Bruce Kimmel is a Board of Education member and a former Common Council member.
Mayor Rilling recently proposed a reorganization plan for Norwalk’s city government. The goal is to develop a more efficient governing structure. Having served on the Common Council for 14 years, I applaud the effort to overhaul the way our municipal government works. Circumstances change, and organizations need to change as well if they are to successfully navigate their way through an ever more complex world.
But I do have three concerns: I believe a city’s finance director should report directly to the Mayor. Also, from the Mayor’s remarks, it’s not clear what the role of the chief of staff would be; he’s characterized the position as something akin to a city manager, but city managers usually report to legislative bodies. Finally, I do not understand the proposed role of the corporation counsel, which technically is a part-time job. However, I am sure the Common Council will figure things out and do what’s best for the city.
Any attempt to reorganize government needs to be mindful of the distinction between deficiencies caused by the actual organizational structure and those caused by basic staffing problems. Plus, there are less obvious issues to consider, such as competence, organizational culture, or informal communication networks. Not exploring these types of issues, and then radically reorganizing operations, could lead to changes in who reports to whom, but have no appreciable impact on actual outcomes.
There has been a fair amount of discussion in recent years of the city’s land use policies. Knowledgeable residents have said our Planning and Zoning Commissions need to be combined. Others have noted a blurring of function and authority among the Council’s Planning Committee, the quasi-autonomous Redevelopment Agency, and the Planning Commission. It occasionally feels as if Zoning and parking drive development as much as actual planning. I hope the Council looks at the organization of our land use agencies when it examines the Mayor’s proposal.
As the Council considers the proposal, it might prove fruitful to move into uncharted territory and try to incorporate the Board of Education into the overall reorganization. We are one city, and our biggest department, by far, is the BOE. Moreover, over the years, it’s been noted that there may be a fair amount of savings for taxpayers if the “City” and the BOE could figure out ways to combine services.
The Council, working with the BOE, could examine the possibility of combining a variety of BOE and “City” functions, such as finance, technology, purchasing, and legal. It might also discuss the creation of a joint committee of BOE and Council members that would deal with issues that both bodies vote on, such as school construction and technology. The Council might even consider establishing its own Education Committee simply because so large a portion of every city budget is for our schools.
During the discussions of 2018-19 operating budget, the Mayor proposed the formation of a task force to deal with school funding. Having been boxed into a fiscal corner for many years by the state’s inequitable Education Cost Sharing Formula, it’s obvious our school system has accumulated a set of programmatic deficiencies that have to funded, one way or another.
School Superintendent Adamowski, his staff, and the BOE – along with school personnel and parent groups – have been in catch-up mode the last few years, devising and implementing a strategic plan that will enable our schools to meet current educational standards. Fortunately, the Mayor has been a consistent supporter of these initiatives. Unfortunately, the job is not done, and the costs are quite high. We need to take advantage of whatever savings can be generated by reorganizing the relationship between the “City” and the BOE.
Under state law, Boards of Education are independent agencies and answer to the state. Nonetheless, I hope the Council, working with the BOE, can devise some creative ways to integrate the BOE into the overall organizational structure of the “City” so that, together, we can tackle the growing number of educational challenges that the city and its schools face.
I do believe we can create a more efficient government. But our city’s future would still depend on the quality of our schools.