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Norwalk Council struggles with slow flow of info

Norwalk Gun Safety Legislation Forum Jan. 29 2013 012
Common Councilwoman Anna Duleep (D-At Large) is frustrated by paperwork getting to the council just minutes before meetings. So are Councilmen Warren Peña (D-At Large) and David Watts (D-District A).

NORWALK, Conn. – Contracts are a way of life in city government, but some Norwalk Democrats say that one routine aspect of that way of life needs improvement: the flow of information coming their way.

“We’re getting paperwork at the last minute into our council chambers consistently,” Councilman Warren Peña (D-At Large) said at the Jan. 23 council meeting. Later that day, he said in an email, “It’s becoming the norm and it’s frustrating. This administration has to be more responsible in delivering information to the legislative body.”

Councilwoman Anna Duleep (D-At Large) agrees, but veteran Councilman Carvin Hillard (D-District B) said that’s just the way it is.

“I think that’s due to expectations,” he said. “I’m not saying they’re wrong, I’m saying I’m used to it from being on the council for so long. I think it’s just the way it is, it’s just the way it has been.”

The Jan. 23 meeting had a contract with Liberation Program on its agenda; Duleep said an email had been sent to council members at 5:31 p.m. that day containing changes to that contract.

“That I voted yes on consent is a testament to my high regard for Liberation’s efforts to treat addicted moms,” she said in an email. “It almost became a classic example of how this administration’s questionable tactics made me vote no to (or delay voting on) a very worthy public/nonprofit partnership. Like when Mr. Bondi added the YMCA lease after council packets had already been delivered. Pattern? I’ll let my constituents decide.”

The YMCA lease was an issue at the Dec. 11 meeting. Councilman David Watts (D-District A) questioned why it had been added at the last moment, saying committee chairmen need to do a better job getting materials in to city staff.

Hilliard, a councilman for 10 years, said the apparent sloppiness is not partisan and it’s not a deliberate effort to deprive Democrats of information.

“You can criticize the administration or whatever, I don’t know if they’re partisan or whatever, but it’s always been that way,” he said. “I was there under (former Mayor) Alex (Knopp) – it’s that way. … I don’t think that’s too big an issue, because even the Republican council members, they want everybody to be informed. That’s what I believe from my experience. Nobody wants to pull anything on them.”

His solution to the problem is to study from other sources. “You have to kind of be flexible, be aware of the issues when they come up,” he said. “I make sure I read the paper. You have to kind of be aware of what’s going on around you. When something comes up, you either pass it on or vote to send it back to committee or whatever.”

Peña said in an email that the late-arriving information is not fair to council members, who have jobs and only have 30 to 60 minutes to review detailed paperwork before a council meeting, which is “Certainly not enough time to make an educated decision on very important matters that face our city.”

“Frankly, it’s not at all professional and seems sketchy,” he said.

Hilliard said city staff is out straight. “I think they certainly try to provide us with what we need. I honestly think they do. I don’t there’s anything sinister going on,” he said.

There’s a solution, of course. “It could be better if you want you increase the staff,” he said. “Do you want to do that? That goes into more taxes and all that. It’s a matter of what you want.”

Comments

21 responses to “Norwalk Council struggles with slow flow of info”

  1. Diane C2

    Mr. Hilliard, it’s not a matter of increasing staff: it’s a matter of making timely, complete information that comes before full committees and advances to the council a PRIORITY.
    That takes leadership and resolve.
    Mssrs Watt and Pena and Ms. Duleep: now imagine what it is like for taxpayers to have virtually NO access to the information, as most committees do not post their back up materials with agendas, and neither does the council. So much for transparency. FOI compliance doesn’t fare any better, either.
    Here’s a simple solution: if the documents or bids or contracts aren’t complete, then come back to the council or the committee when they are. End of story. Only have to miss one or two critical deadlines, and I bet staff and committee chairs would comply. But instead we let staff post “fill in the blank” contract awards on agendas. Go figure.

