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Is Norwalk’s Mayor ‘weak’? These folks don’t think so.

Mayor Harry Rilling and former Mayor Richard Moccia yuck it up during a 2014 ribbon cutting for Cedar Street.

NORWALK, Conn. — If you’ve been following Norwalk politics for a while, you’ve probably heard the City government characterized as a Weak Mayor/Strong Council system.

That’s not true, according to consultants who have just completed a deep dive into how that government is functioning.

“Norwalk’s Common Council has some of the characteristics described in a ‘weak’ Mayor structure, but does not have the dominant executive authority that could circumvent the Mayor’s ability to effectively manage City operations. Therefore, a more accurate description of Norwalk’s governance structure is one of shared governance,” Evergreen Solutions wrote in its recently released Efficiency Study of the City of Norwalk.

 

A Norwalk mantra

Talk of a “weak Mayor” goes way back.

“As we know and as is frequently made clear, at City Hall we have a weak mayor/strong council form of governance that grants the mayor limited appointment power and only a degree of control over administrative agencies. It is the Common Council that is the law-writing body of the City of Norwalk,” citizen Rod Lopez-Fabrega wrote in April 2013, ahead of the election that brought Democratic former Norwalk Police Chief Harry Rilling into the Mayor’s Office after eight years of Republican Mayor Richard Moccia ruling the roost.

“In our strong Council-weak mayor system, it’s the Council that does the ‘heavy lifting,’” Peter Berman wrote in 2015.

Others have disagreed. “We have on paper what has been called a Weak Mayor/Strong Council form of government. It is really much more fluid than that in my experience,” former Mayor Alex Knopp said in 2015.

“Certainly, when I was in, I did not look at it as a Weak Mayor system,” former Mayor Bill Collins said at that time. “… Really, the Mayor is the only one who has the staff and the money and hopefully the vision to set a tone and a vision for the City. The Norwalk system generally allows him to do that.”

In 2017, then-Mayoral candidate Lisa Brinton framed her thoughts with the long-used description of Norwalk’s government.

“I believe that the City Manager would make Council people’s jobs a lot easier. Right now, you have, the power is a Weak Mayor/Strong Council. Well, I say it’s not such a Weak Mayor, it’s a completely political Mayor that controls appointments to what Commissions we have. And you have a Strong Council, but everybody’s got another job,” Brinton said.

 

Definition of ‘strong’

Evergreen Solutions quotes an article published by the National League of Cities that says the terms “strong” or “weak” don’t refer to “effectiveness,” but rather “distinguishes the level of political power and administrative authority assigned to the mayor in the municipal charter.”

“In practice, there is no sharp category that distinguishes between ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ mayors, but rather a continuum of authority and power along which cities are spread. However, the designation of ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ are useful in showing the variations in mayoral authority that exist,” the excerpt continues.

“Most ‘strong’ mayors are in the mayor-council form of government and are directly elected by citizens to that office. Most ‘weak’ mayors are mayors in a council-manager form and are elected from within the city council,” it states.

Evergreen cites these characteristics of a “strong” mayor:

  • “The mayor is the chief executive officer, centralizing executive power.
  • “The mayor directs the administrative structure, appointing and removing of department heads.
  • “While the council has legislative power, the mayor has veto power. The council does not oversee daily operations.”

 

While under a “weak” mayor:

  • “The council is powerful, with both legislative and executive authority.
  • “The mayor is not truly the chief executive, with limited power or no veto power.
  • “The council can prevent the mayor from effectively supervising city administration.
  • “There may be many administrative boards and commissions that operate independently from the city government.”

Efficiency Weak Mayor

Then-Mayoral candidate Harry Rilling, left, announces his campaign in 2013, with endorsement of former Mayor Bill Collins, right.

Mayoral responses

“I have known from the very beginning that we have a Mayor-Council form of government,” Rilling wrote Saturday. “I am not considered a weak Mayor. I have been elected by the people and I have the power of a veto if I needed it. Two elements a weak Mayor does not have.”

He explained, “In a weak Mayor government, the Council will generally hire a City Manager to run the day-to-day operations. That City Manager works at the pleasure, of and reports to, the council. You can imagine how problematic that can be. The Mayor is oftentimes the Council candidate receiving the most votes in the general election. Mostly ceremonial.”

