CITIZEN ACTIVISTS DEBUNK CHARTER REVISION MYTHS
Special Interests Outspending Activists 20:1
Wednesday, October 26, 2016 — After more than a decade, City Hall re-opened Norwalk’s outdated 103-year old charter this year. We are disappointed that the mayor and majority-Democratic Council commandeered a genuine desire for Charter Revision for purposes of rewarding themselves with more pay and a longer Mayoral term. We have squandered an opportunity to bring the city, with an annual operating and capital budget of $366m into the 21st Century.
MYTH # 1 Token Opposition. – REALITY: Token Support from Special Interests.
An op-ed from the Council President, Mr. Kimmel conflates effective planning with a longer Mayoral term and dismisses the opposition as “predictable” and impossible to satisfy. In fact, many citizens spoke up for revision of areas of the charter contributing to significant problems in running the city, over the course of the entire process, as Mr. Kimmel himself acknowledges in the 177 page report released by the Charter Revision Commission. These citizens made a “best efforts” attempt to participate with the process as it was meant to be used, despite that fact that those backing it include a powerful Bridgeport resident; the wife of Common Council President Bruce Kimmel; and a teachers union president.
Ed Musante, Bridgeport resident and Chamber of Commerce President, pledged to spend up to $20,000 in support of the campaign, after eight years of lobbying to get the Common Council to take up the issue of Mayoral terms. This puts the Chamber, at a 20:1 spending advantage over the residents who live, work, go to school and pay taxes in Norwalk. It is odd that they chose to focus solely on extending the Mayor’s term, which would save them campaign contributions every two years, while ignoring the operational issues in the charter that are creating real impediments to the success of small businesses in Norwalk. This does not even take into consideration additional lift of spending by the political PAC headed by Kay Anderson, wife of Common Council President Bruce Kimmel, which is soliciting $250, $500 and $1000 donations to the campaign, with Mary Yorden, President of the NFT teachers union as its Treasurer.
MYTH # 2 A Longer Mayoral Term Means Better Planning. – REALITY: Better Planning comes from Commitment to Planning.
Power Lies with the Council to Impact P&Z not the Mayor: § 1-189.2 of the charter authorizes the council to re-organize certain departments that are not protected by state statutes, not the office of mayor. Unfortunately, back in 1970, a section was added to the charter that excluded the Planning Commission and Zoning Commissions from any reorganization or consolidation that might lead to better practices. This is the real charter reform we seek. Whether a Mayor is elected for two years or four, the land-use decisions will continue to follow the same path as they have been for many years, with predictably poor results, unless we undertake real charter reform.
The Mayor did not hire a City Planner: Mr. Kleppin was hired to replace retiring P&Z Director, Mike Green. No municipal title exists for a City Planner; this would require charter revision changes. Additionally, no statewide or national search was done for an urban planner. Whether the Mayor is elected for two years or four, Mr. Kleppin’s role in planning will remain exactly the same.
While the Mayor’s Task Force on Zoning has been busily updating regulations, the effect has been uneven at best: Zoning changes have largely been focused on the areas where significant federal and developer dollars are currently available—the city center, leaving the rest of the city to fend for itself. The Mayor started his political career in P&Z, as a Zoning Commissioner during the West Norwalk mosque debacle. Taxpayers still own that property. Four years on, taxpayers are likely to own another, if the city gets sued for denying a CO to Firetree Ltd., after building permits were issued and work completed on their Quintard Avenue federal prisoner halfway house. The mayor spoke out against this. Why not just fix the code instead of making taxpayers buy up properties?
Long Term Planning Requires a Master Plan: The state-mandated Plan of Conservation and Development aka the Master Plan, sits on a shelf and gathers dust as it has with every administration – so this is not a partisan complaint. If the mayor or council were interested in adhering to it there would be a concerted effort to draft and implement a long-term vision for the City, instead of the perennial talking down of a master plan as “advisory only” or a great big “wish list”. :
MYTH #3 A Longer Mayoral Term Means Better Government. – REALITY: The Charter Revision Commission Did Not Consider Any Structural Change to Our Government At All.
The Commission had the ability to consider alternative structures to our government in addition to changing the electoral dynamics of the current structure, and they chose not to. The outcomes here are completely forseeable:
Reduced Accountability: Residential homeowners fund ~80% of the $366M city budget. Voters shouldn’t give up their right to hold City Hall accountable by providing two additional years of safe harbor, particularly in a state that cannot manage its finances.
Same-Old, Same-Old Budgeting: No mayor is hampered by the election cycle in planning the budget because the budget depends on information (tax base, collection rates, state money) and is largely done by staff who have models reflecting certain assumptions regardless of how how often a Mayor seeks re-election. Calls for more accountable budgeting methods, such as zero-based budgeting, will get a hearing more often, if the Mayor must run every two years.
Missed Opportunities in Professional Government:
Norwalk needs a discussion regarding other forms of government given our size. According to International City/Council Management Association (ICMA) The most common and efficient form of government in the cities with 10,000 or more people is a council-manager model. Norwalk’s taxpayers might benefit from having a less politically charged city, benefitting from an operations-oriented, not politically motivated form of management beholding to donors. This was never discussed by the commission.
Increased Politicization of Government: Creating off cycle elections, where low turnout is guaranteed (some suggest as low as 15%) will created a cycle of lopsided rules on the council ensuring political hegemony for the future. The ruling party may change, but Norwalk will lurch from one ruling class to the next. We saw it in 2009 and 2015, and will see it every other election from now on because the sitting mayor will have much greater influence over the handful of party supporters likely to vote in that election.
Disappointment in the Process: Lastly, even people in favor of the concept of a 4- year term are uncomfortable with extended the mayor’s term without considering the rest of the system, and for anything that would be effective in 2017 with a known incumbent.
For all these common sense reasons, we strongly urge residents to VOTE NO on Questions 1 & 3. Send a message to the Mayor and Council to go back to the drawing board and DO IT RIGHT OR NOT AT ALL!
Lisa Brinton Thomson
NorwalkFirst is a group of non-partisan, grass-roots activists who expect more from local government.