  2. Joe Espo

    Can someone explain what the complaint is here? Is it that they are not afforded enough time to understand? Please bear with me: should they be complaining? In the Norwalk democratic caucus, we have a Harvard AND Radcliff graduate with a Phillips Academy pedigree ( OMG how elite?), a Yale graduate, a Notre Dame Law School honors graduate, an MBA, a Fairfield U and Northwestern graduate, and among them two finance professionals. So, they’re complaining that they’re not quick studies? In my life, I would have never imagined that people of such pedigree would dare to admit being too slow and dull of mind to absorb pedestrian information that any eighth grader could read and comprehend between cupcakes.

  3. jlightfield

    I’m sorry, but no board, commission or council should rely on last minute or absent materials. I disagree with the mindset, as expressed by Mr. Hilliard, “I think it’s just the way it is, it’s just the way it has been.” that this is okay. We aren’t worrying about horse drawn trolleys dumping horse crap on our unpaved roads any more, get with the 21st century.

  4. Diane C2

    @Joe Espo: Since you insist on making everything a partisan issue, perhaps you should consider it’s the Republican committee chairs who:

    Hold committee meeting and approve contracts with missing pages (Mr. Petrini: Lease with SoNo Corp Ctr.)

    Hold Committee meeting AND sends back up packages with missing information (Mr. McCarthy: 10-year Municipal Master Agreement)

    Advance items to the full council without the benefit of Committee discussion, or even staff review (Mr. Bondi: YMCA to Norwalk Hospital city land lease transfer).

    Those are just within the past 2 council meetings!

  5. oldtimer

    Part of the problem is the city still uses a secretarial service that records committee meeting minutes in shorthand and takes days to produce readable copy which is not approved until the next meeting. In this day and age, accurate readable copies of any meeting minutes should go out electronically within hours. I have attended committee meetings where certain speakers were able to get their remarks made “off the record” and left out of the minutes.

  6. ANTHONY

    It’s an atrocity that we are even having this discussion and that people are actually defending and vouching for this kind of unprofessionalism. This is not some want to be organization, this is the CITY OF NORWALK we are talkiing about here. Important decisions are being made on the cusp and its just like “oh don’t worry its always been that way” That is the mentality that has cause Norwalk to fall dramatically down to the city of Stamford and slowing dropping to Bridgeport standards. Public offcials need information in a timely manner to make effective decisions for the future of the city.

  7. Diane C2

    @Anthony: Some elected officials and City Hall “lifers” suffer from a severe case of “good enough syndrome”.
    I agree with you. The stakes are too high, especially during these difficult times for people not to be making informed and prudent decisions based on timely and complete information.

    Unfortunately, with many newcomers on the Council, and oft-complacent staff to committees, those who vote end up with a ‘they don’t know what they don’t know’ problem: half the time they aren’t even aware they should step up and ask questions, demand alternative solutions when appropriate, and not just rely on the committee staff’s “recommendations”.

    Worse, members of the public who step forward to ask questions or request clarification are often intimidated, ridiculed, or dismissed as “trouble makers”.

  8. Suzanne

    When I was temporarily disabled, my husband provided me with software called “Naturally Speaking.” This, like Oldtimer is suggesting, takes speech and converts it into text instantaneously. Speech to text software, not very expensive, has become very accurate just in the past few years. That, along with a recording device, should have meeting minutes done in about thirty minutes, tops.

    To accept this incomplete contractual information, Master Agreements or land lease information without all of the information would be like signing for a mortgage on your house without knowing the interest rate or terms.

    I maintain that Moccia is CEO of the City of Norwalk. The City Council is the Board of the Corporation. If Mr. Hilliard especially could make the paradigm shift and think in corporate terms with the taxpayer money the income, these types of clerical issues would be raised to the important level they should occupy and quickly be resolved.

