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Common Council At-Large: Barbara Smyth

Barbara Smyth. (Contributed)

At-Large, Democrat, incumbent

  • Describe how your occupation will assist you in serving Norwalk and give three brief but specific examples, including what committees on which you hope to serve.

I am a three term member of the Common Council and have served as Common Council President, Majority Leader, Chair of Community Services and am currently chair of the Public Works Committee.  I also sit on Land Use and Building Management and Economic and Community Development.  This experience helps me to have a deep understanding of issues and initiatives that come before the Common Council. In addition, my years as a Norwalk Public Schools English teacher have given me a unique perspective as well as the ability to negotiate challenging situations, particularly during the budget cycle.   

  • The Norwalk Charter is on the ballot for its first major revision in about 100 years. Assuming it passes, would you support forming a new Charter Revision Commission in the coming term to address unfinished business? What would be your top three priorities for change? Can you explain why? 

Yes, I support forming a new Charter Revision Commission if Charter Revision passes.  For this election year, the most important goal has been to create an updated, organized, accessible Charter for elected officials, City employees, and residents. After the election, I support establishing an Ad Hoc Committee of the Common Council to begin discussing business for the next Charter Revision Commission to address.  

I’d like to see both the Mayoral and Common Council terms changed from two year to four year terms. Most cities our size have a four year term and I believe this is conducive to more effective governance.  The cost of re-election every two years is wasteful and the energy involved in campaigning would be better used focusing on issues that affect our residents.  

We need to look at how we can improve the process for both the Operating and Capital Budgets.  I believe the Capital budget process is nebulous and leaves too much room for political negotiations.  As for the Operating Budget, I’d like to see the Common Council more able to express to the BET their views on school budgeting and city projects.  Perhaps this might be the Common Council President sitting on the BET.  Or perhaps it would be stated clearly in the Charter that Common Council members may speak during BET Public Hearings like any member of the public.  I have been disappointed on more than one occasion by the BET undercutting the Common Council’s decision on the CAP.  I do not; however, support changing the balance of power.  The BET is made up of appointed representatives of both political parties and from different parts of Norwalk who are tasked with carefully analyzing what the City can afford.  The Common Council, being elected, must answer to constituents. This system is good for the balance of power, but elected members of the Council need the opportunity to advocate for constituents’ priorities.   

Finally, I think it’s worth looking at adequate pay for Common Council members.  It is a demanding job requiring many hours of studying issues and meetings.  The small stipend currently in place makes it difficult for anyone who is not retired to serve.  If there were the freedom to perhaps work a part-time rather than full-time job while serving, or to hire child care for young ones at home, I believe we would attract candidates who are more representative of Norwalk’s diverse population.   

  •  Do you believe Norwalk should have a Civilian Police Review Board and why or why not?

The one change to the Charter that will be on the ballot this year is adding two members each to the Police Commission and Fire Commission.  I want to see those two members of the Police Commission be civilians.  Although there Is always room for improvement, we have an excellent police force, and in my opinion couldn’t ask for better leaders than Chief James Walsh and Deputy Chief Terrence Blake, as well as Joseph Dinho and Melissa Lepore.  The department has hired a social worker and requires de-escalation training of its officers.  While I generally support Civilian Police Review Boards, I would like to first give us the opportunity to appoint civilians to our Police Commission.  We have a responsive Police Department now, but we always have to think of the future and how this could potentially change.  If the addition of civilians to the current commission is inadequate, then I would support looking into a Civilian Review Board here in Norwalk.   

  • There is a constant public battle between city government, the school board, and concerned citizens. It seems that all are “dug in” with their positions, eager to “defeat” the other to win their own agenda. What would you specifically propose to bring all groups to the table to solve issues rather than fight about them? Policy changes and revisions can certainly be part of your answer. 

While yes, I have occasionally seen this type of behavior, I’m not sure I’d characterize the difficult issue of adequate education funding as anyone being dug in or eager to defeat others to win an agenda. In my six years serving on the Common Council, I generally see leaders from all sides coming together to make decisions in the best interest of our school children. 

As I mentioned earlier, I am a former NPS teacher with a unique perspective and I work diligently to advocate for our teachers and school children.  I have worked in our schools under previous administrations who left our buildings to rot, teacher supports neglected, and made our students the last priority.  It is important to recognize that in the past ten years, through the efforts of many, Norwalk has made historic investments in our public education system.  And it is never enough.  I propose we all stop the hostility and blaming and recognize that Mayor Rilling, Dr. Estrella, the Common Council, BOE, NFT, and the parents all want the same thing – the best education for our kids and to know they are learning and growing in a safe, respectful educational environment. We aren’t setting a very good example for the kids we care so much about.  

  • “Housing affordability” means different things to many people. The current standard is based on the median income of Fairfield County, which is $84,233 per household. A job that pays $30 per hour misses that standard by approximately $22,000. What is your definition of Housing affordability, and do you think the standard should be made more equitable?

It goes without saying that the standard for affordable housing needs to be more equitable.  We live in one of the most expensive counties in the country and need to do better at addressing the affordable housing crisis not just here in Norwalk, but very much in our neighboring towns as well.  True affordable housing means that our teachers, police officers, and firefighters would be able to buy homes in the City they serve.  In my opinion, it has been decades of federal economic policies that have vastly diminished the middle class and this current housing crisis is one of the results.  We need federal and state policies to address this crisis.  We need for banks to be less greedy and lend to middle and lower income families and for condominium development.  We need for developers to increase the 10% requirement for affordable housing in new development to at least 15%.  This is not an easy issue and one that is a crisis throughout the country, not just here in Norwalk.  It’s up to all of us to advocate at every level for real equity in housing. 

  • What would you propose to move Norwalk’s government agencies, businesses, organizations, and private citizens towards a zero-carbon footprint? 

With the climate crisis exponentially worse these past few years, there is no question we must make changes immediately.  There are trends here in Norwalk and throughout the country to move us toward a zero-carbon footprint before residents and businesses have the opportunity to digest the changes we all need to make to address this critical issue, so education will be key.  We need to boost public transportation, continue our efforts around walkability and bike-ability, and create a sound program to educate residents and businesses of the changes we need to make toward a zero carbon footprint.  Our Public Works Department is doing a great job of increasing food composting, recycling efforts, and working on a more robust education program for our residents. The City of Norwalk has added many charging stations for electric cars, but we need a comprehensive plan to add more infrastructure as the City and its residents purchase more and more electric vehicles and move toward eliminating other gas powered equipment as technology improves.

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