Updated, 6:33 a.m.: Copy edits, information added; 6:10 a.m.: Copy edits
NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk’s governmental administrative structure has been realigned.
Two new department heads and a Chief of Staff position will be created, and some reporting lines will change as a result of Common Council’s 10-3 vote in favor of Mayor Harry Rilling’s reorganization of Norwalk government.
Implementation will take several months, according to Director of Personnel and Labor Relations Ray Burney. It will likely inspire tweaks, Finance Committee Chairman Greg Burnett (D-At Large) said. But former Assistant to the Mayor Laoise King is now free to openly call herself “Chief of Staff.”
The Council passed every change requested by Rilling in June, except for the creation of a Community Services division.
“The best way to explain it is the Council has approved a realignment of city staff to tighten the mayor’s span of control,” King said afterwards. “So that rather than having 19 departments reporting to him, he’ll have closer to nine.”
Passage of the reorganization was anti-climatic. Only one opponent, former Council member Rich Bonenfant, voiced the same concerns he’s been expressing for months during public comment. Two commenters spoke in favor, including Jim Clark who assailed what he described as “Do it right or not at all” sentiments expressed by some critics of the reorg. Four Council members repeated sentiments they’ve already stated, for and against.
The reorganization will result in enhanced interdepartmental communication and allow for improved responsiveness and greater accountability, Council member Nick Sacchinelli (D-At Large) said.
The vote created a Chief of Economic and Community Development, who will oversee code enforcement, Planning and Zoning, business development and tourism, and transportation, mobility and parking.
This in effect creates a “mini-neighborhood improvement department,” in addition to the new department of transportation, mobility and parking, King said.
Also created was a Chief of Operations and Public Works, who will oversee the Director of Recreation and Parks, the Buildings and Facilities Coordinator and the Administrative Services Manager.
Superintendent of Parks Ken Hughes will be promoted to Superintendent of Public Property and Parks, and he will oversee all public property, removing some responsibilities from the Department of Public Works, King said. Hughes will work under the Director of Recreation and Parks, who will also oversee a Superintendent of Recreation.
The proposal for a Chief of Community Services position, which Council did not pass, was criticized by the Fair Housing Advisory Commission and the Norwalk Branch NAACP, because it sought to combine the Fair Rent and Fair Housing departments. Opponents said the change would be in violation of the 1986 federal consent decree that created Norwalk’s Fair Housing Office.
“The only thing that’s holding that up is that we are working with the NAACP to talk about the fair housing issues, to potentially amend the consent decree,” King said. “Which we think that we can do cooperatively and have no problems that we just need the time to set aside to negotiate that so that piece will go forward once we’ve worked out an agreement with the NAACP.”
Documents dated Aug. 9 show $277,409 in additional costs arising from the reorg, mostly from new positions created plus a $36,000 raise for King. The costs are offset by $96,260 in savings, for a net cost of $181,140. City officials previously said that they believe additional savings will be found after the reorg’s implementation.
“The first thing we’re gonna do is try to fill the senior positions,” Burney said. “It’s going to take a few months, if we can do by Jan. 1st, it’ll be great, right? And then as we do this in concert with Laoise, and the Mayor and the top group of employees, now we’re going to establish goals.”
The public will be able to track progress on the Mayor’s dashboard, comparing goals and objectives to outcomes, he said.
“One of the nice things about having the code enforcement planning and zoning, transportation, traffic and parking and business development and tourism all under one group is these are also many of the folks that do permitting,” King said. “We are confident that having a senior manager over all those people will be able to streamline our permitting processes, make it easier for residents. We are also working with our IT department to ensure that the systems that are being used by the multiple departments that issue permits talk to each other.”
Speaking for and against
“The Bike/Walk Commission supports the creation of an Economic and Community Development Department and the position of Transportation Planner,” Bike/Walk Commission Chairwoman Nancy Rosett said to the Council. She mentioned the “Complete Streets” initiative tasked to the Commission when it was formed.
“Having a single department responsible for transportation and mobility as well as business development and tourism will bring Complete Streets improvements to Norwalk more efficiently and economically,” she said. “The Transportation Planner would also plan and develop projects with an emphasis on Complete Streets and work toward long-term transportation solutions and improvements.”
Bonenfant echoed prior criticisms that the the reorganization was simply a vehicle to give King a pay raise. “I’ve already mentioned this: what a great country it is that you come to work and work on your own job title, your own salary and your own powers,” he said.
