Norwalk Council moving ahead despite worrying about being bullied by neighboring towns

From left, Ordinance Committee Chairwoman Shannon O’Toole Giandurco (R-District D), Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large) and Glenn Iannacone (R-At Large) study paperwork at a recent Ordinance Committee meeting.

Updated 1:26 p.m. Friday, Oct. 24, with links to bill and link to Andy Garfunkel opinion.

NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk Council members say they feel they have no choice, they have to swallow a distasteful pill served up by the legislature.

“We really don’t want to do this but the hammer is we’re not going to get any state dollars in grants if we don’t join it,” Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large) said of the Dec. 31 deadline for Norwalk to join a regional Council of Governments (COG).

The COG would replace the Southwestern Regional Metropolitan Planning Organization, Assistant Corporation Counsel Brian McCann said in April. Ordinance Committee members voted this week to hold a public hearing on the ordinances they will draft to join the COG, although they worry that doing so might open Norwalk up to being the site of a regional transfer station or something equally distasteful, Ordinance Committee Chairwoman Shannon O’Toole Giandurco (R-District D) said.

Link to the bill that included the creation of the COG’s

Link to PDF of the text (start reading at Page 357)

The problem, Bonenfant and Giandurco said, is that Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan is concerned that Norwalk will not be eligible for some grants if it is not part of a COG. Although the committee voted unanimously to go ahead, the consensus is it’s a bad idea, she said.

Opinions have not changed since it was first discussed in April, she said.

“My personal opinion is, have a nice day on this stuff because this is going back to county government again,” Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said at the time. “The way I interpret this … If the city gets one vote, any town that joins it gets one vote, so it has nothing to do with size. In theory, if we are part of a Darien, Weston, Wilton, New Canaan region, everyone has equal votes. You may have two cities, Stamford, Norwalk, who have populations (combined) over 200,000, the others probably have population of 50,000. They get more votes than the two big cities, and the way I read this, SWRMPO doesn’t really do much of anything except come up with regional plans, but there’s no teeth behind it. This one now gets involved in education, health, land use management, public safety, recycling, public facilities. This regional program is creating another layer of government that could take over the function of our city.”

If somebody comes up with idea to ship all the garbage to Norwalk, the city would have no ability to stop that from happening, Hempstead said.

Sharon Stewart (D-At Large) compared the mandated switch to bullying.

“Those other towns are gaining something from us but what are we gaining from them? If we can’t gain anything from them I don’t see why we should do this,” she said.

Bonenfant on Wednesday compared the situation to being held hostage. He said the bill creating the situation had been slipped into a state bill.

“It was an implementer bill for the 2013-2014 budget,” State Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143) said in an email. “Implementers are passed after the budget bill, which determines the total amounts for the budget. The implementer bills give more precise details about how the money is to be spent. Because implementer bills are so massive, they often contain a lot of provisions that aren’t necessarily budget-related but are inserted late in the session.”

Lavielle has been outspoken about opposing the move to form COG’s, while 142nd District candidate Andy Garfunkel supports it and wrote an opinion piece previously published by NoN.

Lavielle attended Wednesday’s Ordinance Committee meeting, arriving late after her debate with challenger Keith Rodgerson. Bonenfant and Giandurco said Darien First Selectman Jayme Stevenson and Weston First Selectman Gayle Weinstein also attended the meeting, offering their opinions on COG’s – they don’t like it but their towns joined.

“Neither one were in favor, but everyone is joining because” if they don’t, their towns won’t be getting some state money, Bonenfant said.

Bonenfant said he has two problems with it. One is that a mayor sits on the COG, which could threaten Norwalk’s balance of power.

“A mayor could go and make a deal and sit there and tell you he just did it,” Bonenfant said. “There’s always going to be the Council trying to hold onto its power and always going to be a mayor holding on. Doesn’t matter which mayor and which Council, those are the things that evolve.”

Stevenson and Weinstein said their towns struggled with the same issue, according to Bonenfant and Giandurco. Darien and Weston wrote the COG into their charters and included provisions to require the first selectman to check with their Council or governing bodies before committing the town to anything; Norwalk will use that language as a model for its ordinances authorizing joining a COG, Giandurco said.

Bonenfant’s other issue is that each town gets one vote.

“Will other towns be able to gang up on your town and give you the things you don’t want?” he asked. “It’s definitely a move toward county government or regional government. I can understand the economics of not wanting to provide all of the services in all of the towns. Our fear is we’re going to get stuck with the things other towns don’t want.

