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Norwalk Charter Revision Commission update

The Norwalk Charter Revision Commission holds its first meeting, Sept. 21 in City Hall.
An editorial from the Norwalk Charter Revision Commission.

The Norwalk Charter Revision Commission – authorized by the Common Council and comprised of seven Democrat, Republican and Unaffiliated volunteers – has been meeting bimonthly since September to review and recommend changes to the City’s charter.  Largely unchanged since 1913, the charter is in desperate need of an update in order to make the document more relevant and legible to the citizens of Norwalk.  Below please find an explanation of the process as well as a progress report as we approach the Commission’s final recommendations to the Common Council in May/June of this year.

What is the Norwalk City Charter?

Under Connecticut’s “Home Rule” law, the City charter serves as our local constitution. It creates the structure of our City government and the rules that govern our elected officials, like the Mayor, Common Council and the Board of Education, as well as appointed officials. How does a bill become a law (ordinance)? What rules govern the adoption of our annual operating fund and capital budgets? Do charter provisions adopted 50 to 100 years ago still have pertinence in the 21st century? Those are some of the questions that can be answered in the charter.

What does ‘Home Rule’ mean?

“Home Rule” is something of a misnomer. It sounds like a City can establish rules that govern the community. That is not true because in Connecticut there is no inherent right of local citizens to establish governance structures as they please and there is no implied right for municipalities to create government structures on their own. Local governments can only exercise authority expressly granted by the State. “Home Rule” is the body of laws and rules granted by the State. There are also State laws which restrict municipalities, including laws that govern elections, collective bargaining and public emergencies.

Who has the Charter Revision Commission met with?

The City has retained counsel to assist with the charter revision process.  Attorney Steve Mednick, who has managed charter revisions for some of Connecticut’s largest municipalities, has helped the Commission coordinate meetings with the Mayor, Corporation Counsel, Finance Department, members of the Common Council and other elected/appointed City officials.  The Commission also hosted a panel at its February 15th meeting of elected officials from New Haven, Hamden and Danbury who have recently completed, or are in the process of completing, their own municipal charter revisions to learn what worked and what did not during their updates.  Additionally, in the coming weeks the Commission will be meeting with the Board of Education and additional City departments and elected officials.

Are Charter Revision Commission meetings open to the public?

All meetings of the Charter Revision Commission, held on the first and third Wednesday of each month at 6:30 p.m., have been open to the public, both in person at City Hall and online via Zoom.  Agendas, minutes and links to meetings/materials may be found on the City’s Charter Revision Commission website: https://apps.norwalkct.org/meetingboard/committee/47

What has the Charter Revision Commission done or recommended to date?

The Commission will not make its final transmittal to the Common Council until May or June.  We have been reviewing the existing charter section by section and identifying outdated language/references, reorganizing sections to modernize the charter by making it more practical and considering ways, including known best practices, to make City government more efficient and transparent.  Some of the notable items the Commission has discussed include:

  • Are certain elected positions included in the current charter (constable, sheriff, selectman) still relevant today?
  • Does the current date of term commencement (second Tuesday following election) provide ample time for transition?
  • Term of office for the Mayor and Common Council members.  What are the pros and cons of four- versus two-year terms?
  • Should certain boards/commissions (particularly police and fire) be expanded to better serve the community?
  • Does the current charter clearly define the process for establishing the operating and capital budgets?

 

Additionally, the Commission has identified deficiencies in the current charter that should be clarified and codified, including district reapportionment and line of succession in the event that a Mayor or Common Council member becomes unable to serve.

What can the Charter Revision Commission NOT do?

Certain things are not expressly granted by state law, including recall of the Mayor or other elected officials and establishing term limits.  The Commission has been consulting with counsel to ensure that all final recommendations are permissible.

Can members of the public offer input?

YES.  The Charter Revision Commission wants to hear from as many interested Norwalk residents/stakeholders as possible.  The Charter Revision Commission will be holding additional public hearings in April and May, and comments may always be submitted in writing through the Charter Revision Commission page on the City website.  Please be sure to attend a meeting/hearing or submit a comment in writing through the website if you would like your suggestions/concerns to be considered.

What happens next?

The Commission will continue to meet through April and May, with a public hearing to be held once in each month.  It will make a transmittal of its recommended revisions in May or June, after which the Common Council will vote to accept or reject the updated charter.  After the Common Council process the revised charter will be voted on by residents during the November 2023 election.

Prior to sending its final revision to the Common Council, the Commission will recommend a mandatory period (typically five or 10 years) for revisiting the charter and considering further revisions, however there is nothing preventing the City from further revising the charter more frequently in intervening years.

