Updating a 100-year-old document is tedious. Until last month, the Charter Revision Commission’s minutes and zoom videos reflected discussion mainly around updating archaic language and outdated processes or positions. It’s vital the charter is made easier to read, so the public understands the structure and rules under which Norwalk’s government currently operates. Many involved in the revision elements that failed in 2016 were led to believe that more “consequential” changes to Norwalk’s governance would be reviewed once the document was made more legible. That appears not to be the case. Once again, a four-year mayoral term is being proposed, without the same term changes to the Common Council and without securing more checks and balances. Why?
I’ve long argued (especially now the city’s population is doubling) that Norwalk needs a more professional, non-partisan city manager at the executive level to focus on daily operations versus partisan politics. My proposal is in direct contrast to the system today, where all City departments (formally) and the Common Council (informally) take their direction from one person – the Mayor. By contrast, a city manager would be professionally trained in city management, replace the executive functions of the Mayor and report to the Council – not the other way around. I recognize my “city manager” vision runs counter to the culture of Norwalk’s political class, but the role sort of exists today. That person is Laoise King; however, to my knowledge, she is not a qualified city manager, not accountable to the Council and only reports to the Mayor.
It’s no secret that I’m not fond of this Mayor, but Norwalk’s Mayor has always had too much power, both real and implied – regardless of the person or party occupying it. As such, the office has been routinely dominated by an unelected ‘inner circle’ yielding far too much power and influence, leaving the Common Council with little to no recourse to counterbalance.
Norwalk operates the exact opposite of a “strong council, weak mayoral” system. Concentrated executive power, impacts every aspect of our City’s operations, including the appointment of nearly 50 Boards and Commissions and the City’s legal counsel (judicial power.) This contributes to a lack of transparency and accountability on just about everything that happens in Norwalk – the latest being the complete overhaul of our city zoning by an unelected planning & zoning commission. There is virtually no check and balance of the Mayor’s office. This is a problem.
Executive power across the country and around the world, needs more oversight. We see it in the news every day. “All politics is local”, but ironically, the least reported on and exposed is local government. Our American “first past the post” and “winner take all” election system versus proportional representation stifles healthy policy debate and leaves 45% of the electorate disenfranchised. Single party rule, regardless of party has become the norm, creating a toxic environment of extreme left and right politics. Seriously, what does any of that have to do with which roads get paved or which group gets to use the sports fields? Absolutely nothing; but under single party rule and the shroud of secrecy… it’s everything. That’s why I argue any updates to our charter, should encourage, preserve and promote more democracy and accountability, not consolidate it.
Interesting to note, Norwalk is one of the few municipalities in Connecticut that doesn’t guarantee diverse party membership for At-Large Common Council members during elections. State law exempts members elected based on geographic districts, but towns are free to enact minority party representation. They do it through charter revision. Why isn’t the Commission considering that?
Ten years of consolidated executive power has resulted in a land use strategy dominated by crony developers and recently, a $167M drop in our grand list’s value during the biggest real estate boom in Connecticut in decades. Struggling to fund our schools has become an understatement and what’s worse, we can’t get a straight answer from anyone on either the revenue or expense side of the city budget. Sadly, today’s culture wars that dominate media coverage of American politics has resulted in us taking our eye off the ball over basic operations – like paving roads and sidewalks, collecting garbage, enforcing ordinances, managing blight, taking care of our parks and funding our schools.
I look forward to reading the Commissions rewrite; hopefully it’ll make the document easier to understand. From my perspective, we need better checks and balances on the Mayor’s Office along with more powers for the Common Council and some guaranteed “opposition party” representation. Council members should be able to represent their constituents without repercussions.
That’s why there should be no consideration – none – of a four-year term for mayor until residents can read and understand the charter in terms of “how things are”. Once completed, THEN we can shift discussions towards “how to make things better.”
Do it right or not at all.