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Norwalk Council hires a lawyer to help rewrite ancient charter

Attorney Steven Mednick speaks remotely to the Common Council recently. Mednick said he’s done five charter revisions in the last two years and has not met any Charter Revision Commission members in person, just by Zoom.

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.

 

A scene from the 2018 Norwalk Memorial Day parade. Horses do indeed roam city streets now and then. (Bob Welsh)

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.”

A man rides a velocipede, March 2020 at Calf Pasture Beach. (Claire Schoen)

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.”

Efficiency charter

13 comments

M Murray April 18, 2022 at 6:23 am

The reason many charter revisions fail is that they try to do too much all at once and include too many controversial changes, with each one having their own opposition voting against the charter revision, resulting in a loss. Common sense would indicate that the original revision should not contain any controversial changes. Then in subsequent election cycles, controversial items can be listed on the ballot as individual initiatives to be voted upon on their own, not as a group. This way the revision isn’t an all or nothing package.

David Muccigrosso April 18, 2022 at 8:44 am

How about also changing our elections so that more parties are viable? Even Ranked Choice and open/jungle primaries would do wonders for Norwalk. Don’t get me started on how multi-member districts would increase political diversity.

And how about putting them on EVEN years to maximize turnout by coinciding with national elections?

Erica Kipp April 18, 2022 at 10:48 am

There are at least two attorneys that I know of, I am sure more, currently on CC. why is our tax money continually spent on redundant projects? Could these council members not donate a fraction of their time each and accomplish what Mednick plans to accomplish and without the intimate knowledge of Norwalk? We are not New Haven.

Piberman April 18, 2022 at 11:04 am

No amount of Charter change will ameliorate Norwalk’s most glaring long running well known civic deficiency. Namely its failing pubic school system unable to educate our children to meet CT Edu Dept standards. Our City’s Democratic leaders just don’t seem to be interested in rectifying our public schools. Or encouraging much more well qualified BOE candidates with the required background skills and determination to create public schools we’re proud of. Not ones that embarrass our City. Why aren’t City Dems concerned about our failing schools ?

David Osler April 18, 2022 at 11:29 am

I think the city does need to rework its elected positions I do not want to extend the Mayors 2 year term. I would like to see term limits added. I also would like to see some oversight of the police department by elected personnel we have the constables I do not know why the chief of police / Police commissioner whatever we want to call it when it’s rewritten is not an elected position it should be. That should the next two officers under the head of the police department. It would also be a good idea if we could get anybody on the judicial side being an elected position. Also I believe we need to have a permanent legislative council and remove several powers from the executive branch which is a much deeper discussion than I will tag here. The heads of many cities departments such as planning and zoning should also be elected. The school board should probably be completely redone and notable modifications to the use of land and modifications of zoning be handled by somebody elected outside of the zoning department

David Muccigrosso April 18, 2022 at 1:46 pm

@David – Term limits are a terrible idea. They put a turbocharger on the revolving door.

You fix entrenched incumbency by giving people more options and a voting system that doesn’t force them to pick one of two parties.

Term limits force people to vote for a brand new partisan hack every so often, instead of the same old one. And they force those partisan hacks to rely on lobbyists to get anything done.

Patrick Cooper April 18, 2022 at 3:46 pm

The proponents supporting Rilling and Livingston – that they could be trusted to improve the city charter in a non-partisan fashion – is ludicrous. They can’t, and they won’t.

Kydes – painter turned politician – is disingenuous in his revisionist history: the reason the last charter update didn’t pass is the only thing Harry cared about was a 4-year term for himself. No one but Harry supported that. However, I do believe the gender neutral language passed – ask John – when did they enact that? Did they? That might have been the first time Harry tied to dupe the local woke white women.

There will be many suggestions, opinions, and arguments over what needs to stay, go, and where we need amendment. But let’s keep this comment from Mednick in mind: “A charter is a blueprint, a document to establish accountability for government officers and administrative functions..”

Ask yourselves – when was the last time anyone in Norwalk was held accountable for anything? Should we not have a “re-call” option for a wayward mayor?

