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.