“There could be a move toward regionalization,” Bonenfant continued. “You can see this coming down the pike even though it’s not there yet in the state laws. You can see that it’s possible that someday Norwalk will be the designated town for affordable housing, while other towns would be able to buy tax credits to get out of it or something like that. … Will our health department be the methadone center for the county?”

He also had a procedural problem – the committee voted to have a public hearing on ordinances that haven’t been drafted yet.

“Everybody assured everyone else that it’s going to be well thought out and we’re going to have final votes over this before we approve it,” Bonenfant said.

“We’re doing our due diligence, but we would never want to put the city in a spot where they’re not eligible for funds,” Giandurco said.


26 responses to “Norwalk Council moving ahead despite worrying about being bullied by neighboring towns”

  1. JoeC

    The potential outcomes that could stem from COG’s one-town-one-vote do indeed sound a little scary, but perhaps one way to mitigate the chances of Norwalk being ganged-up on is to broaden membership. Get more towns and cities to join the COG so that the larger, more urban municipalities aren’t outnumbered by the smaller, more suburban ones.

  2. Piberman

    CT’s 159 towns pay a high cost in replicating services. That’s why with just a few exceptions every state in the nation has a county system. And, proportionately fewer and less well paid public employees. City Councilmen ought study the economics of consolidating services with nearby towns. But only if they think lower taxes helps the community.

  3. One and Done

    See how this works. Norwalk gets to send $100s of millions in taxes to Hartford on income taxes, gas taxes, sales taxes, and 43 other kinds of new taxes. Then we have to do what they say in order to get some of it back. And now we won’t even have an equal vote. The revolution was started on a more equitable footing that this. VOTE NO ON THE COG. Screw the RDA and their projects like NEON and various holes in the ground all over the city.

  4. EastNorwalkChick

    JoeC, the problem with that is there is only two other urban municipalities in our area, Stamford & Bridgeport. That’s only three votes up against 7 other wealthier towns of Greenwich, Darien, New Canaan, Weston, Wilton, Westport and Fairfield. There is no way that these towns will put anything in such a County Wide Recycling/Garbage Plant, more low income housing, etc. and they would think nothing of it to vote putting it here in Norwalk…to them Norwalk is a crime ridden slum, a place where their landscapers, housecleaners and other people who service their needs live. A place where no one from these towns dares to go, a necessary evil…unless ShopRite has a big sale going on, then maybe they would dare to cross over into it and that’s only if they don’t have a housekeeper that does their shopping for them.

  5. Suzanne

    How much state funding is being lost if the town does not join the COG?
    If Norwalk had a truly successful urban plan delineating a purpose for a cohesive environment including all infrastructure and future development with some teeth in it, how would these other small towns be able to dump distasteful regional anything upon it?
    It is either a “get out jail free card” for these other small communities or Norwalk could define itself and fight the off load.

  6. EastNorwalkChick

    Suzanne, that’s the key question, “How much state funding is being lost…”, that should determine whether we join or not. Is the money worth taking the risk to be the dumping ground for many unpleasant county wide projects that these surrounding municipalities will surely refuse in order to preserve their towns present status.

    Another question I have is, how much money will these other towns receive, will it be less than what we receive if a regional facility is place here?

    What’s in it for them to join? State funds with a “get out of jail card”? I believe so, because there are more of “them” than “us” and they know this. One town, one vote. I highly doubt that they would have joined if there was a risk of having something adverse such as a regional methadone clinic or refuse collection site place in their beloved towns.

    I find it quite disingenuous when the first selectmen of Darien and Weston say that they don’t like it too, BS, they know they can get funds without having to change anything in their towns.

    So yes, we will be bullied and we will be the dumping ground….sorry for being so critical, I work with these people in these towns and I know how they think and what they think about Norwalk….and it ain’t pretty.

  7. Mike Mushak

    Good points, Suzanne and ENC. Remember however that Norwalk does not give up any if it’s traditional and current powers to regulate its own land use in this new entity. There us no “giving up power” at all.

    Regional planning is vitally important to any area of the country, and absolutely necessary in our crowded area of the state with huge challenges in transportation, environmental protection, housing, jobs, etc.

    Beyond the crucial need to join the COG (that is not Church of God by the way!) to continue to get state and federal funding, it is also a good thing that our city leadership will get together regularly with leaders of other towns and cities to discuss opportunities, compare problems, share insights, build networks and find common ground on important issues that affect every single one of us.