“I do not believe I ever used the term ‘Weak Mayor,’” said Moccia, who served on the Common Council for years before getting elected to the paid post on the third floor.

Evergreen “stated the obvious” when it said Norwalk has a “shared governance,” he continued.

“It is also obvious that the Town Manager type of government leads to the ‘weak Mayor’ phrase,” Moccia said. “I do disagree with their conclusion about the council.  It is a generic statement and portrays it in the abstract.   For example, if the Mayor is of one party and the Council is another, then they could try to exercise dominance and curtail the Mayor’s ability to, as they put it, ‘effectively manage City operations.’”

If you compare Norwalk to other cities, then “Norwalk could be considered a weak Mayor system, again only by comparison,” Moccia said. “For instance, the Stamford Mayor does not attend or run the Board of Rep meetings, and on many appointments does not require their approval.  Several other cities have the same with regard to appointments.   All in the eyes of the beholder.”

Collins, who served as Mayor from 1977 to 1981 and from 1983 to 1987, said he’s “always been a bit puzzled” by the label “Weak Mayor/Strong Council.”

“My experience caused me to think the opposite,” Collins wrote. “Effectiveness in city government struck me as coming from the power to appoint and the ability to influence the appointees to follow the path of your influence. We certainly played that to the hilt in my time, I think to the benefit of the city. It is very difficult for the diverse council to organize itself sufficiently to compete with that centralized power. Yes, a council of the other political party can certainly grab control on a few issues, or obstruct in general, but in terms of accomplishment most of the strings of power run through the mayor.”

Knopp did not reply to an email asking for his opinion.

Former Norwalk Mayors as shown in portraits hanging in City Hall in 2020: from left, Jeremiah Donovan, 1917-21; Thomas Robbins, 1923-27; Francis Burnell, 1913-15.

Opinions from those who have served

“I believe the Mayor’s office to be structurally significant,” said Fred Wilms, a Republican who led the Board of Estimate and Taxation for the entire eight years Moccia was in office and who has also been a Council member.

He wrote:

  • “First of all the Council has no appropriation authority. Most legislatures do. The Fiscal Authority rather is the BET. The BET is in turn dominated by the Mayor.
  • “The Mayor exerts significant executive authority over the City departments. These include the Chief Finance Officer, Corporation Counsel, Police, Fire, Traffic, Chief of Staff plus others.
  • “The Council has virtually no independent staff and essentially no budget of its own.
  • “The Council in my opinion functions best in an oversight role – keeping the Mayor on track so to speak and blocking unwise initiatives.
  • “The Council’s power lays in the fact that the Mayor can sign virtually no document/agreement without their prior authorization.
  • “Its most significant role in my opinion is in crafting Ordinances.
  • “An unused power is the ability to pass Resolutions. While non-binding, these can call significant public attention to any civic topic, including ones the Mayor may not favor.
  • “In conclusion both the Mayor and Council possess significant powers. That is why a wise Mayor will work collaboratively with the Council, and constructively engage in the process of give and take.”

 

In a conversation, Wilms emphasized the Council’s power to pass resolutions and said it’s been underutilized recently. When the Mayor and the Council majority are from different parties, it’s especially useful, he said.

Bruce Kimmel has served on the Council for a total 14 years and was its President in 2015-16. He’s also been a Board of Education member. In 2013, the Democrat said Norwalk’s system gives the Council “considerable power,” but he didn’t “fully agree” with the Weak Mayor/Strong Council view.

In response to the efficiency study, Kimmel wrote, “I disagree with the framework used by Evergreen Solution to determine whether our mayors are ‘weak’ or ‘strong.’ I look at it this way: In Norwalk, the mayor presides at both the Council and BOE meetings and thus can have direct input on any and all issues that come before those bodies.”

Yes, it’s true that most Norwalk Mayors have not lead BoE meetings, as the Charter says they can, “but the power is there,” Kimmel continued. “Also, the mayor appoints and is a member of the Board of Estimate and Taxation, and thus is in a position to control most of the fiscal policies of the city.

“Added to this, of course, is the power to make appointments to all land use agencies, and to hire and fire department heads,” Kimmel said. “Our mayors have all been different; how they have chosen to use their Charter-granted powers is a matter worth discussing.”

