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Norwalk charter revision being debated – without a consensus yet

Norwalk Finance Committee 15-0128 093

Majority Leader Doug Hempstead (R-At Large), left; Councilwoman Eloisa Melendez (D-District A) , right.

NORWALK, Conn. – While Norwalk’s political party leaders have said there is a consensus supporting Mayor Harry Rilling’s desire to reform the city’s charter, those who are actually in charge of the decision are a lot less certain about it.

Democratic Common Council members have a diverse set of opinions, with two against increasing the terms of elected officials to four years, while Norwalk Republicans are united in a single thought – indecision.

“It’s still under discussion. We have beat it to death three times and we keep coming up, sometimes in a different part of the circle,” Majority Leader Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said.

Rilling’s vision for charter reform is supported by the Norwalk Chamber of Commerce:

  • Change the term of office for mayor from two years to four years
  • Increase the pay for Common Council members from $50 per month to $500 per month
  • Look at the feasibility of changing the term of office of Common Council members from two to four years

The creation of a charter revision commission would take a two-thirds majority of the 15-member Council – 10 votes. Rilling said in late January that it’s therefore in the Republicans’ hands.

“I think the Democrats and the Republicans are on the same page with the basic idea of extending the mayor’s term to four years,” Republican Town Committee Chairman Pete Torrano said in late January. “We will also be exploring extending the term of office for the councilmen, and possibly increasing the pay for the Council people, which is a paltry $50 a month right now.”

“I believe both parties are in alignment on this one, and it will not be difficult to reach consensus,” Democratic Town Committee Chairman Ed Camacho said in late January.

“We’re still hashing the questions out and we’re going over the issues, the pluses and minuses, the pros and cons,” Councilman Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large) said Tuesday. “The honest answer is we didn’t come to a decision yet, if we’re even in favor of it or not. We’re mulling over the possibilities.”

“I still haven’t formulated my answer yet. Still waiting to try to figure out what the hell we are going to do,” Councilman Glenn Iannaccone (R-At Large) said.

Bonenfant, Iannacone and other Republicans said  to ask Hempstead.

“I know where some members are, where some members aren’t. I can’t do any better than that at this stage of the game. It’s still under discussion,” Hempstead said.

Republican caucus member Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) expressed his thoughts in an email:

“I go back and forth. The problem is, in part, there are many charter reform questions being discussed, for instance the length of mayoral, council, BOE, and town clerk terms. But most of all, the two questions that need to be addressed are: Is there a compelling need for charter reform, i.e., four year terms? And what produces more accountability, two- or four-year terms? Remember, the so-called learning curve issue for mayors only applies to first terms… That is not a compelling need.”

Hempstead said, “The true issue at hand to make this all work – everything needs to go to 4-year terms. … You’re going to have an election for the town clerk and the district commissioners? No.”

As for non-Republican-aligned Democrats, Councilwoman Sharon Stewart (D-At Large) said on Feb. 8 that she thinks a 4-year term for the mayor is a good idea.

“I found out since being a councilwoman there are things that we start that we are not able to finish,” Stewart said. “If I am finding that problem I know that he’s got to be finding that issue also because it’s hard to start something and then bring it to the table, and then you’re not able to create whatever, and then you’re time is up. You’re going to spend a lot of time campaigning for election so you’re not really going to have time to watch that baby take flight or whatever, so I think you really do need more time.”

Stewart said some other things need to be tweaked, but declined to elaborate pending a caucus discussion.

Norwalk Finance Committee 15-0212 009

Minority Leader Travis Simms (D-District B), left, and Councilman David Watts (D-District A) see no need to lengthen terms.

“I am not for charter reform. … I think everything is fine,” Minority Leader Travis Simms (D-District B) said Tuesday.

Councilman David Watts (D-District A) said this week in a text message that he is against lengthening terms, but suggested another charter revision – the Council should be given some line-item control in the budget.

Councilman John Kydes (D-District C) expressed his thoughts in an email:

“I am in full support of charter revision that would extend the mayor’s term to four years! Just a few months into my first Council term, it was obvious that a mayor needs four years to properly see projects to fruition. I am still on the fence about supporting the extension of Council terms because of the disturbing nature of a select few currently holding the position, but I am still open to the concept. I understand that it may look self-serving when an elected official advocates for term extensions, but I can unselfishly say that extending the mayor’s term to four years would be the best thing for Norwalk.”

“It’s a very complicated issue but I think we should look into charter reform, specifically the mayor’s term,” Councilman John Igneri (D-District E) said Thursday. “I think Council terms would be good as well, but I think it opens up some other issues. Do we change the Council and the mayor at the same time?”

Councilwoman Phaedrel “Faye” Bowman (D-District B) did not respond to an email asking for her opinion.

Councilwoman Eloisa Melendez (D-District A) said this week that she’s for charter reform. In January she said she thought that if the mayor had a 4-year term and the Council members had 2-year terms it would have an element of unfairness to it, as people would be less likely to come out and vote in a municipal election that does not have a mayoral contest. “You would have to do four for each, people would be comfortable with four for the mayor but I don’t know if they would be comfortable with four for the Council,” Melendez said.

