By Jackie Lightfield
NORWALK, Conn. – (This is an open letter.)
Dear Common Council Members,
Welcome to 2013. I want to take the time to point out that we are in the second decade of the 21st century. It has been 100 years since Norwalk became a city, and about a 100 years since anyone has attempted to revise the city charter to reflect some fundamental changes to how the business of a legislative body should be conducted.
First, I was hoping that you would spend some time crafting a budget that includes staff to help you navigate issues regarding your legislative responsibility. With an operating budget of over $150 million, and a city population of nearly 85,000, your role in representing your constituents is really a full time job. I think you know that. I think most of the citizens out there know that the time you spend in the evenings attempting to cover all the issues, all the contracts, all the authorizations to spend money, isn’t enough. Especially if you have a day job. It’s really important that you do something about this.
For all the promises of technology improving productivity, I’m always surprised how little technology is actually used to run the city. You have a great opportunity to use some of this technology to help you do a better job.
For example, on the night of Jan. 8, I was somewhat surprised to see a couple of you point digital cameras at each other, during your meeting. I suspect that you have recognized that perhaps the recording technology in your chambers isn’t doing such a good job? And speaking of recording, the function of counting the votes is still handled by a manual tally. Do you not see how perhaps it would be more efficient to introduce some automated and visible way to vote on issues?
Or, how about finding a way to adjust your rules so that we save a few trees by eliminating all the paper created with agendas and packets by embracing electronic versions and voting. The Davenport Iowa City Council, for example figured out that they could save almost $13,000 a year by having all agendas, minutes and packets delivered in iPads. That modest savings doesn’t even factor in the benefits of being able to search, refer to past packets, etc. Good stuff.
It was really surprising to see the effort made by some of you to read stuff verbally into the record, as if speaking was the only way to “create a record.” These days, most governments encourage its citizenry to post comments into the record online and via mobile phones. That way, there is a public and searchable record always available. And it’s verbatim. Wouldn’t that be nice? I’m not suggesting that all issues be reduced to a Facebook-like button, but wouldn’t you like to know how many of your constituents really care about an issue instead of counting just the handful that can make it to your evening meetings?
There are many things, like filing permits for things, that would be made much more efficient and perhaps less costly to the taxpayers if you made better use of technology that is available today. Streaming your committee meetings to the Internet in addition to the public hearings, etc., would be a good thing. Providing the public with ways to communicate to you that is also published as part of the record before public hearings is even better. Enabling ways for your constituents to communicate to you about issues in your district that are GIS coded would help identify areas that are troublesome.
And with budgets being so tight, maybe having more data that is open to the public would allow you to tap into the many professionals who leverage government data to solve real world problems. You may have heard how New Haven fostered See, Click, Fix into the leading tech giant that it is today. That brought jobs to New Haven and helped them save money by streamlining how they received information already geo-coded so that departments could respond more efficiently. Not bad on its own merits, but really a bonus because they grew the economic base as well.
Norwalk is a great city to live in, but it shouldn’t look as if time has stood still once you pass through the front doors of City Hall. That’s where you come in. You could make it a priority to upgrade how you conduct the city business so that it isn’t all about rushing incomplete resolutions or project approvals without backup materials or proper sign-offs. Just saying. It might even go a long way to restoring confidence in how our government actually conducts itself.
Chief problem solver