“‘Do it right or not at all,’” Clark said, repeating a local catch phrase.
“That’s a phrase I’ve been hearing a lot lately and when it comes to individual pursuits, I completely agree,” Clark said. “It’s the ‘do it right or not at all’ attitude that spurs individuals to excellence. But when it comes to city government or indeed any institution that relies on consensus building to move forward, the ‘do it right’ does not work.”
The reorganization will allow government to serve citizens better, Clark said. He believes there will be benefits from moving the neighborhood improvement coordinator position from the Redevelopment Agency to the new Economic and Community Development department, and from adding a part-time blight enforcement officer.
“This will make our cleanup initiatives and our neighborhood blight enforcement more effective,” Clark said.
Council moves it forward
“This went through four committees, it was vetted a great deal over a course of many months. We have come to a consensus,” Sacchinelli said, introducing the item.
Sacchinelli said he is excited about steps to come, the opportunity to align Information Technology (IT) infrastructure and add the dashboard Rilling has mentioned.
“It’s funny sometimes that when you’re evaluating something some people paint people that may not want to go along with things or have objections about the way things are done, as … not wanting to move forward, not wanting change,” Doug Hempstead (R-District D) said.
He’s voted for change in his long career as a Council member, he said. But “change is more than boxes and lines on a flow chart … Change is about changing the way you do things and your delivering of services.” There’s no data on how this reorganization will benefit Norwalk, he said.
“If you’re going to do a reorganization, you owe it to the citizens and the employees of government, to follow a process rather than winging it. I really feel right now we have done more of a winging, that, too many ‘report tos,’ need to reduce that, but to really make the best decisions you have to keep your employees involved and engaged and the public engaged, get more value out of the changes we are doing,” Hempstead said.
The Finance Committee reviewed the proposals, Finance Committee Chairman Greg Burnett (D-At Large) said.
“The reorganization/realignment provides an infrastructure for more effective efficient and streamlined approach towards managing the operations and business of our City,” he said.
Accountability rests with the Council, and, “We must stay engaged with the Mayor and the HR director as we progress through the various phases of the reorganization and be prepared to make the necessary changes,” he said. “It does not have all the answers but this is just the beginning.”
“It would be very easy to sit on hands and allow the status quo to remain,” and “a great deal of work” went into the reorg, but “my concern is it’s all being implemented simultaneously,” Michael Corsello (D-At Large) said.
After that brief conversation, the Council voted.
Ernie Dumas (D-District B), Hempstead and Corsello voted no. Travis Simms (D-District B) and Barbara Smyth (D-At Large) were absent, making the vote 11-2-0.
Clark explains remark
Clark said he’s heard “Do it right or not at all” from people “who consider themselves activists.”
“They say that, I think with good intentions to say, ‘let’s do this thing the right way.’ And I think that as much as I ascribe to that, I am a musician, I practice hours and hours to get it right, because I have to get it right or I won’t get hired again,” he said. “So, I totally get that and agree with that, in certain contexts, mostly around excellence, athletes, musicians, but anyone that’s had any extensive experience in city government or in institutions where consensus is what is needed to progress. If that’s your touchstone, your primary touchstone, you’re going to do nothing while you’re trying to figure out what’s the perfect thing to do.”
He continued, “I think complaining is not activism to me. If you’re just complaining about stuff, how is that activism?… I really like to see people engaged. I always want to try to be engaged in a positive way. So, if I care enough about something I want to have put enough thought in it so that I can actually have a conversation about it, that I’m a part of that process of hopefully making things change for the better.”
The new Chief of Staff offers thoughts
King will get a $36,000 a year raise as she becomes Chief of Staff instead of Assistant to the Mayor.
When will that happen?
“I don’t know,” she said. “Right now?”
Rilling and Council members were behind closed doors as King and Burney spoke to NancyOnNorwalk, engaged in an executive session about an ongoing lawsuit.
King said she’s already been referring to herself as Chief of Staff because when she calls the governor’s office to represent Rilling and the City, for instance, saying “mayor’s assistant” gives people the impression that she’s an executive secretary and doesn’t convey gravitas.
“Chief of Staff” reflects the work King has been doing, Burney said.
Rilling said recently that he works in tandem with King, that they are really a team.
So does the reorganization mean that desks will be moved around City Hall?
“Not right away,” King said. “We think that we can do this without having to move too many folks around. The exception may be moving the two folks that are in Redevelopment out so they’re closer proximity to the code enforcement people.”