NORWALK – A first draft of Norwalk’s charter revision was presented Monday to the Common Council, who questioned the exclusion of a council pay bump and a proposal to expand the city’s mayoral term to four years.
Charged with reorganizing and removing antiquated rules from the city’s century-old charter, the Charter Revision Commission kept structural changes to a minimum to improve the chances of it passing during referendum later this year. They instead suggested that officials review the document again in two years to address outstanding issues like council pay.
“We think that’s an issue that should be addressed,” said Steven Mednick, an attorney hired by the city to help revise the charter. “But it probably should be addressed in the [context] of the overall revision of the structure of government.”
Discussions regarding a council pay raise surfaced during an October meeting, when council members asked the charter commission to examine their “almost laughable” stipend of $46 per month. While Mednick recommended examining council compensation during the two-year charter review, he said members could technically include their raise in the current revision.
Council pay was one of many concerns brought to the commission by officials and residents, alongside ensuring female and minority party representation on city bodies. But after a previous charter revision failed in a 2016 election, commission members said they were wary of making any potentially controversial changes.
Still, the commission decided to include the much-debated switch to a four-year mayoral term in the charter draft to foster “continuity and steadiness,” they said.
“We recognize that there are many who look [at] the four-year term as a hot button issue which was rejected by the voters a decade ago. We are keenly aware of that fact,” the commission wrote in their report. “We also believe that it is an important issue that requires further, deliberate and cogent debate.”
In a series of public hearings held by the commission, many residents said they opposed the four-year term, pointing to the failed 2016 charter vote on the proposed term change. But Commission Chair Patsy Brescia encouraged the increase in hopes of allowing mayors to see their projects through from start to finish.
“I’ve been in the construction building business for 50 years and I know what it takes to get any project conceptualized, impacted, budgeted and executed,” Brescia said at the council meeting. “It takes a lot longer than two years.”
If passed, the four-year term would begin after the 2027 municipal election. To avoid another failed charter vote, commission members recommended making the mayoral term proposal an independent ballot question.
Council President Greg Burnett asked if the commission considered including other issues as separate ballot questions. Brescia said the commission debated expanding council member terms to four years as well, but decided against it.
“We spent a lot of time talking about that, and our decision was that we felt [like] staying with two years for the council at this time,” she said.
Keeping Common Council terms to two years would hopefully serve as a safety net when expanding the mayoral terms, she explained.
But Mayor Harry Rilling questioned what election attendance would look like if Norwalk maintained two-year council terms, staggering mayoral and council elections. In the 2021 municipal election, over 14,000 Norwalk voters showed up to the polls. Rilling predicted considerably lower turnout without mayoral candidates.
“You don’t want to have an election where 2,000 people come,” he said.
Mednick agreed with Rilling’s concern, referencing lower voter turnout in municipalities like Hartford, where the city held Board of Education elections off-cycle from mayoral elections.
“There’s a considerable tail off,” Mednick said.
The council must decide whether to approve the proposed charter revision by July 17. In the meantime, the group will hold a series of workshops and a public hearing, recommending any changes to the current draft for commission considerations.