 

Brinton criticizes study, cites personalities involved

“I agree with Evergreen’s assessment that Norwalk does NOT have a weak mayor,” wrote Brinton, an unaffiliated voter who has twice attempted to unseat Rilling. “I believe my previous statements over the years confirms that. However, I don’t think ‘shared governance,’ is accurate either. Why? Because Norwalk’s council and BOE are part time volunteers, while the mayor and superintendent are full time, paid positions.”

Brinton, who has never held elected office or been appointed to one of Norwalk’s Boards or Commissions, wrote:

“It’s great Evergreen examined organization structure, processes and technology when looking for efficiencies, but I didn’t see anything about the people side of the equation, looking at things like leadership, personality styles or culture.  Are folks like the mayor, superintendent, council president, and department chiefs coaches, visionaries, public servants, autocrats, collaborators, or bureaucrats? How do their styles impact the people around them? What impact do they personally have on the culture of our city and ultimately our operating efficiency and quality of life?

“IMHO every Norwalk mayor I’ve known alternated between being an ‘autocrat’ for things they wanted (ignoring others’ wishes) or ‘hands-off’ (providing no direction at all) on things they didn’t care about.  It explains priorities in development, city maintenance and staffing.”

11 comments

John Tobin April 12, 2022 at 6:18 am

Why are we wasting money on consultants to tell us what we already know? Currently we have a weak Council strong Mayor system. Other times it is the opposite. It is all about how the individuals use their elected positions. Bur spending money to include this dribble in a “study” is weak.

David Muccigrosso April 12, 2022 at 7:35 am

Cheers to Lisa for getting it right.

I wonder what Norwalk would look like if we had more parties, though.

Lisa Brinton April 12, 2022 at 9:11 am

Nancy, Thanks for pointing out that I’ve never been appointed to a city board or commission at this mayor’s pleasure. However, prior to my interest re: the city side of local government, I served 7 years on NPS’s District Data Management Team from 2009-2015, a state mandated education team directed at assessing school operations & closing the student achievement gap – a precursor to the School Governance Councils.

To date, I ‘think’ my 2019 run against this mayor was the highest opposition to Harry since he beat Moccia in 2013. I consider my lack of any appointment a badge of honor, further proving my point of mayoral autocracy.

Half jokingly, the only difference between Norwalk’s leadership & foreign autocrats is that I haven’t been jailed – although the city charter allows for that. Part 2. Mayor SS1-226. Powers and Duties of the Mayor. “He shall be the conservator of the peace of the city, and shall have authority with force and strong hand when necessary to suppress all tumults, riots, and unlawful assemblages, and to arrest with our warrant and order to be held in the city prison for a period not exceeding 24 hours, upon information any person who may be detected in revealing, quarreling, brawling, or otherwise behaving to the disturbance of the public peace of said city. He shall have the power to enter any house, building, place or enclosure wherein he may have reasonable cause to suspect dissolute or disorderly persons be assembled…”

To quote a recent headline by your competitor regarding Evergreen’s study: “Officials: City Charter ‘such a mess’ and needs overhaul.”

I will be submitting my name once again to be on the charter revision commission – to date my only ballot victory against this mayor in 2016 with our, “Do it right, or not at all” campaign.

Needless to say, I don’t expect him to take me up on my offer. 🤣

Audrey Cozzarin April 12, 2022 at 10:27 am

An interesting article. I wonder where “The People” factor into the equation. Is the weakness or strength of a mayor or the common council based on successes achieved at the government level, or based on what they have brought to the quality of life of the residents whom they represent? Isn’t that the bottom line?

And an observation: All white men in the Norwalk mayoral seat historically. Again, interesting.

Patrick Cooper April 12, 2022 at 11:34 am

It is simply an “incomplete” description of Norwalk’s municipal governance to ignore the HUGE influence national political party affiliation has on our city. In spite of the fact that the largest number of registered voters are “U”’s – single party rule by D’s has been the case for years.

A recent push for non-partisan governance has been made, the thesis is that there is no “republican or democrat” way to pave a street or run a school. But Norwalk voters – who can say? Did they reject that supposition, or did they just do what Norwalk does (and many other places in America have done) – and that’s tune out Municipal elections. Apathy – in the form of >30% turnout.

