Common Council, District B: Donna Smirniotopoulos

Donna Smirniotopolous. (Contributed)

District B, Republican/Independent

  • 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 have dedicated my entire adult life to community service.  I can think of no better preparation for public service than a three decade history as an unpaid community advocate with a track-record of success. 

Example 1: In 2017, I learned that a private prison contractor, Firetree, was looking to open up shop in a residential neighborhood near me.  When I heard an expectant mother with two kids at home plead with the ZBA to deny the Firetree application, I knew I had the skills, the dedication and the passion to help this neighborhood.  My advocacy for the people of Quintard Avenue included organizing neighbors, retaining counsel and soliciting donations for the retainer, speaking at ZBA hearings, coaching neighbors on how best to fight this application, furnishing the ZBA with the FBP Statement of Work for the Firetree contract (which the Chair admitted they’d been seeking from the Norwalk Law Department), writing OpEds, including for Nancy on Norwalk, and spray painting signs in my driveway.  Thanks to a coalition of concerned neighbors, most under my leadership, the ZBA denied both Firetree applications.  

Example 2: Co-Chair of Staples Task Force, an advocacy group composed of Westport parents committed to advancing an ambitious building project through the complicated land use and financing approval process.  My work required attendance at School Building Committee meetings, extensive research in zoning matters, organizing parents, coaching public speakers, meeting with neighbors opposed to the project, writing editorials and creating other materials to enable constituent members to publicly support this project.  I met with architects, the Superintendent of Schools, the First Selectwoman, the traffic consultant and other key players in order to facilitate a complicated approval process, including zoning variances for height and coverage and substantial local funding.  

Example 3: Chair and volunteer, Staples Tuition Grants (2004-2007.  When I learned about Westport’s oldest needs-based scholarship program, now in its 80th year, I wondered why their work was not better known in the community and volunteered to serve at the conclusion of my work on the Staples PTA executive committee.  We were a group of 10 volunteers awarding scholarships to Staples graduates for up to four years of post-graduation education, but there were organizational and functional problems holding STG back from doing more for students in need of financial aid.  During my tenure, I encouraged the committee to broaden their outreach by soliciting new donations from the general public.  When I was elected chair in my third year, I recruited volunteers who could help create a database (previously the entire history of the organization was on paper in a few boxes); helped draft a new finance policy, secured the largest single gift in the organization’s history (at that time), and doubled student aid.  A key component of successful non-profit work is board development.  To that end, a volunteer I recruited recently donated $400,000 to Staples Tuition Grants.  

  • 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? 

The defeat of the last CRC ballot measure in 2016 should have been followed by the immediate formation of a new Charter Revision Commission.  The CRC was not reconvened in 2017 because the majority party Common Council president said at the time he “didn’t have the votes” to get a new CRC off the ground.  So we’ve known for a very long time that the work of revising the charter is far from complete.  

My top three priorities for change, in no order, would be:

1. Minority party representation:  According to a 1995 Legislative research document authored by Mary Janicki, “Since 1877, Connecticut law has included the concept that requires minority political party representation on certain governmental bodies.”  Although the concept of minority party representation is not new to the state, each municipality must embed this language in the Charter in order to require that minority and third parties are represented.  Why is minority party representation important?  Look at what single party rule for the past six years has done to Norwalk.  We’ve added thousands of residential units, but we still can’t keep up with the bills, especially the cost to educate our children.  I would go further and require mandatory third party representation for local elected bodies in furtherance of the goal of establishing appropriate checks and balances to our local legislative process.  Forty percent of the electorate are either Unaffiliated or Independent.  That’s 20,000 voters left out of the process.

2. Elected Land Use bodies and BET:  According to Norwalk’s Deputy Corporation Counsel, there currently is no process for filling vacancies on the many, many, many City boards and commissions.  At a minimum, voters should elect our Planning & Zoning Commissioners and members of the Board of Estimate and Taxation.  Notwithstanding the fact that there are minority party requirements for filling vacancies now, in practice these positions are awarded based on fealty to the mayor with an expectation of loyalty at the decision-making level.  This is not a Republican or Democrat problem.  Loyalty knows no party in Norwalk, and positions of importance are awarded on the basis of the “do we know you? Do we like you?” formula.  The work of these bodies is far too important to leave their composition to the whims of political patronage.

3. Establish the position of City Manager who would report to the Common Council.  We currently have a Chief of Staff who works at the pleasure of the mayor.  That’s a political position.  We are already a City dominated by political favoritism and cronyism.  A City Manager will not need political courage to do what’s right for Norwalk.  We are currently headed for a fiscal cliff because our Common Council rubber stamps every spending proposal that comes their way.  A City Manager will bring financial accountability back to City Hall.  

