Letter: Planning, zoning staff need credentials, accountability

By Ronald Czebiniak

To the Editor:

NORWALK, Conn. – As far as I am aware, the top three staff members in Norwalk’s zoning department cost the city the better part of a half million dollars every year and don’t have a single professional designation among them.

Every town, village and city in the area has certified planners, licensed architects or landscape architects on it’s planning and zoning staff, but not Norwalk!

I’m also pretty sure that senior zoning staff doesn’t have performance reviews. Not once a year, not once every five years. Never.

This is pretty horrible, and I think that both of our mayoral candidates should be called on it to see what they will do. And if this is how the zoning department is run, the other departments probably have the same problems.

In my opinion a good start for the next mayor would be:

• Requiring key departmental staff to obtain professional credentials pertinent to their job

• Setting performance standards and requiring performance reviews for same

• Creating a program of evaluation and accountability for city departments (to change practices like what has existed at Planning & Zoning for decades)

I also think the next mayor and our common council should form a charter review committee to look at many existing issues, among them:

• Creating longer election cycles. A two-year election cycle leaves an office holder about a year to accomplish anything before he or she needs to devote valuable time and effort to a new campaign. This is senseless (like many aspects of Norwalk’s government ha ha).

• Making the Zoning Commission an elected body, instead of the political appointee system we have now. I sent a petition signed by 30-odd commercial property owners to all the commissioners a couple of years ago and never heard a word back from any of them, or from staff. This arrogance is simply unacceptable. These commissioners and staffers are supposed to be serving the people, even if it’s a letter that says “We got your petition and will think about it.” But no, they couldn’t be bothered. An elected commission, on the other hand, would presumably be very concerned about a letter signed by 30 constituents landing on their desk.

There are plenty of things to discuss changing in our charter. It was written in a time that has little relevancy today, and our government and our city could be much more than they are with a little effort. Will the elected officials of the next term take up this banner? I am curious to see.

Ronald Czebiniak



11 responses to “Letter: Planning, zoning staff need credentials, accountability”

  1. M Allen

    Make the zoning commission an elected body? How about we make the BET an elected body way before we make zoning that way. Those who whine about the zoning commission today won’t find it any better if put directly into the hands of the people. I’m pretty sure electing a high schooler into that body wouldn’t help the situation. Not every position needs to be based on the glamor of the vote or the inherent knowledge and understanding of the voter.

  2. cc-rider

    Well done. A zoning department with certified and licensed staff makes too much sense!

  3. Suzanne

    I am not sure an elected Zoning Commission will be the solution you are looking for in creating an effective, accountable platform for City development. If this desire is based upon the lack of response to a petition by thirty commercial property owners that is a relatively small thing for which to change the current system. Better to appoint qualified individuals, make that a criteria for appointment, have regular reviews as you suggest as to their effectiveness and take the politics out of it. Politicizing positions that need expertise of a certain kind and that affect our quality of life so greatly is just another way of inviting the kind of divisiveness and lack of qualification we have now: with election, it just costs everyone more, there is more politicking, the right and the left get to argue and debate, none of which has proved effective in elections to obtain the right candidates for the job. These are administrative positions that need apolitical review and vetting and not be used as the particular mayor’s political pulpit as is occurring now. I would rather see a regulation change (as so many need to be in Norwalk) that would make such appointments have requirements and qualifications rather than random checks for political alliance. I also think they should have term limits unless there is a built in incentive to do the work and do it effectively, whatever that is, by contributing to the health and well being of Norwalk citizens, e.g., real effort made toward planning and implementation of an urban framework that is livable and contributes to all demographics.

  4. M Allen

    The city departments are the professionals and should without question have commensurate experience, backgrounds, qualifications and accreditations. These are people who are hired to do a job. The commissioners are appointed positions made up of the citizenry. A form of oversight. It would be great if we had more people step up with the appropriate qualifications, but these are not paid positions outside of somethign less than a token. These are ostensibly volunteers. Voting for these positions would be foolish for a number of reasons. But we shuld have the best qualified people we can get sitting on our commissions. That being said, don’t start crying if your particular subset of society isn’t represented. Because credentials and qualifications aren’t passed around freely or uniformily among all constituent groups. If you want experience and qualifications, I wholeheartedly support that. If you want diversity, then you don’t really want qualifications.

