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League of Women Voters of Norwalk Voter Guide: council at-large Part 5

NORWALK, Conn. — The League of Women Voters of Norwalk, a non-partisan organization dedicated to voter education, put together an election guide that includes a Q&A section with each candidate. While NancyOnNorwalk sent questions to all the Common Council and Board of Education candidates, the Republican council candidates will, we are told, not participate. The Republican Town Committee apparently did choose to answer questions posed by the LWV, so, in the interest of providing some insight into the candidates, we are publishing all the LWV council Q&A’s, Republican and Democrat, in addition to the responses to the Q&A’s we sent out (in separate posts).

Here are the LWV responses from two of the 10 at-large candidates, in alphabetical order:

Candidate: Warren Peña (D)

LWV: On a personal and professional level, what life experiences and qualifications have equipped you to become an effective Common Council member?

WP: On a personal level, I feel my life experiences help me be an effective council member. I understand what it is to be poor, educate myself and grow personally, professionally and financially.

Living in many different neighborhoods throughout Norwalk gives me insight to different socioeconomic situations, Norwalk’s diverse community and how much potential Norwalk has.

On a professional level, I have worked in construction, studied business, pre-law, financial planning and have been an independent contractor in the financial services industry for 10 years essentially running a small business. I feel that my education and work experience gives me the proper tools to add value in this role. (NCC – associate’s in business; Northeastern University – bachelor’s in criminal justice, concentration in legal studies, Fairfield University – certificate in financial planning.

From a non-profit perspective, I am president and chairman of the South Norwalk Community Center, member of ALPFA – Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting, been involved with the PRBA – Puerto Rican Bar Association; NHMA – National Hispanic Medical Association; WVF – The Women’s Venture Fund; DMA – Dominican Medical Association; Corinthial IPA – Medical Association; AHHE – Association of Hispanic Healthcare Executives; St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital; PRLDEF – Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, to name a few.

LWV: How familiar are you with Norwalk’s city charter? Are there ways in which you feel the Common Council could more effectively serve the people of Norwalk if changes were made? Please explain any of your recommended changes?

WP: Two years is too little of a term limit. Also, when you are new, you spend the first year learning then you have to run for re-election the following year. I propose four years for both mayor and council. I also believe the police and fire commissions need to be expanded to either five or seven members.

The legislative body should be taken more seriously. In other words, the council should be paid a fair salary to carry out its role properly. The charter is set up so that only those with financial means can serve in today’s environment. Giving the council fair pay would allow recruitment of a more diverse base that would help represent all segments of our population. Currently, many communities are underrepresented because they cannot take a salary of $50 per month for what becomes a second full-time job. $50 per month in 1913 has the same buying power of roughly $1,200 per month in 2013. I propose $1,200 of a monthly salary (councilmen would still be underpaid).

Keep a charter revision committee open year round to make recommendations to the mayor and council for bringing up our charter to the 21st century. Essentially, an upgrade of our charter.

LWV: Norwalk is a diverse community, but members of the city’s boards and commissions do not represent our diversity. On some commissions and boards, many persons continue to be reappointed, resulting in many qualified individuals never getting a chance to serve. If you are elected, how will you address this issue?

WP: This is very hard to change unless you have a mayor who is willing to do this and you are in the majority party of the council. Assuming you have a working relationship with the mayor and have the votes to really create change in this arena, this is a wonderful opportunity. It starts by taking a look at the city’s demographics and then recruiting to make sure that each community is represented. Our city’s boards and commissions need to be a direct reflection of our community.

There should also be term limits so that the same folks are not reappointed over and over. This is community building.

LWV: Members of the community want to voice their opinions. Currently, the only opportunity for residents to speak publicly is at Common Council meetings, but only if the item they wish to speak about is on the agenda. Do you believe the current public comment procedure needs change or is it satisfactory as is? For example, do you believe that public participation at Common Council committee meetings is desirable? If elected, what will you do to encourage members of the public to share their views before the Common Council?

WP: I believe it’s satisfactory as is. In my opinion, it does not make sense to have the public come out and speak on topics that are not pertinent to the agenda or meeting that evening. It is not because I don’t think the public should have the opportunity, I feel that their concern or support for something would get lost due to the business being discussed that evening. Therefore, the reason for coming to the council meeting to voice their opinion will more than likely, not get the proper attention it deserves.

I don’t think it is desirable because it is promoted in one way, which is – come and participate, but then you are scrutinized for doing so. Under my experience, if you say something that the current mayor is in disagreement with, he personally responds and attacks, while stating no personal attacks to the public before allowing them to speak. I understand why folks do not want to come, as public speaking is frightening. This should be changed so that both the mayor and the council cannot combat members of the public and their right to voice their opinion is respected.

I think it starts with the communication from the top. City Hall and the mayor’s office should utilize all forms of communication including but not limited to, social media to encourage public participation.

LWV: In looking at neighboring communities (e.g., Stamford) what improvements, if any, do you think should be made in the way Norwalk deals with property development (including stalled projects), land use and open space? How would you propose the Common Council go about making those improvements (if any)?

WP: It’s about building relationships with banks, developers, members of the community. We have to change the way we currently do business because it is not working. Better communication, open dialogue and a proactive approach to get these stalled projects going. We always want to maintain a certain amount of open space so I would lean on the experts to help. The mayor and leadership of the council need to be empowered when it comes to key decisions that will help the tax base, attract more young professionals and families to raise their children in a thriving community.