    The monumental traffic jams on 95 including crushing truck traffic, ongoing water pollution and increasing flooding, lack of modernized mass transit, lack of affordable housing, etc , are all issues that regional planning can help solve.

    Let’s move beyond the “sky is falling” protectionist emotions and deal with the reality of this situation with facts and real vision, and an open mind.

    It is also important as Suzanne points out to strengthen our own local planning in Norwalk. We current have no professional planners in our Planning and Zoning Department, an astounding fact for a growing city of 85,000 people in 2014. That must be fixed along with our participation in a new smart and effective regional planning model that is replacing SWRPA, which will only be as good as the membership, including Norwalk, encourages it to be to help solve our huge problems.

  8. Ken Werner

    Mike’s position deserves support. Many of southwestern Connecticut’s very serious problems derive from the long-term absence of effective regional planning and governance. The concerns many commentators have expressed are legitimate, and we should keep them firmly in mind as we negotiate for an effective and equitable COG.

  9. One and Done

    Regional governance is a cover-up for our failed state government.

    If Hartford wasn’t so corrupt and dysfunctional, we wouldn’t need these added layers of government at the local level.

    I could only support COG if it was at the direct expense of Hartford. Otherwise it will turn into a system like New York where you get to pay county taxes on top of everything else.

  10. EveT

    It may sound extreme — “If somebody comes up with idea to ship all the garbage to Norwalk…” — but hasn’t Norwalk already been processing Darien’s sewage for many years? God forbid they should have to have their own sewage treatment plant in Darien.

  11. Suzanne

    Out west, albeit a very different geography and culture, regional or county wide planning is the norm. Many towns are covered by a single infrastructure for waste treatment, trash, electric, etc.

    Since the municipalities here are so dense and self-sufficient and seem to always have been historically, I see why there would be real fear with the multiple wealthier towns passing over the brunt of social as well as utility services to Norwalk. The potential for inner politicking with the COG among the wealthier towns, of which there is more at present,vs. Norwalk, Stamford or Bridgeport (if they are included) seems likely too.

    I see both sides: regional planning for social services and utilities make sense from both a usability and cost standpoint. However, this should not give carte blanche for the wealthy to dump.

    There must be some proportional bearing of the regional services: one town, one vote hardly seems a fair burden to Norwalk. Could each town be given a population share say rather than an equal footing?

    Why can’t these regional services be shared? (I am also reminded that any consolidation leaves these wealthier towns with empty land where a former power station and transfer station, for example, would have been. To expand on one of these sites, already in existence, should definitely be part of the equation.)

    And, last but not least, Norwalk deserves all the dumping it gets if a clear, cohesive, city wide, doable plan implemented over a period of years with the supportive studies and architecture is not adopted thoughtfully and quickly. There is no defense without a good offense.

  12. Suzanne

    To reiterate, just how much Norwalk would be losing in state funding if they did not join the COG should be communicated, loud and clear, to all Norwalk taxpayers. It is easy to mistrust those who seem to be giving the advice here and I am reading that in these threads – real numbers should be a required part of a transparent process.

  13. One and Done

    @Suzanne. Out west there are counties that are larger than this state. Let’s not add another layer to mask over Hartford’s failures.

  14. Casey Smith

    To Eve T – While it may be possible that Norwalk is processing some of Darien’s waste, I think the majority goes to Stamford.

  15. Victor Cavallo

    There’s a huge piece missing to this story. The former SWRPA towns will be merging this year with the Housatonic Valley Council of Elected Officials (HVCEO) to become the Western Connecticut Council of Governments (WCCOG). Housatonic Valley includes the towns of Bethel, Bridgewater, Brookfield, Danbury, New Fairfield, New Milford, Newtown, Redding, Ridgefield and Sherman. So to the extent that our council is concerned about dilution of Norwalk’s influence within the planning region, we now will compete with Bridgewater for a say in regional planning. (Bridgewater is north of Danbury, sandwiched in between New Milford and Brookfield; it’s population is said to be 1,727 as of the 2010 census.) And already, the HV municipalities are flexing their muscles in the establishment of the bylaws for this entity. It’s looking like there will be many 10-8 votes on issues, with the 10 HV towns winning out.

    Editor’s note: We have added a link to the bill and couple other links to the story.