So if you’re keeping score, that’s four Democrats for extending the mayor’s term, two against it, one not sure and one non-responsive.

The seven Republicans are just plain not sure. But Hempstead said there’s time to debate and still get it on the November ballot.

There are other changes possible.

“Selectmen need to go away, they don’t do anything,” Hempstead said. “… City treasurer doesn’t do anything. City sheriff doesn’t do anything anymore.”

One non-voting Norwalk political leader said he is in full agreement with a four-year term for mayor.

Former Mayor Bill Collins, referred to as “Yoda” by some DTC members, said, “After the first year of a two-year term, no matter how long you’ve been in, you’re back into campaign mode and it’s so wasteful of time and energy.”

19 comments

John Levin February 20, 2015 at 6:24 am

Bill Collins and Doug Hempstead make excellent points. Here’s mine: why not make city elections synchronized with the federal and state elections? This will SAVE MONEY and likely improve voter turnout. To me, it’s a no brainer. What is the argument against?

John Hamlin February 20, 2015 at 7:12 am

Norwalk needs charter reform but not the reforms being discussed without more basic reform — like giving Norwalk a city manager form of govenment instead of the dysfunctional 19th century form it currently has. Extending the Council terms to 4 years could saddle the city with 4 years of dysfunction instead of the prospect for only two if the players elected are like the current council. Ironically, this whole effort seems to play into the hands of those who don’t want to see fundamental change but want to further institutionalize the current dysfunction in our city government. It’s like nailing down the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Non partisan February 20, 2015 at 7:41 am

Norwalk is a $300 million dollar enterprise with 100’s of employees that is funded by taxpayers and provides certain services. It needs to be managed on a day to day basis by a professional manager capable of running an enterprise this large and be free of politics or patronage.

City manager form of government with all department heads reporting to the city manager. All Department heads serve at the pleasure of the city manager for full accountability.

Mayor and council should act as a board. Setting policy, establishing goals, and prioritizing the needs/wants if the electorate.

4 year mayor with 2 term limits
4 year at large council members with term limits
2 year district council members with term limits

Yankee Clipper February 20, 2015 at 7:57 am

Change is needed for Norwalk to move into the 21st century. “Non Partisan’s” plan sounds brilliant. The Council cannot just run the clock down …. they need to make a decision in time for this to make the ballot this coming November

Suzanne February 20, 2015 at 9:02 am

Mr. Hamlin, Reading about how the Council is “handling” the specific requests from Mayor Rilling, I am sure this topic will be discussed ad nauseum with nothing or very little accomplished, I now see your point. The necessity of STRUCTURAL change is affirmed by the quibbling of these Counsel Members. However, if these relatively minimal changes are so daunting, imagine this Counsel taking on fundamental change. They will talk this to death or as we used to say in the country, ’til the cows come home. (Perhaps a good reason for city residents to actually vote in coming elections.)

Piberman February 20, 2015 at 9:24 am

An old corporate saying has relevance here – the folks who get you in trouble aren’t the ones likely to get you out. Why expect the current underperformers to do better with longer terms ? Our parties are so lethargic now that longer terms would put the City on sleep mode. At least now every two years we get some fresh thinking. Longer terms would only serve to enhance political control and deny new fresh blood with ideas and energy into the City’s sleepy governance. Norwalk once had an admired governance with the current arrangement. Only difference was quality of elected officials. Why they could and did write OpEds because they had views and encouraged civic discussion. Rather than pontificating in charter reform why not focus attention in the important subjects – City finance and management. Too hard ?

Rod Lopez-Fabrega February 20, 2015 at 9:50 am

How can anyone in either party fail to agree that we need a four-year term for mayor? It is such a huge waste of time and money and energy and the patience of the electorate to go through the disruptive process of elections every two years. Small wonder the electorate does not turn out in big numbers.

As we have seen time after time, it takes a new mayor one year just to settle in and another to get the programs he/she promised started–and then it’s back to start again.

As for the Council, judging by all the fuss and dissention, two years seem much more than enough. Perhaps throwing more pay at them would produce a better dedicated public “servant”–or at least, a council person more committed to working for the people of Norwalk and less to party politics and to complaining about personal sensitivities.

Perhaps a better way to go is as suggested by John Hamlin: “Norwalk needs charter reform but not the reforms being discussed without more basic reform — like giving Norwalk a city manager form of government instead of the dysfunctional 19th century form it currently has.”

Lisa Thomson February 20, 2015 at 9:53 am

I agree with all points raised by the previous posters. Synchronize with the federal election to increase voter turnout and hire a professional city manager. Sadly, our city elections these days are more akin to high school popularity contests than anything substantive. It is simply not working with a city population of 85K and a $300M budget. I want charter revision but I do not support the first priority items being increased terms and pay. Quite frankly, it all seems to be too self serving at the moment. While half of our politicians deserve more for their service to the community the other half do not. Increasing terms will not improve accountability or make the city run better- given that more than half serving at the moment have been involved in Norwalk politics for years.

