Term Limits, Political Reforms Pitched for Modest Norwalk Charter Revision


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NORWALK – Residents called for four-year mayoral terms, minority party representation and term limits in the revised city charter, but officials feared yet another failed ballot vote.

Next month, the Charter Revision Commission will submit their recommended changes for the 110-year-old city charter to the Common Council, which can vote to include the revisions in the November ballot. At their Wednesday meeting, residents requested substantive changes to the document.

But commission members said they were wary of including significant revisions to the city government.

“We’re reforming the document, we’re not reforming the governance,” said Commission Chair Patsy Brescia. “We’re trying to keep major issues to a small amount of items so that we can get this at least over the hump and get it changed.”

Commission members said the ultimate goal of the revision – which began Sept. 2022 – is to reorganize the document, improve readability and remove outdated provisions dating back to 1913.

Still, many Norwalk residents have asked the commission to extend the mayor’s tenure from the current two-year term to a four-year term. Others warned of previous unsuccessful votes to change the mayoral term.

“My thoughts on the four-year term for mayor are the same as they were in 2016,” Lisa Brinton, a former Norwalk mayoral candidate, said. “…If you tie a four-year term to all your efforts this year, I fear it will fail.”

In 2016, the previous Charter Revision Commission included the term extension in their final revision, and the ballot vote failed – 46.1 percent voted in favor and 53.6 percent voted against. 

Brinton said she was in favor of extending the mayor’s term, and suggested adding two years to Common Council terms as well to “ensure checks and balances.”

“I support it if it also applies to the council because any change in the mayor’s office should encourage and preserve and promote democracy – not consolidate it,” Brinton said.

But Commissioner Tyler Fairbairn argued that keeping Common Council member terms to two years would actually hold mayors accountable.

“If you have a four-year mayor and a four year council and they’re all the same party… that’s four years where if you don’t like how things are going, you’re stuck,” Fairbairn explained. “Whereas if you had a two-year council, to me, that’s more of a check on the mayor’s power because you now have the ability to put people in there who will work against him or her.”

Over the last ten years, Fairbairn said, many residents have said they are concerned that the Mayor’s Office and Common Council have been in the hands of a Democratic majority.

Some residents requested that the commission include a provision to ensure minority party representation in Norwalk’s Common Council, boards and commissions.

“I believe there’s an unfair balance of representation in this community,” resident Vincent Scicchitano said. “There’s a lot of people that feel disenfranchised.”

Another resident, Donna Smirniotopoulos, said that it is not enough to simply require minority party representation. She recommended that the charter allows members of the Planning and Zoning Commission and Board of Estimate and Taxation to be elected rather than appointed by the mayor.

“If you’ve ever been critical of the leadership, you will not get an appointment. That’s the most blunt way I can put it,” Smirniotopoulos said. “…I don’t think it’s healthy for the democratic process in the city of Norwalk for whoever the elected mayor is to keep dipping into the same well over and over again.”

Resident Diane Lauricella also requested changes to board and commission membership – more female members.

“The number of women are not being achieved right now on several important boards and commissions no matter what the happy talk is telling you,” Lauricella said. “If there could be any enabling legislative language [about] diversity on boards and commissions to almost force it to happen instead of just waiting for it to happen, I would very much enjoy that.”

One resident, John Cardamone, asked whether the commission could set mayoral term limits in the charter, but Steven Mednick, an attorney hired by the city to assist in the charter revision, said term limits are not permitted by state law.

Mednick explained that under Connecticut’s home rule law, a municipality can adopt and revise its own charter. But the provisions of the charter, he said, must be explicitly granted by the state.

While the state does not currently allow for municipal term limits, Mednick said residents could rally their state legislatures to enact a general act or special act.

“If they were petitioned to do this and they wanted to be responsive to the petition, they can introduce the legislation, and then they would have to get it through the state legislature,” Mednick said.

Resident John Levin asked commissioners to share Mednick’s explanation with the public.

“Emphasize that, in fact, the constraints that are imposed upon Norwalk by the state can be modified through legislation at the state level,” Levin said. “Norwalk could have term limits and recalls of elected officials if we could get it through our state legislature.”

But Commissioner Michael Witherspoon questioned whether including substantial issues like mayoral terms would impede on the commission’s work in November. 

“Another commission may have to deal with those because we are trying to like finish up all the work that we have started so it would benefit the [city],” Witherspoon said.

Brescia explained that the charter can be renewed again in the next two or three years, and said the commission wanted to require a charter review every five years.

“That can address [some] of the comments that have already been made,” Brescia said. “We thought that would be a way to cover the fact that we’ve been charged with such a big amount of effort to just restructure it.”