NORWALK, Conn. — Drafted revisions to Norwalk’s charter were finalized Monday as “surprise and dismay” were expressed about comments made at last week’s Charter Revision Commission public hearing.
“To suggest to the members of this commission that we didn’t keep our eye on the prize or eye on the ball is I think unfounded and unfair,” Chairman Bill Fitzgerald said. “… I want to assure the citizens of Norwalk that each member of this Commission has worked extremely hard and diligently to put together this report, has listened to citizens of Norwalk, has solicited from the citizens of Norwalk their wisdom on the Commission and the six issues that we were charged with. Beyond that we will report to the Council.”The Commission, as expected, voted unanimously to recommend that:
- The mayoral term would be lengthened to four years
- The town clerk’s term would be lengthened to four years
- The positions of city treasurer, selectman and sheriff would be eliminated
- Common Council salaries would be tied to a percentage of the mayor’s salary
- The charter would become gender neutral
This draft will be reviewed by Norwalk’s legal department, and submitted to the Common Council by April 5. The Council will then hold its own public hearing on the planned changes.
If the electorate votes to approve the resultant proposal the changes are planned to take effect in 2017, Commissioners said.
Vice Chairman Jerry Petrini said the draft will also contain a list of topics that were brought up by the public in the Commission’s hearing process:
- Investigate the unfair practice of beach sticker process
- District water rates for out-of-district customers
- Citizens review board for the police department
- Eliminate or make changes to the Redevelopment Agency
- Hire city manager
- Change the Planning and Zoning Department
That last one generated much discussion, as Petrini said seven of 24 citizens had complained about Planning and Zoning.
His drafted letter originally said that citizens wanted the Common Council to have oversight on P&Z, an understanding he said came from last week’s discussion about charter section 1-189.2, “Authorization of the council to reorganize certain departments.”
Lisa Thomson and Planning Commissioner David Davidson said Planning and Zoning should be removed from the list of exemptions to the Council’s authority.
Petrini’s wording was questioned by other Commissioners.
“I am not saying this is the way to do it, I am saying this is what they were asking us to do,” Petrini said. “This is what I am saying, is in effect, yes, they were asking for the Common Council to oversee the Planning and Zoning leadership.”
“That would be precedent setting,” Commissioner Glenn Iannaccone said.
The clause was reworded to be more generalized, that citizens want Planning and Zoning restructured.
The letter to the Council is planned to say, “We suggest that you listen and look into this matter and address it with another Charter Revision Commission in the near future, or at your discretion this Commission can be reconvened and look into a city planner.”
“To address any of the issues that were brought up by the citizens of Norwalk would take the same type of due diligence and hard work that has gone into addressing the six items that were presented to us by the Common Council. I cannot underscore that enough. The predicate to all of that is a reading of that sections’ language and an understanding it,” Fitzgerald said.
The lawyers on the Commission, with the assistance of Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola, would research the statute and its history, of when and why it has been amended, if it has, Fitzgerald said.
Commissioner Steven Keogh said the charter section is interesting, in that the Council has legislative authority but the Boards and Commissions are essentially governing the bodies to which they are assigned, and authority is parceled out.
“There is a certain rationale to that,” Keogh said. “… That is not to say that the proposals that people have made are right that or wrong. I certainly for one have not come to a conclusion as to whether they are right or wrong. But rather to say to, Mr. Fitzgerald point, … This type of question is a question that merits its own focus, that merits its own time and effort and research and putting it in context and so one, if one is going to do something like that one has to do it right and thoroughly.”
“We would never have made the April 5 deadline,” Petrini said.
“The structure of Zoning in Norwalk has a fascinating history and has been the subject of an awful lot of political controversy and public comment over the decades,” Keogh said. “Any charter revision that goes into the question of whether to, and if so how to, restructure Planning and Zoning needs to do so very thoughtfully and very carefully to make sure they are not having unintended consequences.”
Coppola said that, based on his years of experience with other municipalities, such a topic would be outside the realm of a Charter Revision Commission.
“You wouldn’t make changes with regard to changing a department in your charter,” Coppola said. “You wouldn’t necessarily tie your hands to say you have to run a department this way, for whatever it’s worth. I think Planning and Zoning departments have evolved over the years. I find municipal clients over the years change the way their departments work, change the positions in the department, to make them more efficient.”
As for a city planner, Coppola said, “It’s a staffing issue. It’s one that probably should be addressed, but you just don’t hear about it being addressed in a charter, usually.”
“People are starved for opportunity for input,” Keogh said. “The fact that you have a public hearing does give people the opportunity to come out and say what is on their minds.”
Fitzgerald said when he began the meeting that if voters feel they don’t like the Commission’s results they should express their opinion in the next election.
“I think we have been clear since Day 1: We were only going to work on the changes the Council asked us to do,” Petrini said. “… I am sorry if you are frustrated and all, but the intent was clear from the very beginning and I don’t think we are going to deviate from this at this late charge.”
The only citizens who heard all of this were Thomson, Diane Lauricella and Linda Berkoff.
Much time was spent on the legalistic language of the draft being sent to the Council, outlining justifications for the recommended changes.
Commissioners had expected to lengthen the Council terms to four years but responded to the public’s comments, Petrini said.
The Board of Education had been vehemently opposed to changing the terms of its members, and that had been heeded, Fitzgerald said.
The Commission had always presumed the changes would take effect in 2017, Petrini said.
“I can understand why the question is being put forth in non-municipal election,” Petrini said. “That’s quite honestly that we found historically that … there’s more voter turnout in a presidential election as opposed to a municipal, so we wanted this to hit as many people as possible, and we’ll get that. But let it be clear that none of the incumbents have any kind of a leg up on this. All this will take effect after the 2017 municipal election, of course, if this is all approved by the voters.”
It would also be better if the mayor and town clerk are elected at the same time as the at-large Board of Education members, and the timing of the changes get them in sync, Keogh said.
There will be room on the ballot this fall for the questions, he said, as there are few offices up for election. It’s also necessary for a good turnout for charter revision questions to get a valid result, he said, specifying a 20 percent figure.
Petrini commented that he had thought constables were part of the Commission’s charge, and there had been discussion about possibly turning them into appointed positions. But they weren’t in the mandate sent down from the Council, he said.
Iannaccone said he thought one of the most interesting ideas brought forward was for continuous changes to the charter.
“I agree there is a lot of work to do in the charter to bring it up to the 21st century,” Iannaccone said. “I am sure that the Council or a future Council will be tackling this project to try to bring it up to date.”
The Commission is done with its work, unless the Council sends back the proposal for further work.