4-year Mayoral term proposal sparks fear for Charter Revision Commission

Shows text regarding 4-year Mayoral term.
Charter Revision Commissioner Tyler Fairbairn speaks Thursday during the Commission’s meeting on Zoom.

NORWALK, Conn. — Pushback on a four-year Mayoral term has prompted the Charter Revision Commission to recommend postponing the planned  transition from 2025 to 2027.

“My concern is that the people who are opposed to the four-year term will make it their mission to tank the entire thing, because they’re upset about the four-year term,” said Commissioner Tyler Fairbairn, who believes that a longer term will bring better governance.

Commissioner Rick McQuaid suggested that if the proposal to give the Mayor a longer term is pushed “out to 2027, I think it will allow people to take a look at all the work that we have done up to now and have another bite at the apple” when another Charter Commission takes on the topic. He added, “I’d hate to see this thing crash and burn, since we’ve been working so hard on it, just because of the four-year Mayor term.”

Attorney Steven Mednick, hired to work with the Commission on its massive Charter rewrite, stressed that any proposals for change need to be approved by the Common Council before making their way to voters in this fall’s election. It’s really the Council’s decision, he said.

Norwalk’s Charter, a local constitution that defines City government, hasn’t had a comprehensive revision since it was written in 1913. In November, Mednick, called the chore “a big, big deal,” commenting that “I’ve never tackled a complete rewrite,” despite having re-written the governance structures for many of the largest municipalities in the State of Connecticut, including Hartford, West Haven, Waterbury and New Britain.

The Commission must submit its draft to the Council by Friday, June 2, he said. A public Council discussion will follow June 5 and the process will work its way to a Council public hearing July 10. A vote is expected July 17.

After the Commission’s recent public hearing, recommendations included:

  • “Following the 2025 election the Mayor will have a four-year term and the term of office will commence on the first business day of January following the election. At the present time the term commences a week following the election. This will allow for better coordination and transition between outgoing and incoming administrations.”

Former Mayor Alex Knopp spoke to the Commission at its Thursday meeting, asking that “major substantive changes be listed as separate issues on the ballot for voters to approve or reject.”

Commission Chairwoman Patsy Brescia said that the Commission had always intended them to be on the ballot as separate questions.

“I am not in favor of the four-year term for a Mayor,” Knopp said. “I think the general format of your work has been presented as an attempt to update and reorganize without huge substantive changes a document that’s been dormant for decades. It seems to me that their term of the mayor is a very big substantive change.”

Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch had a “really terrific, reorganized charter back in 2012,” but his priority to change Board of Education members from being elected to being Mayoral appointments scuttled the entire effort even though the controversial proposal was on the ballot as a separate question, Mednick said.

“Because of the volume of opposition to that issue, it hurt just about everything else,” Mednick said. “I don’t think anything from that charter passed. Some things were very close, but because of the overwhelming opposition to the restructuring of the Board of Education, everything went down.”

Local politicians need to make a judgment call based on their understanding of local dynamics, he said.

“It seems like the main stumbling block that the public is having is with this four-year term,” McQuaid said.

Commissioner Carl Dickens, former Republican Town Committee Chairman, said he’d gotten five calls urging that the Mayoral term be on the ballot as a separate issue.

Fairbairn said activist Diane Cece had left a question in the Zoom session’s chat area, echoing some comments in social media.

“To answer Diane’s question, and I don’t speak for the entire Commission just me personally, I have not been lobbied by the current Mayor, by former Mayors, by potential Mayors …to do a four-year term,” he said.

Cece helped lead the successful fight against the 2016 Charter revision questions, which would have given the Mayor a four-year term.

Fairbairn, Community Development Administrator for Greenwich, continued, “When we originally came up with this, it was a kind of best practice thing. To me, it’s not a dramatic restructuring of Norwalk government. It’s not a consolidation of power, because there’s nothing being consolidated. It’s the same office, with the same powers, and everyone else has the same powers. So, you know, it’s not a power grab by any one person. I personally haven’t spoken to anyone who’s been lobbying for it.”

As a professional urban planner who has collaborated with four-year and two-year Mayors in municipal governments for 15 years, he said, “Having a four-year Mayoral term has a bunch of benefits. Having a two-year Council term with that, to me serves as a check.”

But given the ire some are feeling, he suggested it be taken out of the proposal for this year’s ballot.

Brescia said she’d gotten phone calls from people in support of a four-year Mayoral term.

“I’m looking at this from a business and governance position, rather than a political decision, in the importance of having our leadership be able to undertake projects that the city needs, within a four-year period of time, rather than two years. It’s just sort of impractical,” Brescia said.

