NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk’s Charter Revision Commission is going further than some citizens expected.
Though some perceived the Commission would stick with cleaning up the charter and leave more controversial items to a following election, the Commission is drafting a charter revision that would make give the Mayor a four-year term. The detailed revision to that passage includes having the Mayor inaugurated in January, not two weeks after the election, as is done now.
On April 10, Commissioner Tyler Fairbairn said issues like an increased Mayoral term would be separated when the proposal goes to the ballot this fall.
“You’ll have the kind of cleaned up charter with the less controversial suggestions. And then you’ll have that as a separate issue,” he said. “I would hope that that would be something that wouldn’t be responsible for this not getting through.”
Also drawing controversy and some friction with the Board of Education is the City-side’s desire for oversight. At this point, that’s boiled down to a requirement for quarterly financial reporting from Norwalk Public Schools on multi-year contracts.
Less controversial is a drafted elimination of some City elected offices that essentially do nothing. That might sound like a no brainer but it failed in a 2016 charter revision vote; the drafted version isn’t so sweeping, at this point tentatively retaining the constables and the sheriff.
The Commission’s draft is expected to go to the Common Council for approval at the end of May or early June. Commission members invite public comment at their meeting tonight.
“It is not an official hearing but rather a public input meeting to hear from residents on issues that they are interested in. It is a Hybrid meeting starting at 6:30 in the Common Council chambers,” Charter Revision Commission Chairwoman Patsy Brescia said in an email.
A charter is a blueprint, a document to establish accountability for government officers and administrative functions, Attorney Steven Mednick has said. Betty Ressel of Evergreen Solutions, author of last year’s efficiency study, said Norwalk’s charter is in “desperate” need of a rewrite.
Early process mentioned BoE, Council compensation, Police Commission
When Mednick was hired a year ago to guide a volunteer panel of appointees said to be chosen by the Common Council in drafting a comprehensive charter revision – the first in 110 years – he said he’d start the process by simply reorganizing the charter to make it more user friendly, for example taking the many passages that refer to the Mayor and putting them in one place.
Mednick has done that, at least in a basic form.
Substantive discussions began in September, when Mednick commented, “There’s an awful lot of accountability that you can have with a Board of Education, more than Board of Education lawyers will allow you to understand.”
At an October public hearing, some Council members requested a salary increase.
“We get paid about $46 a month,” Council member Jenn McMurrer (D-District C) said, calling it “definitely not equitable” as people who work full-time or have small children aren’t encouraged to run.
Council member Nicol Ayers (D-District A) called it a “social justice issue.”
“Part of government is obviously serving, but part of government is removing barriers,” she said. “We are our best selves when everybody comes to the table equally; this current document does not allow us to be equal. … Please really look at a way that we could be more inclusive of all family types, so that we are really getting a representative government.”
The compensation pleas are not self-serving, “it’s actually about expanding opportunity and giving us, the ‘us’ being the city of Norwalk, the best possible chance to ensure our future success for generations to come,” Council member Josh Goldstein (D-At Large) said.
Goldstein and Ayers also asked for staff members for the Council. Council member Nora Niedzielski-Eichner (D-At Large) and Goldstein suggested that the Police Commission be expanded.
During a nearly-four hour long work session Saturday, Mednick explained the process by which salary increases could be made, while stressing he wasn’t advocating for the measure. Instead, he suggested a clause calling for a referendum on increases.
An expense account was also discussed.
Brescia commented that these might be voted on after Wednesday’s public input session.
As for the Police Commission, Mednick said, “The Mayor’s recommending an increase in the number of police commissioners and fire commissioners.”
The Mayor would be a voting chairperson and up to four citizens would be on the panels, bringing the membership from three to five. A civilian review board was also mentioned.
Board of Ed contention
“The statutes give the Board of Education line authority within their budget, you have bottom line authority, but we have Supreme Court law that says that any information you want from the Board of Ed, they have to provide you,” Mednick said in December.