As the Commission continues to work through the charter revision process, we want to remind members of the public that we are reforming a document – not reforming the government.  Our focus has been on structure, good governance and transparency, with the hope that the end result is a City charter that makes navigating Norwalk’s “constitution” easier for everyone.  Additionally, this revision is not intended to be final – the plan is to leave the City with an updated charter that may be revisited again in the coming years as needed.  We hope to hear from everyone who has an idea about how to make our charter more effective.

 

Norwalk Charter Revision Commission members are Patsy Brescia (Chair), Carl Dickens, Tyler Fairbairn, Richard McQuaid (Vice Chair), Angel Wasunna, Benita Watford Raleigh and Michael Witherspoon.

Comments

3 responses to “Norwalk Charter Revision Commission update”

  1. Lisa Brinton

    Updating a 100 year old document is tedious and no easy task. I commend the commission for their efforts. My understanding is this first review will be put to the ballot in Nov. to be voted on. It simply updates the archaic language, making it easier for the public to understand the structure & rules under which Norwalk’s local government operates. Any future and perhaps more ‘controversial’ amendments to our governance will be made at a later date.

    Having said that, I’ve long argued (especially now we’re doubling the population) that we need a non-partisan, professional city manager, focused more on daily city operations and less on national politics. The city manager would report to the common council and the mayor’s office would become more ceremonial or represent the city’s national conscience.

    I recognize my ‘city manager’ vision runs counter culture to Norwalk’s political class, but hear me out.

    The city manager role sort of exists today. That person is Laoise King. Unfortunately, she’s not non-partisan and not accountable to the council, reporting directly to the mayor.

    Historically, Norwalk’s mayoral office has had too much power. As such its been dominated by an ‘inner circle of unelected cronies’ regardless of person or party. It’s the exact opposite of the ‘strong council, weak mayor’ system we tout. This concentrated power in the executive branch impacts every aspect of our government and results in a lack of transparency. It even dominates, who was selected for this charter revision commission.

    When EVERY decision ‘appears’ political vs operational and the mayor’s office (by charter) ALSO controls EVERY board and commission appointment or worse leaves positions unfilled – the council can do absolutely nothing about it and it hurts Norwalk.

    Executive power in Norwalk needs more check and balance with the 15 members of the common council having balanced authority to represent their neighborhoods and residents – without fear of political reprisal from the executive branch. A mayor, any mayor should not be able to dominate a city of ~ 100,000 people with only ~ 8,000 votes. The charter, should safeguard democracy and accountability. Currently, it does not.

    We are bearing witness to the zoning, financial, educational and quality of life effects of a lack of checks and balances or charter safeguards to protect the public against an overly powerful mayor. One example, 10 years of executive power has resulted in a land use strategy dominated by crony developers and a $167M drop in our grand list’s value, during the biggest real estate boom in CT in decades. What’s worse, we don’t really understand why.

    The culture wars dominating American politics has trickled down to running local government. It’s resulted in taking our eye off the ball re: basic city operations – be it paving roads and sidewalks, collecting garbage, managing blight, zoning, taking care of our parks, funding our schools, etc.

    I look forward to reading the rewrite, by Atty. Mednick, a very credible and experienced charter revision lawyer, who’ll make the document easier for the public to understand. Once people can read ‘how things are’ the next iterations can be about ‘how to make things better.’ From my perspective, that means more check and balance, between our executive and legislative branches, so Norwalk reaches its full potential.

  2. David Muccigrosso

    Here’s some public input: Adopt Ranked Choice in this revision, and expand the council by ~5x. We desperately need more partisan diversity in our representation.

  3. David Muccigrosso

    @Lisa, the issue I have with your talk about how “every decision appears political” is that “political” accusations are REALLY easy to level in bad faith.

    Harry hasn’t gotten around to putting a crosswalk in on Water St. at SoNo Square. Must be political! Boom, see how that works?

    We saw this with the Cemetary St development project. A bunch of citizens are unhappy about a project… okay that’s par for the NIMBY course. The electeds ignore them and approve it anyways… because the electeds believe in approving these kinds of projects. But now, all the NIMBYs are yelling about how this was a “political” decision! It doesn’t matter to them what the electeds believe, it just matters that the electeds didn’t make the decision THEY wanted, and that’s enough to accuse them of being “political”.

    It’s a hollow accusation.

    RE your point about 8000 voters electing our town leadership in a city of 100k, I totally agree. It’s downright shameful that we do our elections in off years where no one really turns out.

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