  5. Mike Mushak

    Me Czebiniak, great letter. I am one of the guilty commissioners you identify as getting that petition. Let me fill in the details. It is up to the chair or the committee chairs to put items on the agenda, and I stand guilty for not pushing to get this on the agenda sooner than when we finally did last winter and actually started to address the issues you and the large contractor community raised in the petition.
    For the record, I have never been a chair because the GOP leadership that picks the chairs were always petrified of the thought that I would be able to put things on the agenda, including requests for performance reviews of staff and having the commission by-laws followed (including monthly financial statements and having staff respond to requests for information from commissioners) that I have been demanding for years with no response.
    In fact, similar issues were happening with the mismanagement at NEON over the last few years, where the board apparently was not given the information it requested from the staff including professional credentials, financial statements, etc. (as reported in the press), resulting in Mayor Moccia calling for investigations (which are already happening but that’s another story). Yet Moccia and his GOP appointees on the Commission have no concern for this unacceptable situation at the Zoning Commission right there on the 2nd floor in City Hall. In fact, former Zoning Commissioner Dave McCarthy stated publicly this year that he never bothered to read the by-laws when he was sworn in, and that “the by-laws really don’t matter anyway”. This was after I was calling for more accountability and transparency of staff, issues the GOP officials like McCarthy and Wilson have little regard for when defending the corrupt system that pushes projects through that Moccia wants (re BJ’s) regardless of expert studies, regulations, and even our Master Plan. Of course that abruptly withdrawn when the public caught on to what was happening under the “leadership” of Emily Wilson, and were responding with petitions and letters against the project from across a large area of the city including Silvermine and Cranbury that would potentially have been impacted by this project that was over TEN TIMES larger than our own Master Plan recommended! Let’s not forget that GOP Planning Commissioner Victor Cavallo never even read the Master Plan before he started writing letters calling for the resignations if Harry Rilling and me off the Zoning Commission for pointing out these issues! He denied a 2006 $75,000 study (which was wholly incorporated into the 2008 Master Plan) even existed until I sent him the link on the city website, a glaring display of denial of facts and professionalism (an official blatantly misrepresenting city policy for political gain and hoping no one would notice). Well I did notice, called him on it, and was proceeded to be called every name in the book by this “good friend” of Dave McCarthy and Emily Wilson, coincidentally.
    So, let’s get back to the petition from commercial property owners. After being ignored for years, with help of former Democratic Commissioner Adam Blank Who put it on the agenda for discussion, we finally pushed for the Commission to address these issues of obsolete codes that make it extremely difficult to conduct business in Norwalk, forcing even small contractors with a couple if trucks to have to spend on average of over a million dollars just to have a simple garage and small yard to store their trucks and supplies. This is unacceptable and stifles small business, which our obsolete zoning codes should NOT do.
    These small businesses now constitute the majority of contractors especially after the collapse of the industrial economy, forcing many blue collar workers to start their own businesses following trends around the country, and which constitute the largest generator of jobs and economic activity in the area (roughly 80% of new job growth).
    However, our obsolete zoning code requires a minim lot size of 12,500 square feet, which is not based on any reality as I discovered but was a random number selected decades ago with no rationale in the record, leading me to the conclusion it was intended to be exclusionary). To be fair, there have been a few high profile large contractor yards that have abused quality of life and environmental regulations, but again the majority of contractors are now just a couple of trucks and less than 10 employees, and our regulations were written as a reactionary response that punished all contractors for the abuse of a few, and needed to be updated as Mr Czebiniak highlighted in his petition. There was also the issue of the city slowly eroding the areas where contractors could locate with piecemeal rezoning. This needed to be addressed as well.
    I made the point on the record that we have hundreds of vacant or under-performing properties (affecting our tax base) in our business and industrial zones around town that are too small or non-conforming due to our obsolete codes, and that changing the codes to encourage small contractors to be able to afford to buy or rent these smaller properties would not only help the local small contractors, but would have a widespread economic benefit by generating new business for everything from delis, wholesale suppliers, mechanics, tire stores, etc.
    In other words, making simple improvements to our zoning codes as Mr Czebiniak and the contractor community were demanding for years from the city, would generate widespread economic benefits including generating sales and rentals of hundreds if vacant properties. What’s not to love?
    The Zoning Commission finally worked together and updated our codes to make them more business-friendly this past winter, but not without complications caused by staff. The staff did not address text changes made in committee, and notices went out for the public hearing with the mistakes. Chair Emily Wilson promised the contractor community we would revisit this in 6 months, which has passed over the summer without any mention again. I intend to push for this after the election as soon as possible, to complete the work of the Commission and keep our promise to contractors to make our codes more business-friendly.
    I want to thank Mr Czebiniak and the large contractor community in Norwalk for their patience over all these years. The issues in me Czebiniak’s letter are all issues that need addressing in the next administration. I have doubts that an elected zoning commission would be any more efficient or effective, just because the appointment process has been corrupted by Moccia over the last few years. The fiasco last year was unacceptable, when anti-cronyism laws were ignored by Moccia and Maslan, and a Councilman was promised a favor by Moccia to get him to change his swing vote to get a long-serving (over 20 years) commissioner reappointed over the objections of the majority of the Council. Moccia had the nerve to not reappoint one of the best commissioners we have has in years, smart lawyer Adam Blank, because he said he wanted “fresh blood” on the commission, after reappointing a year earlier, by bending the rules, two GOP commissioners who started serving when Reagan was president! So much for “fresh blood”! (It was reported Mr Blank didn’t vote the way Moccia wanted, which was the actual reason Moccia wanted “fresh blood”!)
    If we had a mayor who reached out for qualified appointees in a city of 85,000, and a healthy discussion of qualifications to serve(which never happened under Moccia), we would not need to go to an elected commission. Almost every appointment in the last two years were described by Councilman Dave McCarthy as “my good friend”. Nothing wrong with that, but why so many of McCarthy’s “good friends” in a city of 85,000? Sound the cronyism alert!
    Is it also very odd that as a licensed landscape architect, I am the only licensed design professional (architect, landscape architect, engineer, or planner) on the Zoning Commission, which is surprising in a city the size of Norwalk. Not that those certifications are required, but searching these professions for willing appointees among others than McCarthy’s “good friends” would certainly help improve the discussions of applications and prove the public trust that the commission reflects the diversity of Norwalk just as the City Charter requires.

