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Citizens weigh in at Charter Revision Commission’s last public hearing

Democratic Town Committee Member Diane Keefe, upper right, addresses the Norwalk Charter Revision Commission in person at Wednesday’s public hearing in City Hall. In the audience among the many empty chairs is her husband, Republican Town Committee auxiliary member John Levin.

NORWALK, Conn. — The Norwalk Charter Revision is poised to deliver recommended changes to the Common Council and dissolve when the Council is satisfied.

To that end, the public was invited to one last hearing to weigh in. While few people attended, diversity of opinion nevertheless developed on the one substantial proposed change, a measure that failed on the ballot in 2016.

“Regarding the appointment of the Mayor to a four-year term, I recall a couple of years ago this was on the ballot,” Lisa Roger said Wednesday. “At the time, I voted no to that because I didn’t feel that the four-year term should take place immediately with the end of that of that election. So having the two years for this term, and then a four-year term for the next Mayor, whoever that may be, it is much more palatable to me. So, I support that.”

Campaign sign urges Norwalk voters to say no to charter revision in 2016.
A sign posted by Norwalk First during the 2016 election cycle. Norwalk First member Diane Cece spoke at Wednesday’s public hearing.

“If this was really just an intent of cleaning up the charter, and we were told that it wasn’t going to be a fundamental change of how the city operates, or a change in how the government operates, I think it’d be hard pressed for people not to agree that changing the Mayoral term here from two to four years wouldn’t be a pretty substantial change within the city and one so substantial that it was overwhelmingly rejected by the voters the last go around,” Diane Cece said. “… I’m still opposed.”

Only five citizens spoke at the public hearing, despite the importance of changing what is essentially the City’s constitution, its first major update in 100 years.

John Levin thanked the Commission for posting its entire draft revision with the meeting agenda but said it was long and “it’s just a Herculean task for any one individual to read such a lengthy document, let alone actually understand what it is supposed to be doing.”

While the drafted charter is 222 pages long, “it’s about the same length as most of the larger city charters, and it’s considerably shorter than the current charter,” said Attorney Steven Mednick, who is guiding the Commission and writing the legal language.

“I’m concerned about the lack of turnout tonight,” said Diane Keefe, suggesting that if the Commission had issued its summary before the hearing there might have been more interest.

Chairwoman Patsy Brescia said the intent had been to post the summary that day, but it hadn’t happened. It’s online now, and outlines recommended updates, including:

  • The elimination of the Treasurer and Board of Selectmen following this year’s election cycle.
  • “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.”
  • “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.”

“One of the most painstaking things that we’ve been working on is to bring all like information into a logical order,” Brescia said. “…No major changes to anything on the Board of Education. We did spend a lot of time on the on the budget process, the timing of it, and the articulation of how it all functions between the operating budget and the capital budget. And the timeline with a calendar of how that would all work in the future so that it becomes more transparent to everyone in the community, with the intent that they would be able to participate more actively in that process, because currently it was confusing.”

Keefe said it would be much better if the Mayor didn’t have sole authority to appoint Police Commissioners. “It needs not to be a rubber stamp, and it needs to be really engaged with the issues between the community and the police force.”

Roger agreed. If Police Commissioners “were elected versus appointed, I think that would be a good thing for the residents of Norwalk for representation,” she said.

She also “strongly encouraged” that Planning and Zoning Commissioners be elected because residents have no recourse if some are disrespectful and, “It’s completely at the whim of the Mayor.”

“They are recommended by the Mayor, but with the vote and approval of the Common Council currently,” Brescia replied.

Cece agreed with Roger, asking why none of the Boards and Commissions were being changed to elected positions, especially P&Z.  

“I thought that the intent really was now to just take a look at the whole charter and really do a lot to clean up some of the things in there that were archaic, that don’t relate to the year 2023, some language changes, some things that may be conflicting with statutes etc.,” Cece said. “And now it seems to be a much longer, lengthier, expensive, comprehensive type of review. And there are some things in there that, I think in the first go around, were rejected by the public.”

“The idea of modernizing and bringing the charter into the 2023 was one of the major requests that we were directed to deal with,” Brescia said. “But there were certainly other issues. The budgetary process was a concern to the city, and to make that clearer and more understandable for the citizens so they can participate in the process. And we’ve done that. The four-year term was another one that was brought up by many people in favor of it.”

Brescia, referring to a Feb. 15 meeting, said the Mayor’s term was discussed publicly when “we had guests from throughout the state of Connecticut, that had just recently or were going through charter revision currently.”

In February, Hamden Town Council member Sarah Gallagher said the issue centers on a Mayor’s effectiveness in enacting policies on behalf of voters, and whether a two-year term only allows 12 months to make an impact and try things out.

Norwalk Charter Revision Commission Chairwoman Patsy Brescia, September in City Hall.

On Wednesday, Brescia told Cece that the additional charter revision changes she seeks could be done in the near future as “we are recommending that there be another charter revision within two years, and that the charter actually require a charter revision every five years.”

Cece helped lead citizens to defeat most of the proposed charter revisions in 2016.

Cece had asked if the public could still weigh in.

Mednick said emails are welcome ahead of the Commissions last meeting, Wednesday, May 24.

The draft goes to the Council on June 2 and will be discussed with the Council publicly June 5. There will be further Council meetings, followed by a Council public hearing July 10. A vote is expected July 17.

“Again, there’s not a lot of substantial change,” Mednick said. “There are things that didn’t exist before that are going to be here that weren’t here, that really will give you tools for making changes in the future. But the substance, other than the four-year term and a few other ‘cleaning up things,’ are not really a structural changes of a broad magnitude. I’m not understating the four-year term, I recognize for some people, it’s a very big, a big deal. But that’s the biggest thing that we’ve done from a political perspective.”

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Comments

One response to “Citizens weigh in at Charter Revision Commission’s last public hearing”

  1. David Muccigrosso

    As long as we keep the same old failed model of single-member-districts, nothing’s going to change, regardless of how long the Mayor serves.

    It just gives the Washington Generals a shot at the Harlem Globetrotters every four years instead of every two.

    What we REALLY need is an expanded Common Council, elected in multi-member-districts by a proportional formula that respects ALL minor parties — NOT one that just hands the Republicans a few affirmative-action seats.

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