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Norwalk Charter Revision Commission seeks public input – and gets plenty

Members of the Norwalk Charter Revision Commission

Members of the Norwalk Charter Revision Commission, from left, Yvonne Rodriguez, Mary Roman, Jerry Petrini and William Fitzgerald, react to Lisa Thomson at last week’s public hearing.

NORWALK, Conn. — Some say it would be undemocratic to have term limits for Norwalk mayors; other say a two-term limit would be a good idea.

That was just one of the differing opinions expressed at the first public hearing of the Charter Revision Commission last week, where comments went far beyond the guidelines established by the Common Council when forming the Commission, from the desire for a city planner to the desire for a city manager.

Video of entire meeting at end of story

The Commission, which will begin deliberating at its next meeting Feb. 22, encourages the public to submit written comments. It’s best to email  [email protected], Chairman William Fitzgerald said.

The Commission will have plenty to consider, including data collected by Lisa Brinton Thomson, an advocate of Zoning reform.

Thomson handed the Commission a chart benchmarking 22 Connecticut towns and cities against Norwalk, including neighboring communities and cities with more than 50,000 residents.

Lisa Thomson charter research 16-0210

Four of the communities have four-year mayors, but those communities have strong mayor systems, Thomson said. Stamford was the only one with a four-year Council, she said. Most have elected Finance boards, while Planning and Zoning and Finance are not accountable to voters in Norwalk, she said.

“Oftentimes, it appears as though no particular individual is in charge of some of the critical issues in Norwalk,” Thomson said. “I am not against four-year terms, but I think you need to address the responsibilities if you want to examine term extensions.”

Fitzgerald explained that any charter revision would be sent to the voters in the fall, and asked Thomson what she thought about that.

“I think it’s a bold move this year,” Thomson said. “… A lot of this seems self-serving to me; that’s been my frustration. If we were to look at more responsibilities, I wouldn’t mind four-year term as mayor. Many of these towns with four-year mayors have very strong mayors. … the problem is it’s just four more years of ribbon cutting and Facebook stuff as the mayor when the most pressing issue we have is planning and zoning and we have kicked that to the curb.”

James Cahn also said the commission’s mandate, with term lengths and possible term limits as its first priority, appeared to be self-serving.

Charter revision should be about “compelling measurable ways to create value for Norwalk taxpayers” and streamlining government to make it more efficient and hold it accountable, Cahn said.

“I am completely disinterested in how easy it is to be or remain a politician in Norwalk. Frankly, I am in favor of just about anything that would increase that barrier or increase the barrier of entry,” said Cahn, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully last year to represent District A on the Council.

He didn’t address the proposed four-year term of mayor but said that putting a two-term limit with that would have affected exactly one Norwalk mayor, Frank Esposito.

“Monkeying around the term limits and lengths with a weak mayor and a strong Council, and making it less difficult for government to give raises to the government employees, it gives every appearance of amateur self-serving behavior,” Cahn said.

There are changes to the charter that could make Norwalk more efficient, and that would include adopting a city manager style of government, he said. Looking at the effectiveness of Boards and Commission, and of code enforcement, would be better than term limits, he said.

Fitzgerald said city managers are typically appointed by a city council. Cahn agreed with that and said the Commission should be looking into it.

“This is not Mayberry we are dealing with,” Cahn said. “This is a multimillion dollar operation. There is no excuse for it not to have set, quantifiable benchmarks and things that people commit to.”

Former Mayor Bill Collins said the idea of a two-term limit for mayor is “troubling.”

“Having observed and participated in the business for a long time, I get the sense sometimes that the public feels that municipal improvement, maintenance of equipment and procedures that we have, that advances in making the city more appealing to residents and to visitors, are somehow the product of the tooth fairy and that they come automatically no matter who is in office. You vote a mayor in or out on the basis of how the taxes go,” Collins said.

Former Mayor Alex Knopp had to deal with school roofs needing repair due to neglect, and the average citizen has a difficult time keeping up with issues like that, Collins said.

Stamford was “dawdling along” until Dannel Malloy was its mayor for 14 years, and “had he been forced to leave after eight, Stamford would not be what it is today,” Collins said. There’s a jagged line of improvements in cities, depending on “how often the city gets someone in office who has the skills and the nerve to make things better,” Collins said.