Power in the mayor’s office starts in the “DTC” district composition, where those given voting or nominating power are true “believers” – they are the “insiders” and loyalists”. They take orders – and they follow them, or they get removed. Leave your independent thought at the door. It’s now clearly the “HTC”. The District E primary this year shined a light on why this is so important to Harry’s power. If Tom Livingston was properly handed his walking papers in November – he wouldn’t be there to chair the “Land Use & Building Management Committee” and deliver an unwanted vanity project for Bob Duff. They do plan ahead.

So the push to limit who participates locally to just those who follow the team rules – this is the master plan. “U”’s don’t get to choose, so they lose. That’s called “minority rule” in most places. Harry can get just 9,000 votes of the 50,000+ registered (less than 20%) and have the gall to declare a “mandate”. Rick McQuaid – universally admired & respected – received 4500 more votes than Harry.

Forget that all his appointments are done with careful consideration. Not one based on merit, experience, competency, or contribution value – it sure seems it’s more about “optics” (how do they “appear” to be) and again – the unspoken loyalty that they will “go with the program”. And in Norwalk – that program is – what Hartford wants, Harry wants. Even big-name R’s sell out to this mayor. But hey – they get to be on a commission – and enjoy potluck’s every third Thursday.

Weak Mayor? Is that what you call an emperor with no clothes? No, the only thing weak about Harry is his character. Bullies are rarely strong. But you must give him this – he is the single most consequential political figure in Norwalk’s modern history. He has allowed Hartford to build Norwalk into West-Bridgeport – and it will continue unabated – all in the quest to retain democratic party power over the state. Mark my words – Harry will go down as the single worst thing to ever happen to the city.

Moderate D’s – you have failed us. Own it.

Piberman April 12, 2022 at 2:22 pm

If I had a “dream” for Norwalk we’d do the following:

A. Return to the days of “good schools” when our kids did meet CT Edu Dept graduation standards and City employees could live here again enjoying our “good schools”;

B. Create a dynamic Downtown with good jobs, office buildings and a place to visit, socialize and enjoy. We need good jobs to reduce our 10% Poverty Level.

C. Establish a 4 yr college to facilitate most of our kids getting a 4 yr college degree.
Currently most do not secure one.

D. Change the City Charter to allow a 4 yr cycle with term limits and require senior appointments be made using Professional Search.

E. Move City Hall Downtown to show we’re serious about a real Downtown.

F. Erect a suitable War Memorial to honor those who didn’t return.

Tysen Canevari April 13, 2022 at 8:16 pm

The Mayor of Norwalk is Very Strong. He is the great and powerful OZ behind the curtain. He has Laoise King at The Castle who watches over things for him and stays away from Lisa Brinton who might throw water on her and melt her. They have a bunch of soldiers that patrol the castle that the mayor has appointed that are high paid administrators from every where but Norwalk. The have the silly titles of chief of this, chief of that, chief of BS! If they dont conform they get called out publicly like his finance director. He also has a huge population of munchkins that no matter what vote for him because they feel they will get some sort of favor in the future. I think you need to build high rises to fit that category. At the end of the day it is sad to see and embarrassing to watch how mismanaged our town is. Of course he has to much power. He has enough so he can run the town from zoom meetings! How about the poor superindendent we have who makes $300000 a year and is terrible. I think she has finally found a job for all her friends her from her previous town. SHe gave Dr Moore Tracey School so she can get the golden handshake on the way out to increase her pension. Does the mayor ever have anything to say about all the cops getting in trouble lately? Of course not, it was no different when he was in charge there. To quote Harry The Wizard of Norwalk “One party Rule is good!” Does that sound like a fair and impartial mayor? Ok Lisa, throw the water now; One at Harry and one at his overpriced helper. I’m Melting!!!!!

Steve Mann April 15, 2022 at 8:16 am

Golly, the city sure spends a lot of money on consultants. Remember the good old days when voters judged governments performance? Why don’t they just print up Certificates or Appreciation for themselves and put the money toward city infrastructure?

Piberman April 15, 2022 at 3:18 pm

Members of “strong management” in the private and public worlds are oft competed away. Can anyone remember when senior City Hall and BOE officials secured better/more prestigious positions elsewhere in CT or the Northeast ? Or is Norwalk pretty much a final destination prior to retirement ?

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