  6. Suzanne

    M Allen, sorry about this. I seem to respond to you the most and usually with mild disagreement. I don’t think I understand your last comment: are you saying diversity and qualified individuals are mutually exclusive?

  7. EveT

    Yes to the need for people with actual qualifications in city planning, and yes to performance reviews. No to making it an elected position. The kind of people who can win elections are not necessarily the kind of people who know a lot about city planning.

  8. M Allen

    No Suzanne, I’m not saying they are mutually exclusive. But a lot has been made recently, especially at the many, many events held to draw in certain community groups, that they are not properly represented based on ethnicity or some other determining factor unrelated to background and skillset. If for some reason we found they were, based on the crop of individuals willing to donate their time to be a sitting commissioner, found to be less than capable for the official capacity, I just wouldn’t want to hear that some groups weren’t properly represented. Or that we allowed less qualified candidates simply because they fit some other profile.

  9. Suzanne

    I agree, M Allen. I think it would be more important to have proficiency and service to the communities of every demographic be the norm. In other words, every community would not necessarily be physically represented by the individuals on the Commission or Council BUT their duty would be to express their proficiency in service to all communities. I think that point has gotten lost somewhere along the way of the appointments made in at least the past year.

  10. M Allen

    Suzanne, oddly enough for you and me, we probably do agree. Maybe? Of course, my comment was related to various discussions by the candidates during the campaign related to certain constituencies not being “properly” represented on commissions. But that also needs to be balanced with other discussions, in places like this and elsewhere, where many individuals have made reference to the technical qualifications of our commissioners. I think we need to differentiate between commissions tasked with making technical/functional decisions and some other entity whereby we gain input from the broad community. It’s all well and good to say we want diversity and inclusion in our commissions, but technical capability has to take precedence. If we can get both, then great. If not, lean toward proficiency. Perhaps there should be some sort of community advisory/relations panel. It would be nice to keep it apolitical and I’m not exactly sure how to do that. I may be completely out of the loop and that already exists. I just don’t want people sitting on commissions because of their political leaning anymore than I want them on commissions because they reflect a certain constituency. I want capable people where this is no question they are qualified for the position. Because the commissions important. I’m just not sure campaign promises of both diversity and qualifications can be accomplished so easily.

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