“I think it would be a mistake,” Collins said. “It’s not that often that any city gets a mayor who really knows how it goes and is willing to risk his own political future and who has the vision to do what’s right. … To have that person automatically removed at the end of eight years does a disservice to the city because they don’t come along that often.”

Norwalkers attend last week's Charter Revision Commission public hearing in City Hall.

Norwalkers attend last week’s Charter Revision Commission public hearing in City Hall.

“Being mayor is not an easy job,” Michael Dunn said, speaking against a mayoral term limit. “I think there’s not a lot of people who can do it. What we are basically saying is we have someone that the voters have found, someone qualified. We’ve had somebody who the voters have found is qualified two times and now (that mayor is) the only person in the city who is not allowed to run for mayor anymore. Now maybe they’re not qualified anymore, but I think that is something that the voters can decide upon.”

A mayor in his or her second term would be unaccountable, and such a system would inspire that mayor to think about his or her own future, possibly at the expense of the city, he said. Strangely, a felon or a jobless person could run for mayor in the next election, but not the incumbent, a candidate with experience, he said.

In 2013, Norwalk un-elected a mayor who had been in office for eight years, he said.

“There is a history of Norwalk and in the region of not electing mayors who we don’t want to have with us anymore,” Dunn said.

Robert Hard said he agreed with Collins.

“First, it’s un-Democratic for me not to be able to vote for a candidate. Second, as soon as the mayor is re-elected, he or she is a lame duck for that entire term,” Hard said.

Diane Lauricella said she would like a mayoral term limit, but specifically a limit against serving more than eight years in succession. A mayor should be allowed to run again after a break, she said.

She had thoughts about city departments.

“The time has come to go back to the drawing board and to take a look at mixing it up,” Lauricella said. “Removing the Redevelopment Agency, removing the Planning and Zoning as we know it, and take a look and see what kind of structure we need in our city to have proper land use, planning and development.”

The charter should institutionalize the idea of a citizen review board, Lauricella said.

“I believe our terms should be limited to eight years for mayor,” said Nora King, who has served recently as a Common Council member and more recently as a Zoning commissioner. “I do think it should be a four-year term. I also think there should be limits on the Common Council role. I don’t think anyone should be on the Common Council for 20 years. I don’t think it’s a benefit to the city and honestly I think that we do have a lot of talent in our city to make way for new generations, new energy and new blood.”

“I guess I am the poster child for term limits,” Councilman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said.

But in Norwalk’s 116-year history there have only been two mayors who would have been affected by a two-term limit, Hempstead said. One served for 10 years and one served for eight, he said, referring to Esposito and former Mayor Richard Moccia.

The public decides if it wants a mayor for a longer term, he said.

The Common Council needs support staff and the charter should have the sexist language taken out, changing it from “Councilman” at every reference to “Councilman or Councilwoman,” he said.

Former Common Council member Michael Geake focused on the lengths of Council terms, after saying he has no intention of ever running for the Council again.

At-large Council members should get a four-year term, while in-district Council members should have two-year terms, Geake said. That give the at-large Council members “a little cookie for the fact that they have gone through the aggravation of getting elected at-large” and makes the in-district Council members more accountable to their districts, he said.

The Council members should be paid more, he said, offering a formula based on the mayor’s salary. It should be some percentage of that, divided by 15 – there are 15 Council members – because the two branches are co-equal, he said. This would avoid politicizing the issue in the future, he said.

Leigh Grant was among the Norwalkers calling for a city planner, asking if it needed to be in the charter.

“I don’t think that we have the talent in P&Z to move someone up to a town planner because all of these people have been working within a certain division of duties and that is the way they think,” she said.

Mayor Harry Rilling said last week that research is being done on how a city planner would be incorporated into Norwalk’s government.

Councilman Steve Serasis (D-District A) came to the Commission with a curve ball: the Recreation, Parks and Cultural Affairs Committee will vote on a resolution calling for reforming who qualifies for resident passes and therefore free parking at Calf Pasture Beach, he said.

“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.”

Commission Vice Chairman Jerry Petrini closed the meeting by saying that as former Council president he knew firsthand how difficult it was to create a Commission, as a super majority was needed. Passing any resultant proposed reform, to submit to the voters, would not be as difficult as it would require a simple majority, he said.

“Can we deviate (from our mandate)?” Petrini asked. “Yes, we can, but there is a check and balance system. … Ultimately, it rests with the voters.”