LWV: What would you do to ensure a reasonable balance between the Board of Education’s need to maintain high academic standards through quality programs and the need to establish spending levels that dovetail with the overall financial condition of Norwalk?

It is about balance. We should be working with all stakeholders, create a leadership committee that consists of leaders from the council, BOE, superintendent, mayor, BET and perhaps leaders of the PTO. Getting together to tackle ways of operating efficiently and effectively to change the perception of our city for the better. There are many things to take into consideration like the mill rate, our grand list, ECS funding from the state of Connecticut, private and public funding . The point is we need to work together to accomplish common goals.

LWV: Norwalk appears to be attracting more pawn shops and big box stores than other viable businesses. What do you see as the Common Council’s role in improving the business climate in Norwalk to 1) help offset the residential tax burden and 2) make Norwalk a more desirable place? Specifically, what will you do to encourage business growth if elected, and how will you do it?

WP: It is challenging for a councilman to take on a role of improving the business climate or attracting businesses to our city. It is a full time job to do so and most of the council members have to maintain a full time job. With that being said, there are certainly laws or regulations that should be revisited in order to make it friendlier for small business and big business to thrive in Norwalk i.e zoning regulations. This stems from the top, a mayor working to attract corporations that will bring high paying jobs to Norwalk.

The council can work with key stakeholders in order to help streamline a process that seems to be convoluted and discouraging. The council can help in offsetting the residential tax burden by being more part of the process. The council can and should draft resolutions to change all necessary ordinances or laws that do not make sense in this economic environment.

Norwalk can be a more desirable place if we attract higher paying jobs, invest in our infrastructure and cut the red tape. Let’s begin to find ways to get projects, bike lanes, walk paths, our bridges and transit more attractive for everyone including commuters. We are in the heart of Fairfield County and we should be a Hub.

I will encourage business growth by first meeting with business owners to understand the needs. Then put a team in place to help attract and retain these folks in Norwalk.

LWV: Have you signed any pledges or made commitments to any organizations or individuals that would affect your performance, the positions you would support, or the decisions you would make as a Common Council member?

WP: No, I welcome all input and look forward to the opportunity of serving all of Norwalk and its residents.

Candidate: Sharon Stewart (D)

LWV: On a personal and professional level, what life experiences and qualifications have equipped you to become an effective Common Council member?

SS: On a personal level, I grew up in South Norwalk, I witnessed first-hand the struggles of the families within the neighborhood, my family was part of the struggle.

On a professional level, I have a masters in social work. As a social worker/case manager I complete intake and assessments for the families within the city. I also provide resources. I feel because of these experiences I am able to relate as well as empathize with the people within the city of Norwalk. I feel I will be a great asset to the council.

LWV: How familiar are you with Norwalk’s city charter? Are there ways in which you feel the Common Council could more effectively serve the people of Norwalk if changes were made? Please explain any of your recommended changes?

SS: Yes I am familiar with the city charter; I feel the council should commit to ensuring that businesses that receive subsidies provide workers with standard wages and benefits. I recommend changes be made to the hiring process in regard to hiring union workers for contracted city jobs.

I recommend changes be made regarding the affordable housing cap.

LWV: Norwalk is a diverse community, but members of the city’s boards and omissions do not represent our diversity. On some commissions and boards, many persons continue to be reappointed, resulting in many qualified individuals never getting a chance to serve. If you are elected, how will you address this issue?

SS: By continuing to advocate for diversity.

LWV: Members of the community want to voice their opinions. Currently, the only opportunity for residents to speak publicly is at Common Council meetings, but only if the item they wish to speak about is on the agenda. Do you believe the current public comment procedure needs change or is it satisfactory as is? For example, do you believe that public participation at Common Council Committee Meetings is desirable? If elected, what will you do to encourage members of the public to share their views before the Common Council?

SS: Yes I believe it is very important to hear the voice of the community, how can we assist the people within the city if we never ask for their opinion?

LWV: In looking at neighboring communities (e.g., Stamford) what improvements, if any, do you think should be made in the way Norwalk deals with property development (including stalled projects), land use and open space? How would you propose the Common Council go about making those improvements (if any)?

SS: I feel Norwalk should do more to encourage home ownership, and small businesses.

LWV: What would you do to ensure a reasonable balance between the Board of Education’s need to maintain high academic standards through quality programs and the need to establish spending levels that dovetail with the overall financial condition of Norwalk?

SS: While I feel good academic skills amongst our teachers is the key to our children getting a good education, I feel Norwalk should be more efficient with their spending, making appropriate cuts where needed without sacrificing sports or fine arts.

LWV: Norwalk appears to be attracting more pawn shops and big box stores than other viable businesses. What do you see as the Common Council’s role in improving the business climate in Norwalk to 1) help offset the residential tax burden and 2) make Norwalk a more desirable place?

SS: Specifically, what will you do to encourage business growth if elected, and how will you do it? I think Norwalk should encourage more manufacturing, the city should offer lower rent, and some sort of incentive to lure businesses back to Norwalk.

LWV: Have you signed any pledges or made commitments to any organizations or individuals that would affect your performance, the positions you would support, or the decisions you would make as a Common Council member?

SS: N/A

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