Published in various news outlets in December of 2015:
As chairman of the Republican Town Committee, I had previously announced our support for charter revision, and now I confirm that support. The complexity will be in the makeup of the revision panel and what actions will be taken once the panel begins to meet. There is a complex web of interconnected offices, and all impacts across the city must be considered.
I agree that the mayor and council’s terms should be four years instead of two, and that council pay should be elevated to more than the current $50 per month. I don’t know if anyone has given consideration to the number of members on the council, whether there should be more or fewer, and whether changing it to a structure similar to the BOE’s would be a reasonable goal. However, it is vital that any change should bring the terms of other offices into line so that the election cycle from 2017 on would flow naturally and not require elections merely to fill minor seats.
Many questions will have to be addressed. For example, wouldn’t the Board of Education likely need to run for four-year terms in 2017 (the first time the mayor and council would be running for a four-year term) in order to avoid having just the five BOE members whose terms expire in 2019 up for election in that year.
What about Taxing District Commissioners and Treasurers, who currently have six- and two-year terms? Changing the charter would not affect them directly, but shouldn’t they also they be encouraged to explore shifting to four-year terms? Leaving them at their present terms would create single-office elections in just some polling places, which would create some unnecessary havoc.
One thing most agree on is that the positions of City Treasurer, Sheriff, and Selectmen should be eliminated. However, constables do perform a service, and could be viewed as required under Connecticut state law. But that same state law allows them to be appointed. Allowing equal numbers, nominated by the major political parties with council approval, seems fair. The existing electoral process has been doing virtually this exact thing.
What about the position of Town Clerk, which is governed by state laws, is very complex, and has in the past been a concern due to possible mismanagement? It was once the subject of a charter revision, but a flawed ballot question killed the effort to change it. Should it be a professional appointment, as it is with any other department head in City Hall? In order to have our current Clerk, who had the distinction of being nominated by both parties, remain in office, the change could be made to take affect after his retirement.
Beyond term of office, I wonder if citizens are concerned with what I believe is a major inequity in Norwalk. That concerns the taxing-district water utilities, which bill customers who live outside their political district exorbitant rates in order to subsidize in-district residents. This is one of the last vestiges of “Taxation without Representation,” as the rates are arbitrarily set to penalize those who are unable to do anything about the way the utility is run because they cannot vote for or against any commissioner.
Given these and many other issues to consider, simply because the revision panel is considering changing the mayoral term, I think it would be too much to also change the manner in which members of the Board of Estimate and Taxation and Planning and Zoning Commissions are determined. Mayors from both political parties have been able to appoint majorities on all these boards. Change has come when it was appropriate and after deliberation and consideration under the laws of our state. Electing people to these positions creates additional burdens in finding people willing to undertake an election campaign at considerable expense, for which the only criteria is a “reasonable person” standard for qualification, and when any involvement in real estate matters is likely to be a negative that creates conflict.
While a handful of citizens may believe that electing people to these positions would bring change, this is simply not the case. Introducing politics into an area that should be guided only by the law and sound judgment is not advisable. The notion that elected rather than appointed commissioners will somehow please everyone is nonsense. The charter revision that split the Planning and Zoning Commissions in two over 25 years ago heard no public outcry for making these positions elected.
There are many more changes that could be made, but I believe the most prudent course is to limit the amount of change to one matter and make those changes before any others are considered. There are many options, such as reducing the number of people serving on boards, etc., that are best left to the commission once impaneled, and eventually, of course, to the voters of the City of Norwalk.
Peter Torrano is Chairman of the Norwalk Republican Town Committee.