NORWALK – The city has begun a comprehensive revision of its charter for the first time in more than 100 years.
The charter dates back to 1913 when the cities of Norwalk consolidated.
But without any recent revisions, many of provisions in Norwalk’s charter are antiquated, said Steven Mednick, an attorney hired by the city, who has revised over 30 charters in the state.
“In light of the state of the document – being a document that remains cobbled together based on Special Act provisions – I think we’re going to be looking at just about every chapter of the charter for cleanup,” Mednick said.
Thus far, Mednick has provided the Charter Review Commission – which was created in August – with a new version of the charter, reorganized by subject matter. The new framework cut the charter down from 23 sections to 12.
He offered the budget process as a current organizational flaw, saying its details were spread around four or five different chapters.
“You have to go to the Finance Department for some things, you have to go to the Council for other things, you have to go to the Board of Estimate for other things,” Mendick said. “And the budget process should be really clear.”
Mednick also said the charter had some “19th century concepts,” specifically regarding the roles of the mayor and the Common Council. Under the current powers and duties of the mayor, the mayor could suppress all riots and arrest anyone disturbing public peace without warrant, holding them in the city prison for up to 24 hours.
“The ability to quell a riot is an authority that you have in a city government, but you usually use the Police Department to do something like that,” Mednick laughed.
Mednick said the commission could remove outdated provisions and decide whether they wanted to add new ones. They would revise until about May 2023, he explained, and send the draft to the Common Council. If adopted, the Council would develop a ballot question for Nov. 2023.
Mednick said the charter revision process does not include a technical role for the mayor, but he said Mayor Harry Rilling has worked cooperatively with the commission, which was the “best case scenario.”
“While the mayor has no formal role, mayors have a great deal of moral suasion with the community,” said Mednick. “So, if the commission and the council come in with a document that a mayor were to oppose, it would put the document in some peril in the November referendum.”
Mednick said Norwalk residents could also provide input at the two mandatory public hearings – one occurred three weeks ago at the start of the process, and the second will happen in May. Additionally, the commission often allowed for public comment, he said.
“The public does play a role and should play a role,” Mednick said. “A good commission does pay attention to the public, and the Council pays attention to the public.”
Elected officials also had a chance to comment at last week’s commission meeting. Of the many suggestions, members of the Common Council and Board of Education requested adequate salaries for officials and hiring power.
In the current charter, Board of Education members are not paid, and Council members receive a stipend of $46 a month. Council members Josh Goldstein, Barbara Smyth, Jenn McMurrer and Nicol Ayers requested pay provisions in the new charter.
Ayers said that as a single mother of two children – one in elementary school and the other with a disability – she considered the low pay to be a social justice issue. She said the current charter was a hindrance to those coming onto the Council after her.
“We are our best selves when everybody comes to the table equally,” Ayers said. “This document does not allow us to be equal.”
Ayers said the $46 payment would not cover an hour of childcare and urged the commission to change the charter in the name of inclusivity. She added that the pay should be consistent and include Board of Education members as well.
Ayers, Goldstein and Council member Nora Niedzielski-Eichner also requested that the charter allowed the Council to hire their own staff.
“Our most important financial obligation is to oversee the city’s finances, and make sure that everything is operating as it should,” said Niedzielski-Eichner. “That’s very difficult to do independently when we have no independent financial staff.”
Goldstein added that councils in cities like New Haven had the ability to hire staff. Ayers said the Council was slowed down without a staffer to facilitate day-to-day functions.
The commission determined that the next steps of the revision process will be to discuss an efficiency study of the city and its public schools, legal issues that could arise and preliminary thoughts on the schedule moving forward.
The next meeting is scheduled for tonight, Nov. 2, 6:30-8:30, in the Common Council Chambers and hybrid.