NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk’s singularly backward charter, which hasn’t had a comprehensive revision since it was written in 1913, is set to be cleaned up by an attorney who specializes in governmental organization. Common Council member John Kydes (D-District C) is among those who hope the revision will be the first step toward a long-awaited overhaul that has failed to gain traction among Norwalk voters.
Attorney Steven Mednick will 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. References to horses on city streets will likely be removed without controversy, but more substantial changes – expanding the size of the Police Commission, to cite one example – will need the public’s consent via an election.
Thus far, the electorate has balked.
“We’ve been through this charter revision before. After all the effort, nearly nothing we recommended got passed by the public. And then during that process, we learned that pretty much all the questions we asked the public to vote on were asked in the past and also failed,” Kydes said last week.
Mednick, whom the Council awarded a $100,000 three-year contract, said he has “a pretty decent record” for getting charter revisions passed.
By all accounts, Norwalk’s charter badly needs an overhaul.
Among the critics is Evergreen Solutions LLC, author of the recently released efficiency study and its recommendation for a Charter Revision Commission. There’s a “desperate need” for this because “it’s all over the place,” said Betty Ressel when presenting the efficiency study to the Council in March.
“A review of the Charter found references to conditions and structures dating back to the time when the City was a Town, elected positions that have no current function, and position descriptions with duties that no longer apply,” the efficiency study states.
Among the charter’s archaic references are a number concerning the Mayor’s powers. They include the following:
- The Mayor “shall be the conservator of the peace” able to use “force and strong hand when necessary to suppress all tumults, riots, and unlawful assemblages.”
- The Mayor can “arrest without warrant” anyone thought to be “reveling, quarreling, brawling” or disturbing the peace and put them “in the city prison” for up to 24 hours.
- The Mayor can “enter any house, building, place, or enclosure” where “he” reasonably suspects “dissolute or disorderly persons to be assembled” or where groups may be involved in unlawful activities, or if the premises are being used “for the purpose of lewdness, prostitution, or gambling.” He can order the people there to leave or, again, put them in “the city prison.”
Then there are the activities the Council can engage in:
- Purchasing “necessary fire engines, hose carriages, horses, and other fire apparatus.”
- Regulating animal speeds on city streets.
- Regulating coasting, sliding and use of velocipedes, bicycles, and tricycles on the sidewalks, as well as the location and construction of pigpens and privies.
Evergreen Solutions points out that “the City does not operate a prison, some forms of gambling are now legal in Connecticut, and the Mayor’s ability to enter a home because he suspects an unlawful assemblage, may be constitutionally questionable.”
The efficiency study lists four elected positions that serve no purpose, and recounts the 2016 charter revision effort to eliminate them, which failed at the ballot box.
Norwalk therefore continues to pay selectmen $150 a month, for, well, nothing.
Given all of the above, “It’s therefore no surprise that Evergreen Solutions in their efficiency study recommended that the city established a Charter Revision Committee to complete revise the charter,” Council President Tom Livingston (D-District E) said Tuesday. “…I think, quite frankly, our past experience has shown that we really do need to do this right. In my mind doing it right means hiring somebody like Mr. Mednick, who has the experience, the history of doing this.”
Mednick has been serving public and private institutional clients in private practice for 28 years, his website states. “Mednick has re-written the governance structures for many of the largest municipalities in the State of Connecticut. He opened his solo practice in 2001 focusing on municipal issues (including planning and zoning), economic development and technology projects.”
He uses Norwalk’s charter as an example of what not to do when he makes presentations around the state, according to Livingston.
In a detailed presentation to the Council last week, Mednick spent time on a basic introduction to the legal intricacies involved, such as “Home Rule” and fun things like “Express grants of authority.”
He called the Board of Estimate and Taxation “interesting” and said he “looked forward to learning more about it” as “it’s really quite fascinating.”
“The only actual requirements in the charter is to have a Chief Executive, the Mayor, and to have all of you, the legislative body, the Council, … the structure is all up to you to decide how much structure you want to put in the charter,” he said.
Then there are the functions of government. Mednick said he really tries to lead his client Charter Commissions, Mayors and legislative bodies into “an understanding of what is the proper balance between legislative function and executive function.”
The charter is 197 pages and 63 of them are devoted to taxing districts; you don’t get to the Common Council until page 81 and the Mayor doesn’t have a dedicated chapter, Mednick said.
“You may say, ‘Well, it’s there, Steve. So what are you worried about?’ Try finding it … to see what the powers of the Mayor are, what the powers of the Council are,” he said.
A charter is a blueprint, a document to establish accountability for government officers and administrative functions, but the explanations are “all over the place,” Mednick said.
“The budget process should be linear. You as members of the Council, the Board of Estimate, the Mayor, the members of the public should be able to look at the process and say this is where it starts. And this is where it ends. And you can’t do that right now in your charter,” he said.
But fixing a charter is “sometimes an incremental process,” and he started work on Hartford’s charter 20 years ago, he said. He’s also worked on Waterbury’s charter, and “they’re both, I think, in pretty good shape.”
He’s currently working on Fairfield and Hamden, he said. “The best one I did was Bridgeport, but that lost 10 years ago on the referendum, over a miscue on structure, the Board of Education, which killed the whole charter to unfortunately…All three of my charters in New Britain were adopted.”
Mednick’s three-year contract is based on an hourly rate and the $100,000 mentioned is a maximum amount, Livingston said, explaining in an email that “Attorney Mednick estimated the cost to be (a) $10-15,000 +/- (FY 2021-2022); (b) $75,000 +/- (FY 2022-2023); and (c) $15,000 +/- (FY 2023-2024), plus out of pocket and other necessary expenses.”
Mayor Harry Rilling said Tuesday that he met Mednick at the Western Connecticut Council of Governments (WestCOG) and found him to be “very capable.” Livingston said Mednick invited him to be on a panel and “we’ve been talking about this for years… we were very impressed with his knowledge and experience and his approach.”
“We need somebody to guide us and the Commission, too. Not just tell them what to do, kind of help them through the process,” Rilling said. It’s very complex, and he and Livingston agree that “this would be an ongoing process” because the charter needs so much work.
Mednick’s first step “is to take the charter and reorganize it, as he said, linearly, so that it’s easier to follow,” Livingston said. The Charter Revision Commission will then work from that cleaned-up document, deciding whether to propose substantive changes such as the length of the terms elected official serve.
Livingston acknowledged the mistakes of the past and the need to educate the public this time.
Mednick said he encourages charter revision supporters to write op-eds and use social media to advocate for a document.
“A lot of towns don’t know this, but you can do an explanatory text under the statutes that the municipality can pay for,” he said. “It’s not a partisan document. And it’s not an argumentative document. It’s a factual document that lays out for the voters what has changed in each section of the charter, how you have made those changes and where they are in the charter. So that’s number one. That’s done by the town clerk. Working with the Corporation Counsel, I usually provide some assistance in putting that document together. And it varies from town to town.”
He said, “The other thing is I tell commissioners, is that if you sign on to this, your job doesn’t end when the Council approves your work. You really should form a Political Action Committee, a bipartisan Political Action Committee, hopefully, and work on educating the public so that people don’t forget about it. I’m always worried, every charter, I worry that it’s going to lose, because somebody may demagogue against an issue or no one will pay attention to the issue. So I can’t tell you that it’s 100%. But … I’ve been pretty lucky in the way that we’ve done it, no guarantees on anything.”