Norwalk Charter Revision Commission answers critics, prepares final draft

Norwalk Charter Revision Commission Chairman Willliam Fitzgerald, left, listens as Commissioner Steven Keogh reads the drafted language for a proposed charter revision, Monday in City Hall.

Norwalk Charter Revision Commission Chairman Willliam Fitzgerald, left, listens as Commissioner Steven Keogh reads the drafted language for a proposed charter revision, Monday in City Hall.

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.


Lisa Thomson March 29, 2016 at 6:59 am

Last month, I discovered how Norwalk’s silo organizational structures, outdated processes and almost weekly, land use ‘dramas and dysfunction’ are INSTITUTIONALIZED in the charter, after reading Section 189.2 Parts A and B.

I am shocked that our mayor and long standing council members didn’t know that P&Z couldn’t be touched, especially since the mayor campaigned on P&Z reform, along with several council members.

It seems they have instead decided to put their own self interests ahead of P&Z, while hiding behind an appointed, third party commission, with a rushed deadline.

Will the public be allowed to speak when the ‘as ordered term extension and pay revisions’ hit the council floor or will some ‘rule’ be applied that shuts down the 3 min. discourse, and the next time voters see anything, will be via some vaguely worded language on the ballot?

Donald March 29, 2016 at 7:54 am

Can someone please expand upon this?
“Investigate the unfair practice of beach sticker process”

Bruce Kimmel March 29, 2016 at 8:57 am

I would like to thank all of the members of the Commission for their hard work. It wasn’t easy. And they did an excellent job.

EveT March 29, 2016 at 9:14 am

Seeing how few citizens showed up at the public hearings, it’s not surprising that the commission is not doing a bigger bow to public pressure. Pressure from just a few people doesn’t carry enough weight.
That said, it’s clear that the commission has worked hard on the items they are addressing. They should especially be applauded for their recommendation to get rid of sexist language throughout the charter. That item was NOT on the list the Common Council gave them, but they added it in response to public comment.

Just another Norwalk Resident March 29, 2016 at 9:23 am

If P&Z doesn’t report to the Mayor or the Common Council, who does it report to? Planning Commission? Zoning Commission? Planning Committee of the Common Council? Does anyone set goals and objectives and evaluate the performance of P&Z Director in meeting those objectives? Why aren’t those goals, objectives and performance evaluations part of the public record?

Nancy Chapman March 29, 2016 at 9:34 am

Councilman Steve Serasis (D-District A) made this suggestion at the first public hearing. He said the Recreation, Parks and Cultural Affairs Committee would vote on a resolution calling for reforming who qualifies for resident passes and therefore free parking at Calf Pasture Beach. I do not believe that vote occurred.
“At least 30 percent, maximum up to 40, maybe 43 percent of the cars entering our beaches and our dump and everything else where you need the permit, do not have their vehicles registered in Norwalk,” Serasis said. “ … We should think creatively on how we should bring in money into the coffers without raising taxes.”
You can watch that for yourself; we have a video and he is the first speaker. http://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2016/02/norwalk-charter-revision-commission-seeks-public-input-and-gets-plenty/

Jlightfield March 29, 2016 at 9:43 am

The endless drumbeat about reforming planning and zoning is tiring. The power of setting policy, regulations and adjudication of those, rests with the zoning commission. We do not need a charter revision to address the fundamental issue that Norwalk’s many council members and Mayor have failed to address: stop using The Redevelopment Agency as a proxy for city-wide planning. The common council should stop approving Redevelopment plans until they are evaluated by the city’s planner, planning commission and staff. The planning committee of the common council should be staffed by the P&Z department. (apologies for the cross post)

Lisa Thomson March 29, 2016 at 10:03 am

Jackie – you are far more knowledgeable in these affairs than I but right now, no elected official will take responsibility for P&Z or Redevelopment for that matter and all they do is fingerpoint or shrug their shoulders. That too, is also becoming tiriesome.

John E. Tobin March 29, 2016 at 10:08 am

There is absolutely nothing wrong with having the Mayor and Common Council face the voters every two years. The arguments about budgets and appointments are nothing but smoke screens. Plain and simple, this is a pure power grab for longer terms and more compensation. I don’t blame the Charter Revision Commission, this is what they were asked to address…. by the politicians.

Lisbeth Blue March 29, 2016 at 10:50 am

I was glad to learn that at least 5 decisions were made. The commission had specific instructions on what it could consider. They were hard working, careful and serious. The recommendations should be passed by the CC.

Connecticut and Norwalk are hide bound — failing constantly to update its laws and procedures, for example, no change in pay for council members since 1988 or whenever? Seriously?

Where is the commission to clear up the P&Z fiasco? The Town Planner? etc. etc…..

THE TRUTH March 29, 2016 at 12:48 pm

The most important thing that can come out of charter reform is a Citizens review board for the police department. This without question is desperately needed in Norwalk to control an out if control police Department.

Here are just a few links that show the horrid abuse of citizens incurred at the hands of the Norwalk Police. You know what they say a picture is worth a thousand words.



This type of abuse is never justified no matter what. Oh and not only were the cops involved not charged with a crime for this, they were also cleared by the Norwalk Police Internal Affair division. When blue investigates blue, blue is never guilt of wrong doings. It’s a rigged system. What other group do you know that gets to investigate themselves? A Citizens review board for the police department will bring credibility to the investigations of police wrong doings and it will once again make the police accountable to the taxpayer.

EveT March 29, 2016 at 9:57 pm

Has Mario Coppola actually read the charter? It makes no sense that he’s basing his opinion “his years of experience with other municipalities.” If he reads Section 1-189.2 of the Norwalk charter he will see that it ties our hands, not the other way around.
“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…”
Well, hello, Section 1-189.2 says the Common Council cannot make changes to the Planning Commission or Zoning Commission. The charter, as written with those provisions, ties the Council’s hands.

Jlightfield March 30, 2016 at 2:58 pm

@lisa Thompson, elected officials take responsibility for appointments to the land use boards. They fail to take responsibility with changing how their committees are organized and staffed. Change is tough. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is insanity. The charter grants powers, it does not exist as an operational manual. That job falls to the people who the charter grants powers to. Norwalk doesn’t have a zoning problem, it has a planning problem. And the planning problem stems over so every fundamental issues that go right to the heart of Kelo vs. New London.

There are many planning philosophies out there, I’m a fan of form based zoning which is more focused on how things look, blue and mass etc. than what things are. Others are follow the suburban path of every land use has its own place. I’m okay with letting property owners decide on how much parking they want to provide. Others want to spec the maximum allowed, and Norwalk typically specs the minimum required. They are all just philosophies, none are perfect, or right, or wrong.

So much time has been spent here and in other forms maligning the p & z staff. It is unfair, the staff work hard, and are in no more need of reform or being held accountable by the common council, or whatever else passes for “enlightened” thought on the last great zoning decision that someone somewhere thinks is the worst one ever.

There is always room for improvement, and there is always room for trying new things. I think Mayor Rilling got it right when he created his task forces, particularly the zoning task force. Adam Blank is doing a good job there. And I say all this knowing that a pet zoning change of mine did not fare well in the task force or with the current commission.

Anyone who takes a field trip out of Norwalk should pay attention to how every town and city is grappling with residential construction right now. There’s a demographic shift that we should be embracing, not be in complete denial about.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>