    City staff can get these meetings prepared for correctly. There should be timelines for submission of new information and timelines for when a Council member receives it. A dry board with a pen could easily list the information, when it is due from the submitter and when it is due to the Council, dates checked off when submissions are complete. That this process cannot seem to be accomplished is, sadly, laughable. I believe City personnel have gotten used to a standard of practice that is unacceptable.

    Diane is correct: if information that needs Council approval isn’t in on time by the specific due date, then it cannot be presented.

    There are very few rules that need to be established to resolve this issue. A bit of organization and, maybe, a clearer head could ensure materials are to Council members on time.

    Mr. Hilliard, I don’t care if this is the way it has always been. It should not be so anymore. As so many above this comment have said, it is the 21st Century. Rockefellar in the 19th Century was doing a better job at board meetings and with contracts when everything was done by hand!!! I still want to believe that the City of Norwalk can do better than the 19th Century.

  9. BARIN

    Now what happens, will the “its always been this way” mindset end immediately, we’ll see. Thanks to the transparency and diligence of a handful of Democrats, this behavior was exposed. Give credit when it is due. How much have these actions cost the city over the years?
    Transparency is non existent, this stuff has to stop. If you are berarted or ignored by any elected or appointed official, call them on it publicly and name names. Diane hit the nail on the head, if the documents are incomplete, dont come back until they are. The Republicans appear to be doing it, they have been in charge for some time, a closer look may be warranted. Transparency and accountability.
    @ Espo,
    C’mon man, you are joking right? Many of the documents are chockfull of legalese, you need as much time as you can get to make an informed decision. You do want that along with transparency for all of us, right?
    Nancy, you still have that recorder? If they need more staff, are you available?
    Hey Diane you running for Mayor, a transparent administration would be a welcome change.

  10. oldtimer

    Solving a problem like this would be so simple and might even save money, if the administration wanted it saved. With all due respect to Mr Hilliard, information is delayed for a purpose. With all the votes they can count on, getting full information to everybody on time would just lead to too many questions.

  11. Diane C2

    Hey BARIN, I’m not smart enough to run for mayor…or I am smart enough not to run for mayor….either way. Take your pick.
    Think I’ll just keep striving for transparency, open government and an informed electorate, which, uh, actually includes the council….LOL!

  12. Anna Duleep

    @Joe Espo: here are the details of my complaint re the contract with Liberation Programs:

    The attorney for Liberation e-mailed changes to the contract with the City at 5:31 p.m. on the Tuesday of the Common Council meeting. Factor in time for the Mayor’s staff & Assistant City Clerk to make at least 15 copies of that email. I got my copy when Majority Leader Michelle Maggio rushed a pile of copies of this e-mail (and newly worded contract) to our caucus room. This was probably less than an hour before the Common Council meeting started.

    Would you prefer your Common Council representatives simply took opposing counsel’s word that the only changes to the contract were those which the City had requested? What if that attorney had slipped in very unfavorable terms for the City? There was barely enough time to make a reasoned decision about this vote. Had the proposed lease been with an entity with a less reputable track record, I would have voted to send back to committee or flat out NO.

    With regard to the YMCA lease (added to the agenda AFTER Common Council packets were delivered to our homes the Friday before the Tuesday meeting), we were fortunate that one member of our caucus, Matt Miklave, happens to be an attorney who made the time to call the YMCA’s representatives and ask specific questions about the terms of the lease. Because Councilman Miklave relayed this information to the rest of our caucus, and because former Mayor Zullo (counsel to one of the parties) very graciously answered questions on the floor of the Common Council, the contract changes were approved.

    There are, unfortunately, several more examples. Just tonight, for example, we’ve had to move up our Land Use & Building Management Committee meeting to 6 p.m. (despite extra items having been added to the agenda). Then the Council members who serve on both Land Use AND Planning Committee must rush to the 7 p.m. Planning Committee Special Meeting (with public comment) regarding the transfer of the Day Street properties. Those of us who finish Land Use after about an hour and DO NOT serve on Planning Committee have the relative freedom to attend the 7 p.m. Planning Commission Public Hearing on the Capital Budget. Tonight is jam-packed with very important meetings. I have no idea why all three meetings had to be the same night, but will do my best to attend all three, at least in part.