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

I believe in accountability for all public bodies, from the Norwalk Police Department to the Norwalk Federation of Teachers to the Norwalk Housing Authority, the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency, the Norwalk Parking Authority and the WPCA.  We cannot afford to pay salaries and pensions (even those funded at the federal level) to those who are accountable to no one.  But I do not support yet another board of mayoral appointees chosen to do his bidding.  Is the NPD perfect?  No.  But we already have the capacity to review and approve police contracts.  Let’s bring accountability and transparency to that process before we start singling out police officers for public rebuke.  

  • 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 do not see groups as “dug in” so much as frustrated by a process that excludes them.  I would propose that anyone engaged in public discourse be given a platform for discussion.  The only place such a platform exists in Norwalk today is on the Facebook Page “Save Norwalk’s Neighborhoods.”  Nancy on Norwalk once provided such a platform but no longer does so.  There is no policy cure for entrenched ideological thinking.  The media has a role to play here, but they are lamentably reluctant to embrace that role as a result of failing to provide truly objective coverage and by applying draconian censorship rules that stifle discourse.  We are polarized locally and nationally, and our media sources appear to benefit and prosper from drama and contentiousness.  Those who are looking to turn the temperature down should ask local papers to set the tone for fostering polite discourse not via censorship but through objective reporting, avoiding the salacious, shunning the rumor mills and soliciting open forums for robust conversation.  There’s nothing wrong with vigorous disagreement, and there’s nothing “kind” about facilitating the political agenda of the party in power.  

  •   “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?

The problem is that the government is involved in setting the standard for affordability in the first place.  The government then filters money designated for housing through their coffers before releasing those funds–or what’s left of them–to the people who need it.  Imagine if we had an extra $36 million to facilitate housing independence in Norwalk because we no longer had to spend that money on the Norwalk Housing Authority.  There are a lot of six-figure salaries there, but it’s not clear all that money spent on the NHA is truly benefitting those who cannot find affordable housing in Norwalk.  They are largely funded by HUD and the state.  But it’s still our money regardless if the source is federal, state or local. 

People I’ve spoken to who currently live in Section 8 or other “designated” affordable housing are not satisfied with the help they receive from either the NHA or Open Doors, which has a program to help folks come up with the cash needed to secure a rental unit (first and last month’s rent plus security deposit).  Many current and former residents noted that the NHA is always looking for ways to deny them housing or displace them, as was the case with Washington Village and again now with Meadow Gardens.  So the problem isn’t that the income “standard” is too low or too high.  It’s that we’ve been complacent in allowing an industry to grow around the myth of government sponsored, state designated, deed-restricted “affordable housing.”  We’ve added lots of costly government jobs in furtherance of addressing affordability.  We’ve made rich developers richer.  We’ve even rewarded them with tax breaks.  But we haven’t solved the problem.  Maybe it’s time to blow the lid off the entire government-private sector charade that picks the pockets of taxpayers, keeps the public sector growing, rewards developers who are invariably big political donors, and still doesn’t serve the intended target–those who cannot afford to rent or own homes.  Maybe we need to come clean on why “affordable” housing costs two to three times as much to build as market rate.  Maybe we need to admit that 8-30g–the legislation that requires that 10% of  municipal housing stock meet the state definition of affordable–is a failed policy whose impact is 180 degrees opposite of what was intended.  Every time a Norwalk developer proposes 20 or more units, he must include 10% “affordable” units.  The net impact of mandated “affordable” units is to drive up market rate rents.  It’s a vicious cycle, and we need more people with the political courage to pull back the curtain and see the Housing Industrial Complex for what it is.   

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

With so many municipal employees working from home, I would suggest we rethink public buildings which are costly to heat and cool.  Some buildings could be reconfigured as apartments and become tax revenue generating.  Other under utilized public buildings, like City Hall, could be reimagined as public parks, adding greenspace.  At the same time, we should be skeptical of carbon offsets, few of which actually reduce carbon emissions, many of which are scams.  For example, if a developer promises not to remove trees he never intended to remove in the first place, that’s not a true offset.  Also there is more to climate resilience than achieving carbon neutrality.  Turning the lights off at City Hall, giving up our cars in favor of the bus or train, and trading in our gas mowers for electric is not going to move the Global climate needle 1.5 degrees cooler.  Norwalk could play a positive role if we reached out to industry leaders researching reclaiming carbon monoxide and converting it into fuel.  However, given the drive to surrender our industrial zones to residential development, it seems our local government is working at cross purposes, banning plastic bags and gas leaf blowers while supporting aggressive and environmentally unsound multi-story residential development on every last scrap of land by promoting upzoning and supporting text amendments to the code that would allow more impermeable surfaces, more flooding and more runoff.  


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