How about – campaign finance reform? Only Norwalk residents.

Here is another suggestion: let’s end the autonomous, un-elected agencies and authorities that have government powers without accountability, transparency, or taxpayer input. I’m talking about the redevelopment agency, housing authority, parking authority, etc. Bring them into the tent – supervised – or kill them off.

Oh, and yes @Jo Bennett – 100% Lisa should be on this “commission”. I mean, they are fools if they don’t. She can make this process better, professional, and agreeable, or she can torpedo their dreams if she pleases. Let’s see if they are confident men – or bully boys.

Piberman April 18, 2022 at 4:07 pm

So far no respondent has suggested a Charter change that would improve our failing public school system absorbing 70% of our City budget but failing to educate our kids.

Where’s the opposition to “term limits” ? Having 2 or 3 term limits brings in new blood.
And helps encourage more citizens to seek elected office ? Especially those with business/financial backgrounds that typically avoid public service.

No concerns for excessive salaries ? No problems with $300k Supts overseeing failing schools ? How many believe Supts ought earn twice the Mayor/Governors salary when the schools are failing ?

No interest in changing to a Professional City Manager as have half of our US cities ?

No interest in modest salaries for BOE members as we do for Council ? It’s quite common in other parts of the country. Helps attract “talent” at BOEs.

If we do go through the effort of Charter Change why not make it really purposeful so we improve City governance ? Especially for our failing public schools – a real sore spot.

With low voter turnouts why not 2 year terms for all City positions ?

Lisa Brinton April 18, 2022 at 4:11 pm

Jo, for the record- I’ve already submitted my request to serve to Tom and Harry, along with my resume.

Piberman April 18, 2022 at 7:59 pm

Does anyone really believe changing our City Charter would make City governance more responsive to the public and more professionally executed ? Is it our Charter that brings about “good governance” or those who are elected bringing aboard their skill sets ?
Is it really the case that the kids in our surrounding towns are born and raised so much smarter and able than City kids ? Or is the achievement difference a function of how their schools are run and their BOE’s competency. If we changed elected officials with Westport would Norwalk be better governed ? We know the answer. Greenwich too ?

If we’re going to change the Charter lets err on encouraging simplicity, e.g. 2 yr terms for every elected official. Or 4 yrs. And making as many senior positions elected ones rather than appointed. That encourages some accountability. Plus keeping the Charter short.
In case some citizien wants to read it !

David Muccigrosso April 19, 2022 at 9:26 am

@Piberman: The opposition to term limits is right here. They don’t do what they’re promised to. Every single legislature that adopts them becomes a corrupt cesspit within the decade.

If you want “fresh blood”, you need to make it easier for them to get elected over incumbents. Show me a reform that will ACTUALLY give you fresh blood and not just fresh partisan hacks, and I’ll join you.

But term limits isn’t it. Term limits won’t actually stop the DTC from putting up hack after hack after hack who will keep winning because they’re Democrats in a Democrat-dominated region.

Rich Bonenfant April 19, 2022 at 10:26 am

I watched Attorney Mednick’s presentation on Charter Revision and there are misconceptions about what the State of Connecticut allows its municipalities to enact in the name of Home Rule. Term Limits are off the table, simply not permitted for a City or Town to restrict the amount of times a Mayor or Council member can win an election. Also in Connecticut, there is no recall of elected officials. The only way you can remove someone from the voter rolls and office is if they die, move out of their town or district, with town committees if they change parties or move, resign voluntarily, get thrown off the voter rolls for a felony conviction or maybe if an elector hasn’t voted for several years.

This Charter Revision effort is being sold as an opportunity to clean up some archaic language like allowing a Mayor to knock on doors and arrest people or how fast pigs can run down Main Street. Let’s see if the real intention is nothing but a power grab in sheep’s clothing where officials are looking for four year terms or other schemes to eliminate competition. I don’t wish this for the police, but it’s not hard to imagine a push for a Civilian Review Board to oversee that department. Be careful what you wish for, when the door opens it can become a free for all.

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