11 comments

Non Partisan February 16, 2016 at 8:22 am

City manager form of government. City manager runs the day to day business of the city.
All staff reports directly or indirectly thru a defined chain of command

Mayor and City council serve as a “Board of Directors” setting policy and approving budgets.

Norwalk is a $340,000,000 incorporated entity. Organize and Run it professionally, not politically.

EveT February 16, 2016 at 9:06 am

The framers of the US constitution didn’t think it unreasonable for the House of Representatives to have 2-year terms. The framers of the CT State constitution didn’t think it unreasonable for State Senators and State Reps to have 2-year terms.
Why, then, is it seen as an unreasonable burden for a city’s Mayor and Council to have 2-year terms?

Missy Conrad February 16, 2016 at 2:40 pm

Well, our US Constitution was not perfect, that is why there have been Amendments (tho’ that 18th had to be repealed after merely 13 years). Two years is not the actual full time to work on being a representative or Councilperson (this term can be used instead of the longer phrase, “Councilman or Councilwoman”). Time must be taken to raise money and to meet the voters & ask for their support. Our Norwalk Council reps mostly have outside, paid jobs, as well.
Until our Democracy is paid for by us all with public financing, those two years go by especially quickly!!

James Cahn February 16, 2016 at 2:56 pm

Some corrections: At this meeting I was (rightly) corrected by Bill Collins that Irving Freese indeed did serve more than 8 years, though not consecutively. Also, while it is true that they are “strong,” I believe that I referred to the council as “overly sprawling”

That addressed; I’m still not clear on how exactly the changes which we’re focusing on will benefit or provide value to myself and the other tax payers of Norwalk. And I’m not talking about the very general answer of, “well, if we make the terms longer, we can have elections less often and that will save money. Also, if we take the (functionally already) nonexistent positions off the ballot, it will be less confusing for people that might be otherwise confused.” While both true, those are more convenient and coincident facts than they are solid convincers.

If term extensions remain the items that we insist on focusing on, there can only be two reasons: First, because our politicians believe that they are doing such a clear, progressive and dynamic job that it’s a no-brainer to reward them with longer terms. To this I would reply, “Sounds good, I’m on board. But before we do this, let’s review what these specific results have been.”

If that’s not the case, then the second reason is, that there are compelling, dynamic, actionable items that our politicians can only address in a 4 year term. To which my response would be, “Sounds good. But before we do this, what are they?”

As is stands, I’m not aware of any other contexts in which the discussion could exist. Beyond that, I haven’t been convinced of the supporting facts for either of them. I’m unlike most people. Not only do I not mind having something sold to me, I actually insist on it.

I will withhold attribution, but while at this meeting, I overheard someone privately offer, “You’ll see the difference a 4 year mayor and council make when they have 4 years. That’s why you have to give them 4 years.”

Now, I’ve heard this rationalization before. Except usually it’s more well argued and it goes, “Daddy, the only way you’ll see how great my piano practice can be AFTER you give me some cookies is by FIRST giving me the cookies…” I don’t, by the way, accept it in that case, either.

What disturbs me most about the whole direction of the discussion of Charter Review is what we find when we examine where the political will exists in Norwalk. Or, perhaps, more to the point, where it seems not to exist.

I think that the Review Commission was made well aware of the items that some of us would like to see addressed. Their future agendas should be interesting to watch unfold.

Robert Hard February 16, 2016 at 3:53 pm

My main comments, not reported here, concerned the absurd situation of water customers paying 50% more for water if they live outside the First or Second Taxing Districts. Evidently this is one of those hot button, special interest-laden issues that the powers-that-be just won’t touch. We may have to go the direct referendum route to get justice here. Nothing will happen for the foreseeable future.
Regarding the two-year vs four-year term for council members, I believe that the current arrangement is quite suitable. It allows the voters to get rid of members promptly of it turns out that they don’t play well with others.
The problem is that when a council election does not coincide with a high-stakes race like the Mayoralty (if we go to four-year terms for Mayor), voter turnout can be expected to plunge. A small but passionate cult can then pick the winner(s).
If calls to civic-mindedness fall on deaf ears, maybe an appeal to self-interest would work. If you vote in one of those off-year elections, you get a coupon that knocks $100 off your real estate taxes. If you don’t vote, you have $50 added to your taxes. (BTW, in Australia, there’s a $20 fine for the first failure to vote. It goes up yo $50 for second and subsequent failures. Australian voter turnout is generally well over 90%.)