Mrs. Ruby McPherson February 20, 2015 at 11:12 am

I understand and agreed with charter reform especially four terms for mayor, how ever why would we jump from 50.00 a month to 500.00 a month for councilperson, why not bring to 200.00(50.00 per week) this way it doesn’t seem so self serving.

cc-rider February 20, 2015 at 11:32 am

The city needs more people with actual certifications and real qualifications. The common council set up has long outlived it usefulness.

Lisa Thomson February 20, 2015 at 11:34 am

Here’s my math: $500 x12 months x 15 council members = $90,000 – seems like we should apply that to a City Manager so we could address the city department fiefdoms, weak mayoral system and distributed 15 member common council – run by committee that leaves no Individual person accountable in our city today.

Big Tex February 20, 2015 at 11:56 am

Lack of fiscal restraint, property taxes out of control, endless BOE spending with negligible results to improve Norwalk’s low ranked schools, multi-year property stagnation and lack of city planning/adequate studies to support largest proposed development (i.e. shopping mall); there’s way too much dysfunction and ineptness to even entertain extending terms. Two year terms are essential to ensure qualified leadership is installed at city hall. Why not even shorter terms, like one year, similar to the board of directors in the private sector?

Need further proof? Analyze tax hikes during non-election vs election years (2014 vs 2015). No coincidence either.

Kevin Di Mauro February 20, 2015 at 12:23 pm

Speaking as a voter, I would like the opportunity every two years to evaluate the performance of our elected officials, not four years.

I think the city’s charter does need revision but not what is currently being considered. It needs a major revision as has been suggested by John Hamlin. Perhaps it would be a good idea to form a charter revision task force, and keep things as they are for the near future.

EveT February 20, 2015 at 1:37 pm

How or why is $500/month supposed to yield the result of better performance by Council members?
$500/month is not enough to live on, so nobody is going to quit their day job to serve on Council. But, people who don’t actually have a day job might gravitate toward Council as a handy way to boost their meager income. Is that the way we want the city to be governed?

Steve Colarossi February 20, 2015 at 5:54 pm

City managers are not a panacea for all that ails a city. Like most other employees, a city manager is accountable to his (or her) boss- and for someone appointed by the Common Council, the boss would be the Council leadership. So, the same battleground of “fiefdoms”, political gamesmanship and buck-passing would continue with a city manager.

The real way to create a government that is directly accountable to the citizens is to change the process by which we elect common councilors and board of education members. Right now, the nominees of the two major parties occupy the top two lines for each office- and most voters rarely look beyond the first two lines. This gives tremendous power to Norwalk’s political clubs (because a candidate who is not a major party nominee will have difficulty getting elected given the poor ballot position that is given to petitioning and third party candidates). If all candidates for a particular office are arranged on the ballot in a single column (in an order chosen by lot), there would no longer be a built-in advantage to being the nominee of one of the major parties. As result, elected officials become accountable to the voting public and not to unelected party leaders.

EastNorwalkChick February 20, 2015 at 6:14 pm

Norwalk is governed as if it were a small hamlet, we are not, we are a City and we should be governed as such.

Agree with John Hamlin, we need to have a City Manager form of government, the kind we have now is why nothing gets done or gets done half @$$#&. The Council seems to always be nibbling around the edges of issues, but they never really get to the core of things and fix them. This article is a perfect example of how they deal with issues.

Yes to a City Management form of Government; Yes to moving elections to coincide with Federal elections in order to get more people involved; No to increasing the stipend to $500, $250 is a good start; Yes to four year terms for Mayor; Not sure on the length of Council terms, jury is till out on that one, maybe it has to do with the ones that we have on there now that is tainting my decision.

cc-rider February 20, 2015 at 6:14 pm

Steve- maybe it is me, but who in their right mind has the time available to spend on the Common Council or BOE after working a day job 40-60 hrs a week? In my opinion, this is the main deterrent from getting better candidates for either.

piberman February 20, 2015 at 11:03 pm

Has anyone notice that its BOE, our most important public body, that gets accolades for distinguished service at no pay whatsoever, but its the oft discredited and dysfunctional Common Council whose members not merit substantial monthly payments for services not rendered ? Why pay for services not rendered ? To demonstrate we are all indifferent to the needs of governance ?

Has anyone observed that when an incoming Mayor says it takes a year to get settled its likely we elected the wrong candidate. It wasn’t too long ago that we elected Mayors who hit the ground running because they worked their way up the political apprenticeship, understood City governance and had a real AGENDA. Norwalk’s mayors who had long runs in office had no problem “learning the territory”. They were prepared when they took office. Why encourage “learning on the job” in a City widely disparaged for its faltering governance. Why expect that hiring a City Manager would yield any better results for a City that’s too tired to effectively govern itself ? It’s not the “form” of City Gov’t that makes the difference but the competence and energy of its elected officials.

Boosting terms of office of problemetic elected officials would only accelerate our transition to Bridgeport. Its not the “uniform” or “term of office” but the individual inside that makes the difference. Making “excuses” is always the indication of lesser lights.

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