The Norwalk Ordinance Committee moved forward a proposal to establish an advisory committee that would look at how to reapportion the Common Council districts in the city, despite push back from Republicans and Independents.
The committee voted 6 to 1 to move the ordinance that establishes the committee to a public hearing, which will take place in February.
If approved by the full Common Council, the advisory committee would be responsible for examining the Council districts and making recommendations on how to adjust them to make sure they were “of substantially equal population,” where they considered “communities of interest and historical boundary lines,” such as taxing districts.
The advisory committee would be made up of seven members, and no more than three can be from the same political party. All of the seven members would be “appointed by the President of the Council following consultation with the Majority and Minority Leaders of the Council and approved by a majority vote of the Council.” The proposal also requires the Council President to “consult with civic, political, and community leaders” to make sure that members of the advisory committee reflect “the diversity of residents as well as the geographic representation required by the Charter.”
Praise for ‘Nonpartisanship’
Democratic members of the Ordinance Committee, all of whom unanimously voted to advance it, voiced support for the structure of the committee, saying that it allowed for a variety of voices to be included in the process.
“We are a city that is not a bipartisan city—we are a city where we have an enormous portion of unaffiliated voters,” Council member Nora Niedzielski-Eichner (D-At Large) said. “So I think that the nonpartisan approach taken here, where no party has a majority, I think is a really key and crucial point of this…I think really is intended to be representative of the diversity of political thought in the city.”
Council member Jalin Sead (D-District A) said that he believed the proposed ordinance “puts a lot of work on the [Council] President” to make sure they’re choosing a diversity of people for the advisory committee.
“So I think that it actually is a lot more inclusive because that accountability is right there,” he said. “And I think that it puts the pressure on a minority leader, majority leader, and community leaders to really get through to the president to make sure that the people are represented.”
Council member Josh Goldstein (D-At Large) said that this advisory committee would follow how other committees in the city are set, with a variety of perspectives.
“I think that this is a nonpartisan process because ultimately, we have people of all different political stripes appointed to boards and commissions across the city and that has always made us better,” he said. “And we’re not shirking away from that particular principle now or in the future.”
Concerns about representation
But Republicans and Independents raised concerns that voices of the minority parties in the city wouldn’t be represented if the Council President was responsible for making the appointments.
Lisa Brinton, head of the Norwalk Independent Party, wrote in a letter submitted as testimony that this was “insider baseball” and that it was “inconsistent” with how other cities, such as Danbury, Stamford, and Bridgeport worked on reapportioning their districts. All of those cities, like Norwalk, had Democrats in the majority.
Brinton said that if the current proposal moved forward it would demonstrate to “45% of Norwalk’s electorate that this committee doesn’t care about diversity, equity, or inclusion when it comes to minority opposition.”
Both Brinton and Fred Wilms, head of the Norwalk Republican party, cited that 45% of voters in the most recent election voted for the Republican candidate for mayor.
“It’s really out of step for what we find elsewhere in Connecticut,” Wilms said.
He said that Connecticut has a history of bipartisanship, including at the state level, where a bipartisan commission is put together to redistrict the state and federal legislative districts and that this proposal felt more like “what they do in Washington D.C.”
Resident Donna Smirniotopoulos wrote in a letter that the council had a chance to “correct course and create a process for populating the redistricting committee” in a way that would respect “the diversity of opinion in the city.”
“I ask that you amend the process to allow the Minority Leader to appoint minority party appointees and to consider that the largest single largest bloc of registered voters are unaffiliated,” she wrote. “We cannot be a city of progressive ideas when we keep dipping at the same well of friendly and well-known faces to serve on committees.”
Council member Heather Dunn, an Independent and only non-Democrat on the Common Council, said that she was concerned about this being a legal document going forward and setting precedent for how this advisory committee is established and that it wasn’t representative of the city’s population.
“My concern comes from the fact that there is a very real 45% of people—I don’t necessarily think they feel that they’re part of the process and part of what goes on in the city,” she said. “I think I’m looking at it in terms of this document is something that’s going to be a living document for the city that we may not get a second chance at.”
Dunn voted against advancing the proposal to a public hearing.
That public hearing is scheduled for the committee’s next meeting on Wednesday, February 20.
Kelly Prinz, formerly Kelly Kultys, is the founder of Coastal Connecticut Times.