NORWALK, Conn. – Dot, dot, dot – the thoughts flowed at a Saturday morning conference meant to help Norwalk’s Common Council maximize its efforts over the next 21 months.
First up, council members jotted down what they thought were the most pressing issues for the city, spreading the Post-it notes on the wall. Midway through the four hours of a brainstorming session, they put dots on a list to vote for the ones they thought most important. They then separated into groups and worked in earnest on coming up with a list of things that could be done to reach the top four goals, the ones that had gotten the most dots.
“I think you’ve got a great team together,” said facilitator Brian Baxendale to Council President Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) when the meeting ended. “They’re super. I mean, I didn’t see politics, I just saw people wanting to do good things and that makes me feel good as a citizen.”
Hempstead asked Baxendale, with whom he served on the Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) board of directors, to lead the seminar. Baxendale used his skills as a business mentor with SCORE, a non-profit association dedicated to entrepreneur education, as he led 14 council members (all except District B Councilman Travis Simms) for more than three hours.
Out of this idea rose: a 311 system for customer service, a year-long planning calendar, a high visibility effort to change the state’s Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) formula, a commission to address stalled development and an effort to pair youth with elderly.
The rookies were in charge for a while, leading teams, with the eventual result that Glenn Iannacone (R-At Large) announced what might be done to improve City Hall interdepartmental cooperation; Shannon O’Toole Giandurco (R-District D) announced the ECS ideas; John Kydes (D-District C) spoke about efforts that might encourage economic development; and Sharon Stewart (D-At Large) and Eloisa Melendez (D-District A) announced thoughts on social services and youth programs.
Iannacone talked of a “permit center” and “permit days,” so that people wouldn’t have to drive around to get permits signed.
“We would look for having room made in City Hall so the fire marshal division can be here. It streamlines the permit process,” he said. “… One thing that I see lacking is a common software platform for all departments. The building department has a good piece of software that they use for the permitting process but it’s not tied into the DPW permits and Planning and Zoning permits and fire marshal permits. I think gong to one common software so everybody can look up and see where the project is, what signoffs were done already, what needs to be done, I think that’s pretty important.”
Also, the website isn’t very good, he said.
“It should be legislated: make the website more user friendly,” he said, using the new Milford website as an example to be emulated.
Giandurco said the charge to convince the state to change the ECS formula needs more people behind it. Neighborhood Associations should become involved, as even childless people should see that the cost of education is driving their taxes up, she said.
Jerry Petrini (R-District D) said, “think larger.”
“All the large cities in this state are the ones probably getting affected the most,” he said. “Curiously, even Bridgeport, they were complaining as much as us… if you put all of the cities together and we are all on the same page, we will have more representation in Hartford than just Norwalk alone.”
A legislative director was mentioned.
“Norwalk doesn’t have anyone minding the store,” David Watts (D-District A) said. “We’ve got legislators who might be doing great work but we can’t compete with other towns that actually have a person in the hallway. It’s unfair, because we don’t have anyone, other than Gail Lavielle (R-143).”
Kydes talked about getting a taxing district overlay to subsidize parking.
“I don’t think many of the merchants would mind putting in a little bit more money in the way of taxes so it could go toward subsidizing parking,” he said.
They also talked of anchor stores for Wall Street.
“We were talking a little bit on Wall Street, forgetting about POKO,” Petrini said. “We’ve got that perfect opportunity. If you get some national brand stores to come in let’s say where the old World Gym was, the old Sears building. Like a Olive Garden is a restaurant destination. The known – believe it, if you build it they will come. Just a point in time – if you give the people something they want and they need, it’s affordable, they will come, they will go anywhere. It does work.”
Stewart talked about working with the Parks and Recreation Department to get gyms open on weekends and school breaks and beginning a program to teach young people better communication skills.
Perhaps funding could be found to send kids enrolled in the summer jobs program to help senior citizens, she said.
“It would help the youth because we have youth that have no respect for authority or the elderly. It would be a role modeling thing and it would be a lifelong lesson for them, too, because they need a push,” Stewart said.
Petrini announced that the session had been a success, thanking Hempstead as it closed.
“When you brought up this idea I don’t think any of us had a clear understanding of what this was. So I want to thank you so much for doing this,” he said. “It’s something that I think we should have been doing every year because now, I have a really great feeling – you know, we can work together. We also are now on the page, as opposed to arguing with each other behind the scenes, just come in front and talk about it. … There are no Republican or Democrats. At this stage, we’re all Norwalkers.”
Minority Leader John Igneri seconded that.
Petrini continued, “I think this meeting should be, when you sign up to run for elected office, this should be a prerequisite.”