details on your main platform plank to reorganize city government through charter revision into an unelected City Manager system, as you also call for in the article above?

Have any professional recommendations or studies ever been done in Norwalk to see how this would work here within our current system?

Where has an unelected City Manager system been instituted in cities as large and diverse as Norwalk? I could find none except Hartford, but perhaps you know of other examples. I did find that the cities that have unelected managers here in CT, for example, are generally much smaller and less diverse than Norwalk, and thus we can assume easier to “manage”.

Would the position be in the same supervisors union as other department managers? What would be the mechanism for termination if that was ever deemed necessary?

If termination required 2/3 majority of the Council, let’s say, and the Council could not muster the votes for reasons political or otherwise, what mechanism would kick in at that point to hold a highly paid but unelected City Manager accountable to taxpayers and voters?

What other cities similar to Norwalk in size and diversity are considering this move to a City Manager system at this time?

How would a City Manager influence the budget process, including the Board of Education?

Since this concept of an unelected City Manager is the main plank in your platform, have you thought of what you would do if the effort failed at the ballot box? Would you keep trying, or would you try to improve the current system we have, and how?

My opinion about the need for a City Manager is still open, so I would love to know more about the subject since it would directly affect all of us taxpayers and voters.

Thank you for your time and consideration in answering my questions!

Al Bore October 1, 2017 at 1:07 pm

Lisa, you might just earn my vote; Norwalk needs to stop catering to the unions that currently run the city and stand up to them. The mayor elected by the people of the city needs to start running the city doing what is right for the people that live in the city and most of all pay taxes to the city. Having the union support means nothing since most of the city employees just work here for the great Norwalk salaries and benefits and live elsewhere. Enough of the usual status quo BS let’s make Norwalk a place that people want to buy a home and raise their families in because it is a great place to be. Smart development, great schools, and no more apartments; let’s attract people that want to invest their money into Norwalk to live. We are too overcrowded right now and someone needs to stop the madness. I wish I knew your thoughts about this so I could make an informed decision in November. I looked at your website but I am still not sure where you stand on a lot of issues like our poorly rated schools, overcrowding, new apartment buildings everywhere, illegal apartments and multifamily houses , traffic, and lot’s of quality of life issues that exist in Norwalk. Tell me where you stand on these issues please. I have no idea who to vote for I am sick of status quo, it never works. I will ask the same of Mr. Conroy.

Donna Smirniotopoulos October 1, 2017 at 3:03 pm

@Mike Mushak, I won’t answer your questions on behalf of Lisa Brinton, but I would like to offer some additional information on the City Council-City Manager form of government. I too was curious about this form of city government, so I did what most ignoramuses like myself do: I Googled it and I came up with this Wiki page:
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Council–manager_government

One thing I knew before I googled, though, was that “unelected”, which sounds kind of pejorative the way you put it, simply means “appointed”. The City Council appoints the City Manager. Often, City Councils are comprised of “at large” members. Often elections are non-partisan. In other words, the role of the democratic and republican parties are often diminished at the local level. I think that’s a nice idea. Alexandria, VA has a population of about 140,000, and is similarly diverse ethnically, racially and economically. There is a pay scale for City managers and deputy managers. I’m not sure what the total cost of the Mayor’s office is—Mayor’s salary, Laoise King, etc. But Lisa has committed to making this a budget neutral position.

Change is difficult. But the more I look into the Council-Manager system, the more effective this system of local government seems. Every city in Virginia uses this system with the exception of Richmond. I believe it’s generally very popular in the Southeast.

MarjorieM October 1, 2017 at 3:54 pm

As usual, Lisa throws teachers under the bus. As usual, Sue Haynie has the first cheerleader comment for Lisa. Apples tick together.

Lisa Brinton Thomson October 1, 2017 at 4:06 pm

Mike,

There are at least four cities slightly smaller than Norwalk: Greenwich (pop. 61K), West Hartford (pop ~ 63K), Meriden, (pop 61K), Manchester (pop 58K) versus Norwalk (pop 87k.) that have shifted to a City Manager.

I spoke with one former elected official, who explained their shift to a city manager improved day to day operations of city departments that otherwise would have been shifted to the council and mayor/selectmen and not necessarily efficiently or equitably. It allowed them to be proactive instead of reactive, with the new structure allowing elected officials to focus on policy and vision – the city manager on implementation. Surely implementation is something you can directly relate to in your experience with planning and zoning.

In another story, John Igneri made the greatest case for a City Manager, when he complained the council had too much on their plate. How anyone can think that a ‘weak’ partisan mayoral structure and ‘strong’ part-time, volunteer common council of 15 individuals, voted in by 30% of the city is more efficient than a professional city manager is beyond me. While poll standing last year, when I suggested a variety of ideas for updating our charter for the 21st Century, John admitted the council was overworked with the number of city department committee meetings they have to attend. 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. How well do you think 9 volunteers reacted to the ‘firehose’ of different NPS departments and schools demanding operational issues be resolved and each with their own agendas? A strong superintendent makes that go away and allows the board to focus on policy.

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 some examples of big cities that use this form.

You know the answer to one of your questions, there have been no professional studies done in Norwalk regarding a city manager because that would disrupt the status quo and require a sitting mayor to lead/suggest the initiative.

All of your other questions require further study, which I offered to do for the mayor – who pretended to be interested – but really was not. If elected mayor, I would establish a commission to review all the issues you raise and then at the end of the day put it to the voters.

Hope this helps. Now, I have to go out and campaign 🙂

US Blues October 2, 2017 at 9:10 am

Marj, I am not an “apple” but this constant bashing of Lisa on the mere reference to “apple” just sounds like bitter petty grievance on your part.