Dickens said the phone calls he’d gotten were “totally and completely” political. It’s because the “minority party” doesn’t have any elected leadership and “they feel” that if it’s a four-year term, then it will be another four years before they’ll get another shot. “I got into one rather heated discussion with one gentleman saying, ‘That’s because you don’t believe you can win.’”

He agreed the Commission had deliberated the issue “at length” and the proposal is “designed more from a business standpoint, and an execution standpoint, to get things done.”

Commissioner Angela Wasunna echoed the sentiment that the question be separate from the overall Charter rewrite lest it “stain all the work that we’ve done,” but Commissioner Benita Watford asked if it could be separated in voters’ minds.

Fairbairn agreed with that concern but Dickens said it’s incumbent for revision supporters to talk to voters and make sure they understand it’s a separate issue.

“It’s incumbent upon us to do what we feel is important for the future of the city of Norwalk,” Brescia said.

McQuaid said that as Town Clerk, he hears from “both sides,” and looking back at 2016, “you can look at the numbers” and see that the question affects other things on the ballot.

The Commission voted 6-1 to make the recommendation for 2027 as the beginning of a four-year Mayoral term.

Zoom meeting screengrab, citizens working on governance structure.
Thursday’s Charter Revision Commission meeting on Zoom

Taxing Districts, Police Commission

Recommended updates include:

  • The elimination of the Treasurer and Board of Selectmen following this year’s election cycle.
  • “To accommodate the extended time between the election and commencement of the term there will be a transition office for the Mayor-elect and restrictions on the outgoing Mayor’s ability to take actions following the elections.”
  • Councilmatic districts will be redrawn.
  • “Standards will be established to deal with the temporary absence or disability of the Mayor, including the succession of the Council President as Acting Mayor.”
  • The Police and Fire Commissions will be expanded from three to five members.
  • “The CRC recommends that the City revisit Charter Revision in two years, with mandatory commissions addressing the Charter every five years thereafter.”

Cece also spoke at Thursday’s meeting. While she thinks it’s good to expand the Police Commission, she also thinks “we need to take a closer look at exactly what the role of the Commission is now,” given that “most of their agendas have to do with approving tuition reimbursement, commendations, requests for retirement, things like that and not necessarily substantive to the public interaction with the police department.” A citizens review board should be considered.

Mednick said that could be looked at in the next charter revision, and, “Again, we were not making substantive changes.”

The legal language establishing the Police Commission is taken from State Statute and it’s “pretty broad,” he added. “A Police Commission, if they want to be ambitious, can do an awful lot with that language. So while we didn’t change the body of the language, it seems to me that if you have an expanded police commission, they can take a look at those words and try to figure out how to exercise their authority within that context…. based on my experience around the state, I have seen those sections used very vigorously by activist Police Commissions.”

Brescia has been vigilant about the Charter rewrites defining taxing districts. On Thursday, she asked Mednick why he referred to the Fourth and Fifth Taxing Districts as “historic,” while observing that they’re service districts based on who gets garbage and sewer services.

“They don’t serve any governance function and do not impose taxes,” Mednick said, meaning the use of the word “taxing” is inaccurate.

Dickens suggested giving them another name, but Mednick said this would add a question to the ballot.

The passage is meant to explain taxing districts, Mednick said. “They’re called by the courts ‘quasi municipal corporations, bodies politic and political subdivisions of the state.’ So is the city of Norwalk, and it simply describes them as bona fide statutory entities, and they’re just not a figment of somebody’s imagination. No one created them overnight. The General Assembly created these entities.”


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2 responses to “4-year Mayoral term proposal sparks fear for Charter Revision Commission”

  1. David Muccigrosso

    We shouldn’t let the minority party’s voluminous complaints, nor the egregiousness of the proposed 4-year-term, distract us from the fact that the mayoral term is NOT the chief obstacle to reforming our politics.

    The people who hate this plan already hate the 2-year terms, and they hate them because it’s not THEIR party’s mayor.

    If we don’t fix Norwalk’s politics, then they’re going to be waiting a LONG time to be happy until the next major party shift, regardless of how long the mayor serves in the meantime.

  2. FRN

    The four year term for Mayor needs to crash and burn. The concept of having a four year term which will allow the Mayor to ” better show their accomplishments ” could just as well allow an incompetent
    Mayor the opportunity for 2 additional years to further mess up Norwalk. If the Mayor is doing a good job in 2 years he or she can just get re-elected for 2 more years, There will not be any disruption of ongoing projects. If the Mayor is not performing, he or she can be removed and the citizens can vote in a competent replacement and at the same time discontinue those projects that voters are not in favor of continuing.

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