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Common Council At-Large: Nora Niedzielski-Eichner

At Large, Democrat, incumbent

Nora Niedzielski-Eichner. (Contributed)
  • 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’m an attorney, and have also worked for the New York State Senate and as a public policy advocate. I bring that experience to bear constantly on the Council. In particular, I really enjoyed editing our proposed new charter in great detail. As a member of the ordinance committee, I’ve used my skills to help draft clear, consistent ordinances, including drafting our new affordable housing account ordinance. And I’ve used my critical analysis skills on Finance and Public Works, asking thoughtful questions and pushing for strategic planning for long-term solutions. 

  • 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, we definitely need another Charter Revision Commission (and if this revision passes, it requires another commission in two years and again in five years). The proposed revision is terrific, but it is all clean up. We need a clean version before we can discuss changes to our government structure. So please vote YES! 

The current council members have already expressed an intent, if re-elected, to host several informational forums on big charter topics (budget process, mayoral powers, council powers, etc.) with guests from other CT cities so that our residents can start thinking about options for any changes we might want to make to how our government is structured.

I have many ideas, small and large, but priorities for me include:

  1. Reversing the operating budget process so that the elected officials on the Council have final say on the operating budget rather than the appointed officials on the Board of Estimate and Taxation. Our BET members do a terrific job, but as a matter of democratic principles, voters should be able to hold the budget decision makers directly accountable, contrary to the current process. 
  2. Relatedly, granting the Council authority to hire its own finance staff member. As an independent legislative body, we should be able to seek independent financial analysis of the city budget. 
  3. Extending the mayoral and council terms to four years. This is not for purposes of any kind of power grab, but simply because big, necessary projects take more than two years to complete—and losing six months out of every two year cycle to uncertainty and campaigning only makes the disruption worse. I support the approach initially proposed (and withdrawn for this election) by the Charter Commission, of making the change happen several years in the future so that there is no appearance that it is intended to benefit any particular candidate. The truth is that running a local government is complex, like any other large business, and no large business I know of threatens to change out their CEO every two years. Some measure of continuity and stability is very important to getting the job done. I would consider supporting a three-term limit as a corresponding check on the entrenchment of any one leader. 
  • Do you believe Norwalk should have a Civilian Police Review Board and why or why not?

Yes, we should, for the same reason that as a lawyer I am subject to a grievance committee and doctors are subject to a medical board. 99% of our police officers are deeply committed professionals doing their jobs well and ethically. But there should be an external mechanism to independently evaluate complaints about unprofessional/unethical behavior by police officers as there is for other professionals. Everyone benefits from strong professional discipline that enforces high standards and removes bad apples. 

  • 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.

I certainly don’t have any desire to defeat anyone on the school budget and I don’t think others do either—I think we all want the best we can do for our kids and our working families. The trick is to balance the burden on our taxpayers (around half of whom are struggling to afford all of their necessary expenses) with the needs of our schools. I think people are often under the mistaken perception that we lack creativity, or are unwilling to take the political risks of taxing the rich. The truth, however, is that state law constrains us to raise revenues almost entirely through property taxes that can only be set at one level for the city. So we cannot differentiate our property tax rates to tax high-value properties more, we cannot raise revenues through most other kinds of taxes, and we are typically not allowed to use fines and fees and other strategies that are employed in other states. Nor are we allowed to increase our property tax credits for seniors and low income households by more than the quite stingy level set by state law. Given these constraints, most of which are unlikely to change because they benefit the smaller towns that make up the majority of the state, I think we have tried to do what we can over the last two years to strike a balance between taxing our working families too much and funding our schools. I pushed for additional funding for our schools last year, and the council did increase the budget cap by $1 million. The BET overrode that increase, however. 

The truth is that a system like we have in Connecticut, where school districts are run by each municipality instead of being countywide, and taxes are set and collected by the municipality, but spending is set by the school board, is sort of the worst of all worlds in terms of efficiency and potential for conflict. Since I can’t wave my magic wand and undo 70+ years of Connecticut history, I focus on what we can do better locally.

We have already implemented a number of solutions, including a social gathering for the board and council members that I hosted and this year’s October budget meeting to lay the groundwork for this year’s budget process much earlier than in the past. I’ve also met individually with board members to explain my questions as they relate to the school budget. And our state delegation has been working hard, and successfully, to get more state dollars for Norwalk. If re-elected, I’m planning an educational session for parents on our budget process and the charter revision, if approved, will make it much easier for everyone to understand that process and be able to advocate effectively. I will continue to advocate for partnerships between the schools and the city wherever we can find cost savings or provide social services that allow our teachers to focus on teaching rather than meeting other student needs. And I will continue to celebrate the terrific work of our schools, which I think is sometimes lost in the rhetoric around our school budget. I hear so much praise from parents for the teachers and schools working with their children—and am so happy with my own child’s experience—and that is great news for our kids. We can strive to do better while celebrating our many bright spots.