Lisa has a sound and strong political platform. She has my attention and vote. Norwalk has had enough of Rilling and ALL his BLUNDERS. The guy is not only bad for this city – he is bleeding us dry because of his incompetence and inability to lead.

As for Lisa starting at the top – good for her. Shows she isn’t afraid of taking it on.

Debora Goldstein October 2, 2017 at 9:47 am

Mr. Mushak,

As a Planning Commissioner, you probably have access to more data than the average citizen using the google machine.

Therefore, I have to wonder that you have asked the same questions repeatedly across multiple platforms for almost two weeks now without coming across the IBM study of 50 cities that concluded that management is the factor that has the most impact on whether a city does well or poorly. Not demographics..not union employment…but MANAGMENT.

Our incumbent may have been a good manager of a city department, but its pretty clear that our governing structures do not allow effective management at the city level.

The fact that the YES campaign thought the solution to this problem was more of the same with less accountability is the reason the voters are starting to look at changing things up. They point-blank told the current leadership that they want REAL charter revision. Current leadership didn’t think they were up to the challenge.

Lisa believes she is. I believe she, along with leadership-minded councilmembers can go over the data NF and others collected together (all the data, not just stats about a few cities in CT) and right-size the city manager proposal so it does what Norwalk needs it to do. Wring out the inefficiencies and silo mentalities that prevent us fromreaching our full potential-and it in FULL VIEW of the people of Norwalk.

You wish to suggest that the new Mayor must have this plan fully baked so you can nit-pick the details. But understanding that the job of the new Charter Revision Commission is to review the charter, get the input of the citizenry and the data and make recommendations for changes. It’s arrogant to suggest the new Mayor will direct the CRC to implement a plan cooked up by one person without dialog.

We are not just electing a Mayor. I think it would be of interest to voters which councilmembers are willing to open up the dialog about charter revision, and which ones are happy with the way things are. Those platforms are not being discussed yet.

Julie Corbett October 2, 2017 at 11:17 am

A non-politically affiliated city manager could be a great option for Norwalk. But, I do wonder how Ms. Brinton Thomas would see that occur. What steps, as Mayor, would she initiate to move the city towards that option? Assuming that it would take time to move towards a city manager, how would she govern as Mayor during that transition? What does she see the role of Mayor with a City Manager? What is her platform if the move towards a city manager doesn’t happen? Discussions about professional administration (not tied to elections) are valid and needed for Norwalk, but as a candidate, more information is needed about the Plan A’s, Plan B’s, etc. Until more details are highlighted, it’s a great talking point, but implementation is lacking.

Donna Smirniotopoulos October 2, 2017 at 12:18 pm

The Charter Revision Commision was given from January 2016 until March 2016 to consider changes to the Charter, with the specific charge to increase the mayoral term from two to four years in time for the incumbent to benefit. The other changes appear to have been throwaways. At the conclusion of their work, the Charter Revision Commission recommended other changes that they were not charged with based on community input, Planning & Zoning revision among them. The Charter Revision Commission then strongly recommended to the Common Council that the commission be reconvened or a new commission appointed to study these issues that were of interest to the people of Norwalk, in response to which the democrats on the CC, according to John Igneri, said, “we don’t feel like it.”

Why is this okay?

Wallace October 2, 2017 at 5:09 pm

Our Board of Education seats are 4 years terms and rotate every 2 years between the At-Large and In-District seats.

The Common Council should follow the same route. I’m not sure why this wasn’t part of the charter review. Also, I don’t think people are necessarily opposed to a 4-year term for the Mayor but when the current Mayor would have been able to take advantage of it, I’d say no.

Donna Smirniotopoulos October 3, 2017 at 8:30 am

@Julie Corbett, how would a City Manger system be implemented? Through Charter Revision. How can the city iron out organizational issues and encumbrances tied to Planning and Zoning? Charter Revision. The commission impaneled in January of 2016 by the CC was not charged with much more than to look into extending the mayoral term to 4 years. Aside from adopting gender neutral language, no changes were made to the charter. All the other recommendations of the CRC were shot down by the voters.

But the CRC, based on public input they did not address in the winter of 2016, recommended that they be reempaneled to consider this work, or that a new commission be empaneled. However, the Common Council doesn’t want to do the work of 1) creating a new CRC and 2) considering their suggestions. So if you’d like to see movement here, talk to your CC Representatives, including at large reps. Two thirds of the Common Council’s support is needed. It would be nice to know BEFORE November 7 which CC members support empaneling a new Charter Revision Commission, as they were asked to do by Rilling and as the previous CRC suggested.

We know Lisa Brinton would like to revisit Charter Revision. None of the other candidates have indicated any willingness to do this, in spite of the recommendations from 2016. That’s a problem for me, as it ought to be for all voters. Also when it comes to keeping voters informed, the City does a poor job. Everything is available on their web site, they say. The City doesn’t want to pay, for example, for a pre-election mailing. Maybe if the City stepped up its parking enforcement, they’d find the resources to keep voters more engaged in what’s going on around them. In 2015, about 30% of registered voters turned out. The other 70% are content to let others make up their minds for them. With those kinds of numbers, you might imagine the Mayor and the CC and the City government would be eager to send out a general mailing. They are not.

Aside from these necessary actions, the CC and the Mayor should consider a different methodology that takes into account a generally apathetic electorate. In fact, this acknowledgement factored into their decision to float the four questions from the previous CRC last November, because more people show up for a General Election.

Given the way the City spends money, the reluctance to do voter outreach is baffling. Last November, if you wanted to see the proposed Charter Revision changes, you had to either go online or walk into the Registrar’s office, where you could see them posted, but you could not walk home with a copy for review.

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