James Cahn February 18, 2016 at 4:51 pm

@MC

I think that the points that you raise in your opinion piece are fair, reasonable and well argued.

However…Why are politics and policy making the only area where the excuse of, “Really, this is all the fault of the folks before me” is acceptable?

In my professional life, I’ve been assigned the responsibility of teams which were entirely the product of some else’s creation. Not only that, they were comprised almost EXCLUSIVELY of people I wouldn’t have chosen myself. My mandate was to be chief vision communicator, guidance counselor, coach and cheerleader and to, “Figure it out. Period.” If we didn’t hit our numbers, the excuse of, “It was the fault of the person before me, I didn’t get to pick my team.” wouldn’t have been accepted. (This is in an F50 organization, by the way and I didn’t accidentally forget a zero, there.)

As it relates to the Mayor of Norwalk, (ANY Mayor of Norwalk, not just our current one) the Charter all but identifies his or her duties as “chief vision communicator, guidance counselor, coach and cheerleader.”

I’m not as well informed as some of my colleagues. Is there a long and well established record of Norwalk Mayors being denied their clearly brilliant ideas at every turn by rogue agents of a prior administration? And, just to avoid being accused of picking on the mayor’s office, is there a long history of provocative, exciting initiatives that the Common Council has wanted to pursue but for focused efforts of “the old guard” to deter that agenda?

To the contrary, the last time a Mayor didn’t have at LEAST 4 years was back during Thom O’Connor’s term from 1981-1983.

Again, if this is the case being made for four year terms, I’m happy to look at the evidence in the interest of being convinced.

Mark Chapman February 18, 2016 at 6:31 pm

@James Cahn

Just a point or two: I, too, have worked in that situation, coming in and taking over employees I haven’t chosen and would not have chosen and had to do the best with them. But here’s the difference: In business, you can usually count on having trained professionals in place, or at least newbies who have studied to attain the position. In municipal government there is no such guarantee. No names, certainly, but look around at the various commission rosters and try to match some of the players with the needed backgrounds or credentials. There are several really good volunteers serving, people who have backgrounds worthy of appointment or who have studied the subject and have become educated and valued members of any team. Then there are others who are there for other reasons. So you have a different dynamic than you do in business.

One of the problems that scuttled charter reform prior to now is that many people were afraid that once the charter was opened there would be efforts to jump in and make wholesale changes that would wind up sinking the idea as a whole. The incremental approach could prevent that. Term lengths first, reorganization of commissions after that, and maybe the bigger decision, which will take more debate, about changing the form to city manager/council, which has its merits.

Lisa Thomson February 18, 2016 at 10:56 pm

Mark, I am surprised to see what appears to be your ‘soft support’ for term extensions, since the primary reason for NON existing is to shine a light and create accountability for our local government.

If our supermajority mayor and council were really interested in serving the needs of a city our size, they’d reorganize and create professional functions like a city manager and city planner BEFORE term extensions or ask for a $100k mayoral assistant, likely to be filled by a ‘political’ insider.

If term extensions pass, there will be little INCENTIVE to ‘fix’ the other, or there will be some excuse that we won’t be able to ‘afford it’ after paying the existing crew more money. I hope the voters of Norwalk don’t fall for it.

As I’ve said before, it all seems terribly self serving and disappointing that this is what the mayor and common council have said is the most pressing order of charter reform for our city.

On a national level, status quo behavior like this is why Trump and Sanders are doing so well. Voters are angry and frustrated by the development of a political class that have created a club for themselves and another for everyone else. In Norwalk, the most obvious blurred lines are in the areas of planning and zoning. Enough said.

Stuart Wells February 21, 2016 at 11:12 am

Like Stamford, the Hartford “Court of Common Council” also have four-year terms. (This began in 2004, per Hartford City Charter, Chapter III, Sec. 4). The nine council persons from Hartford are paid $15,000 per year.
The Selectmen in many towns, such as Fairfield, Ridgefield, and Westport serve four-year terms.

Lisa Thomson February 21, 2016 at 3:55 pm

Stuart, I can’t speak to the town charters of Fairfield and Ridgefield – they weren’t included in my analysis – as they were not directly neighboring and are much smaller than Norwalk, but I will check. However, it is important to tell voters a more complete charter story, Westport’s P&Z is COMBINED and ELECTED and their FINANCE Board is also ELECTED.

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