  •  “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?

Typical definitions of affordable housing refer to 60% and 80% of that median number. The definition that we used for the affordable housing account ordinance is 60% of the statewide median income, in order to prioritize affordable housing projects that serve people having the hardest time finding affordable housing. The truth, however, is that most people under the median–and many folks at or above the median–are struggling as housing prices have skyrocketed. I am eagerly awaiting the results of our affordable housing study and our citywide housing assessment to see what ideas and opportunities these experts have identified. We need to find ways to build more housing that is affordable at multiple income levels, working within the constraints of our existing infrastructure and available capital funding. I look forward to the conversations as we decide which options to pursue.   

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

We’ve made some headway on this goal already, with the introduction of rooftop solar panels as schools and city buildings are renovated or rebuilt. The city unveiled its first 100% electric vehicle last week and myself and others have pushed hard for a comprehensive plan to convert the city’s entire standard-sized fleet to electric over the next few years. This will be a complex undertaking, but every relevant department has started researching what vehicles could meet their needs and what electric infrastructure upgrades would be needed. Our recently-built mixed income housing at Soundview Landing was just LEED certified. We’ve been building sidewalks and bike lanes to encourage carbon-free travel, and also channeling development to the areas around our train stations to reduce commuting by car. Although the Council has no role in the zoning regulations, I applaud the proposals to increase green building requirements in those regulations. And last, but certainly not least, we’ve invested a million dollars of our federal ARPA funds in planting trees in hot spots around the city, particularly in our urban core. 

We expect a draft citywide sustainability plan to be released later this fall. Once that plan is finalized, I will assess each Council agenda item for its compliance with that plan and support budget items, such as a citywide sustainability coordinator, necessary to implement the plan. We will continue to build out our solar panels–research is ongoing into solar canopies for parking lots at City Hall, school buildings, etc. in addition to rooftop solar. I support the draft leaf blower ordinance, which would eliminate one surprisingly potent source of carbon and particulate pollution (1 hour of leaf blowing is equivalent to 11 hours of car exhaust). I have been discussing with staff the possibility of expanding our composting program to include increased collection and local processing, which would have the added benefit of providing high-quality compost for our local parks, which are converting to full organic land management following our passage last year of a pesticide ban on city land. We are definitely on the right track, and much of what we need to do now is accelerate our work at city facilities and then communicate what we have learned to our residents along with funding opportunities, in order to help them make the same transitions.   

Comments

One response to “Common Council At-Large: Nora Niedzielski-Eichner”

  1. Tysen Canevari

    Nora, one can only hope you are defeated at this years election. You definitely live in the land of dreamers and misinformed in regards to your move towards reducing the carbon foot print. All it is should be characterized as smoke and mirrors. You mention that you passed a ban on pesticides on city land. Well Oak Hills is a city park. Sure looks nice and green to me and weed free. The city bought an electric vehicle. It is the equivalent to a go cart. The council received quotes of $75000 plus but opted for the cheap $35000 one which serves no practical purpose other than to be a political ploy for Harry 3 weeks before the election. You support organic land management but we allow apartments built of brick and mortar on every corner which burn fossil fuels to heat them. Please enlighten us and tell us how many have solar panels on them. I bet none of them. Then you have the audacity to support a leaf blower ban because you think you are saving the planet with the false narrative about being worse than a car. Well I own a landscape business and can tell you the exhaust from a car is 100 times worse than a little backpack. When you spoke at the council meeting you first said it was a noise issue, then a carbon issue, finally you said you were trying to put the manufactures in a spot where they develop technology quicker. Do you think multi million dollar companies care about Norwalk’s policies? It should be called a landscaper bill. We can not afford to buy all new equipment that is not practical and does not work. Be honest, this rule was adopted by your counter part Lisa Shanahan in Rowayton. Her neighbors dont want to hear the noise. Its amazing how you tabled this until after election. You should tell residents it will cost the Parks department over half a million dollars to up fit their garage just to be able to handle the charging system for electric equipment that isnt practical for them to do their job. Who will pay for that? Tax payers of course. Ask Ken Hughes (Parks director) if they can effectively do their job with electric equipment. He doesnt need a lawyer to tell him how to maintain Vets park, Taylor Farm, etc.. So while your dream of never never land sounds dandy please tell voters the truth. As a lawyer you took an oath to do that.

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