    Councilwoman Anna Duleep

    P.S. I am very flattered that you implied my A.B. from Harvard & Radcliffe somehow conferred powers of speedy due diligence to me! Would that it were the case. I prefer at least one business day to follow up with department heads. Some of my colleagues dislike my “doing committee work on the floor” (asking questions on camera before voting on an item at the full Common Council meeting). When I do ask such questions, I am sometimes asked to explain why I didn’t just pick up the phone and ask my questions off-camera.

  13. Anna Duleep

    I would also LOVE if Norwalk could live-stream meetings (both full Council AND committee meetings) on the city’s website. It is easier to provide voter feedback to American Idol than your Norwalk legislative body! Imagine if one could stay home with one’s children AND follow a committee meeting AND provide testimony to that committee, all without having to trek to City Hall. Other municipalities & Boards of Education do this. Why can’t Norwalk??

    -Councilwoman Anna Duleep

    1. Port Charlotte, Fla. does that. It’s a relatively poor community with the second oldest median age in the country, last I checked.

  14. Diane C2

    Anna, I realize I am Monday-morning quarterbacking (?), but bear in mind that the Liberation Program and New Neighborhoods deal loses an estimated $83k in tax revenue. Wouldn’t be a problem in my mind if the development was strictly a Liberations Program endeavor, as they are non-profit and provide much needed services to our community. However, once you add into the mix that Liberation had to form a FOR PROFIT Limited Partnership with the developer, that’s a game changer for me. Appreciate your respect for the good deeds of the co-applicant, but upon reflection I wonder if the hasty review and decisions would stand up to closer scrutiny.

    Same with the YMCA/Norwalk Hospital deal – the issue wasn’t so much the land lease, but rather the very idea that a committee chair seemed to have side-stepped both the committee members and the city staff to deal directly with the private parties blows my mind – worse, that to the best of my knowledge, not one council representative has questioned this to the point of an investigation!
    Does Chairman Bondi have any personal interest in the business of the YMCA or Norwalk Hospital? Do any of his civic or professional affiliations have a horse in that race?
    Thanks for asking lots of questions. Ask lots more.

  15. Suzanne

    Anna Duleep, Live-streaming is an excellent idea and would contribute greatly to the needed transparency of Council meetings that everyone can not necessarily physically attend.

  16. Bryan Meek

    Live streaming video would be great. Post the council packets on the website too. That way more people can see who shows up and opens their packets 5 minutes before, then goes on for hours and hours asking questions they should have asked in committee meetings that they instead chose to skip.

    I don’t like the last minute agenda items either, but this is really a small fraction of the overall business and it is being used as a distraction by those who are least informed and more interested in making a name for themselves than they are progress for the city. They know who they are.

  17. Suzanne

    Yup! They probably know who they are and I bet your comment is the one thing that will get them there five minutes earlier to review their Council packets.

    You have managed to convert a call for transparency and efficiency in the service of taxpayers to a personal attack on Council members. What a contribution. You must be very proud.

  18. Bryan Meek

    So it is clear that Suzanne only wants transparency on items that impact a few who can’t bother to be prepared. I speak for those who wish to see full transparency, not limited to content but also extended to conduct and decorum.

  19. Diane C2

    Transparency is required at every level and every interaction. Perhaps naive of me to expect this, but at least our officials should strive to attain it. And yes, Bryan, not just when it suits their own purposes – plenty of guilt to spread around on both sides of that aisle.

  20. BARIN

    Live stream works, whatever it takes to help inform voters and create a transparent city goverment.
    To me anyone that makes an attempt to defend sketchy incidents by both sides is just as guilty for knowing it’s wrong and doing nothing to stop it, they know who they are.

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