A Board of Education has “very strict statutory responsibilities, but they’re a department of the city,” he said. “In most of the charters in the state, they have to operate as a department of the City and provide all the information that every other department has to provide.”
In late March, this developed into what Mednick has since called “a fracas.”
At that point, the Commission’s draft called for monthly financial reporting from the Board of Education.
BoE Chairwoman Diana Carpio said the Board understood that the charter revision was intended to focus on the document’s ancient language but members were concerned because they felt their responsibilities appeared to undergoing a change.
Brescia replied that archaic language was being redone and the document reorganized, but in some places it’s obvious that “there’s a big difference from what the charter says” and how the government is actually functioning.
She said the Commission had also been charged with taking input, and the drafted changes are in response to those comments.
“The Board of Ed is a very different entity than any other departments,” Carpio said. “…We don’t fall under the City, as other departments do.”
“You’re a department of the City,” Mednick replied, then acknowledging that the Board’s budgeting is different, and the Board is elected.
The drafted reporting requirements would be an “inappropriate” practice change, BoE member Sheri McCready Brown said.
Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella called the proposed requirement “inconsiderate,” given the number of contracts the Board is engaged with and confidentiality requirements.
Attorney Thomas Mooney, representing the Board, pointed out that documents are available under the Freedom of Information Act. The level of detail being laid out for reporting “would suggest that the City is in charge of what textbook to buy, or what reasons to settle (a lawsuit). So we just don’t see the benefit to the City in getting into the intricate workings of the Board of Ed as it does its job on behalf of the residents of Norwalk.”
Another drafted passage said the BoE and its employees would cooperate with City officials and Boards. BoE member Kara Nelson Baekey called the passage “demeaning” and asked that it be removed.
Mednick called it “pretty standard” and asked, “What’s the problem with cooperation?”
“It doesn’t really seem to go both ways,” Baekey replied. “It’s almost as if the Board of Ed and the superintendent have been insubordinate. That’s how I interpreted it.”
Brescia said the same language was in the draft for every department.
On Saturday, Mednick said the reporting passage was changed to focus on multi-year agreements.
“We’re trying to get multiple years, we’re trying to find out how you’re circumventing the system by approving a contract for one year that actually has an option agreement,” he said, summarizing the Commission’s thoughts.
Fairbairn said he thought the current charter calls for monthly reports from the Board of Education. Commissioner Rick McQuaid agreed.
“Is it being done? No,” McQuaid said.
Another “bone of contention” is the budget flow, Brescia said.
The BoE wants to kick building maintenance to the capital budget, “to reduce their maintenance fees in the operating budget,” and was asking to be listed with the decision-making bodies in the capital budget process, Mednick said.
While Mooney is “trying to emphasize the criticality of their role in capital budgets and capital planning,” a State Supreme Court case found that capital budgets are a City-side function, unless there’s a separate education district, Mednick said.
Other changes include a specification that Council district boundary lines may change. Mednick called it “shocking” that the charter’s districts haven’t been challenged.
“I think it’s explained by the fact that we have this districts system and it’s so parochial, and powerful,” Brescia said.
Language revisions include removing the passage where the Council can vote to discharge an employee during an executive session – a move that is illegal under FOI.
There’s been much talk about replacing a Mayor who is incapacitated, and a line of succession. A transition office for new Mayors has also been mentioned.
Mednick said he’d be editing the draft to the moment it’s approved by the Council in August.
Citizens are already forming opinions, Commissioner Carl Dickens said.
“I think there’s some great work being done here, but I didn’t want this thing. And I’ve just seen it, you all have seen it also. I just don’t want it DOA before it even gets a chance to breathe,” he said.
“We are reforming the document. We’re not reforming the government,” Mednick said. “There are a few things we are doing.”
He said, “Generally what we’re doing is we’re taking a 1913 document. And we are turning it into a 2023 (document).” Changes to the Council or the Board of Estimate and Taxation will be left to a future Commission, “But right now, we want a document that will be passed in November, period.”
Copy edits, 3:27 p.m.