  16. Mike Mushak

    One and Done, I agree with you that County Government can often be a nightmare , and I am glad we don’t have it in CT. I have had to deal with Westchester County Government in White Plains, and what a huge mess and waste of money that is! The taxes needed to support that bloated bureaucracy are through the roof, causing many people I know to move from NY to CT to get away from it. However, I have also seen county government work better, especially in NJ where I am from. Mercer and Monmouth are good examples, but at the same time NJ had highly corrupt examples as well especially in the more crowded northern half of the state. And NJ taxes are as high as NY’s. I believe count government was abolished in CT to clean up entrenched corruption, and it had not been missed ever since.

    That said, regional planning is smart, and joining the COG is a good idea despite the dire predictions that I think are not based in reality but in irrational fears of outsiders. We need to get over that.

  17. Suzanne

    One and Done, I just don’t accept that criticism of my statement. I qualified it with “albeit a very different GEOGRAPHY and culture.” Please read a statement before you sling arrows.

  18. Jeff

    Terrible. Why can’t the approximate funding be known before voting yes or no? Nonetheless, something tells me that no amount of state funding can make joining this right. Does the city really not want to be in control of its own destiny? This is a simple risk/reward scenario and the council members should have just said no to another layer of government with virtually no control over what projects get dumped here. Any state funding will be trumpeted by making the city the bulls eye for undesirable mandates.

  19. Susan Wallerstein

    So right, Suzanne. My research about regional education http://search.proquest.com/docview/304523344
    confirmed your ideas about the differences between New England states’ entrenched views about local control and other parts of the country. Peter, results of my research also suggested that talk about wanting cost-effective quality programs and services Hits a wall when this requires regional approach.

  20. EastNorwalkChick

    Mike, yes regional planning is the smart, efficient thing to do, sharing services are cost effective, but do you really think that we are not going to be dumped on?

    Do you really think that Bethel, Newtown and Ridgefield, along with Darien, Greenwich, Westport, New Canaan, Weston and Wilton are going to agree to start building affordable housing? Or complete the Route 7 expressway through Wilton? I don’t think so. These towns will form an alliance just to keep things status quo, it will be Stamford, Danbury and us, against them.

    Heck most of these towns that will be included don’t even have cell towers because they are unsightly to their residents.

    BTW, my fears ARE based on reality, I’ve worked with the people of these towns for too many years and unfortunately know them too well….they are very vocal, very connected and their town councils bend to their every whim in order to keep what is theirs, theirs.

  21. One and Done

    COG can only be approved with proportional (based on population) representation. Anything else will lend itself to tyranny. Fortunately for us, Shannon is a smart cookie and won’t let this proposed travesty as it is currently proposed happen. Smack Doug if he doesn’t figure it out.

  22. Non partisan

    @ east Norwalk chick-@ mike mishack- you both your probably correct- but as long as we have zoning rules that significantly encourage subsidized housing over executive housing we invite the probable outcomes. As long as our zoning laws are a mess and we have minimal enforcement- we invite the probable outcome. As long as we have an ineffective form of governance with no significant outcry for reform- wevinvite the probable outcome.

  23. WOW just WOW

    I have a good laugh every time I hear someone call Norwalk urban.. I am a lifelong resident and the only ones I have heard call Norwalk urban is a small small group of what are obviously newcomers to town. This seems to be the same group of know it alls that seem to think bike lanes are the answer to everything… We should strive to be Fairfield and Westport, not Bridgeport and Stamford.

  24. Mike Mushak

    WJW, how silly. You must not get out much. Norwalk is very much a city of 85,000 with all the identifying features of a dense urban center, by any definition you would like to choose, and of course with leafy suburbs also where you obviously must live pretending over half the population of the city in its urban core simply don’t exist!

    And we are becoming more urbanized every year, following the national trend of younger and older folks alike wanting to live in vibrant walkable downtowns near transit hubs, so they might not have to always be forced to use their car to get to work, school, dine, be entertained, or shop. You can deny that all you want and make a fool out of yourself in the process. What is really amazing to see is that lots of smart well-traveled people are moving back into Norwalk’s downtowns again, looking around, and going WTF happened to this once-beautiful city over the last 50 years? Then they find out we have no professional planners in City Hall, and our under-qualified and incompetent P and Z Director thinks Master Plans and millions of dollars of professional studies to improve Norwalk really don’t matter very much. Oops!

  25. EveT

    Why doesn’t COG have proportional representation? OK, yes, I know the answer: the wealthier towns with small populations don’t want it that way.

  26. Joruh

    Lavielle says she is against COGS but her and Toni and Frank Boucher worked behind the scenes to cripple Norwalk and Metro North through this transformative process.

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