NORWALK – In the absence of extended Common Council terms or increased pay, the Common Council recommended the removal of a four-year term extension for the mayor from the ongoing city charter revision.
Charged with simplifying and updating the 110-year-old city charter, the Charter Revision Commission submitted a draft document in May to the Common Council for edits. The draft originally included an extension of the mayoral term from two years to four years, and would go into effect for the 2027 election.
Norwalk residents have been split on the term extension in public hearings before the commission, some arguing that an additional two years would allow the mayor to better focus on solving issues rather than on winning elections, others that it would strike a power imbalance without also extending council member terms.
But on Monday, most of the council agreed that the mayoral term extension should be removed from the November ballot.
Council member Barbara Smyth was the first to call for the removal, explaining that after private discussions between members, they believed that extending the mayoral term without extending council terms from two years to four years could be “problematic.”
Instead, Smyth suggested that the council and commission research how other Connecticut cities have handled terms in office.
“I think it’s worth the discussion here,” Smyth said.
Member Nora Niedzielski-Eichner agreed that including a mayoral term extension without a council term extension could create an “imbalance,” but that there were positives and negatives to extending council terms.
Niedzielski-Eichner said key to extending council member terms to four years would be recruitment, especially without a pay bump.
“It’s hard to commit for four years to what is an extremely labor-intensive job for, as people have said, basically nothing. No compensation,” Niedzielski-Eichner said. “And I do wonder about its impact on our recruitment efforts.”
In an initial meeting with the Charter Revision Commission in Oct. 2022, some council members asked the commission to examine council pay, which currently stands at $46 per month.
Member Nicol Ayers said she felt all council members agreed that compensation is a barrier to recruitment, and the city would first need to address the “elephant in the room” before considering a term extension.
“One is not separate from the other,” Ayers said. “I think if we really are serious about this, we need to address the issue of compensation, and then come and address the issue of term [extension]. It’s not one or the other.”
Ayers suggested that there were many ways to address low council pay, including providing members with child care or with city-issued phone numbers as members currently use their personal numbers.
“Let’s deal with that before you think about extending [terms],” Ayers said.
But member David Heuvelman said he worried that the mayoral term extension, which he supported, would remain unaddressed if it is not included on the ballot this year.
“My fear is that if we continue to push it down the road, we’re never going to find a solution that works for the city,” Heuvelman said. “So for me, I’m in favor of it being a part of this resolution.”
Mayor Harry Rilling weighed in to say that the mayoral term extension should be removed as distraction from the overall charter revision.
A previous attempt to update the charter in 2016 included a mayoral term extension, but ultimately failed with 53.6 percent voting against the change. And while the commission planned to include the mayoral term extension as a separate ballot question this year, Rilling cautioned against it.
“It’s time to move this forward,” Rilling said of the revision. “And if there’s any fear that the item of a four-year term for mayor will interfere or run the risk of having the voters reject the rest of the hard work that’s been done, I think that this should be [removed] and brought up at another time, if appropriate.”
Most council members agreed that both the mayoral and council term extensions could be re-examined after the 2023 election, and that the charter revision should be approved in the meantime.
At a Wednesday Charter Revision Commission meeting discussing the council suggestions, Vice Chair Richard McQuaid said he thought the commission would have a better chance of getting the revision passed without including the term extension.
“I think the four-year term was a stickler and others even agreed that maybe the next Charter Revision [Commission] should take it on as one of their tasks.”
The commission discussed potential ways to inform Norwalk residents about the charter revision ahead of the November election such as creating a political action committee or asking the Democratic Town Committee and Republican Town Committee to advocate for its passing.
McQuaid said the removal of the term extension is a great way to get people on board.
“We can get the town committees together, and I think we can also get some of the ones that were strongly against the charter with the four-year term in there to work with us on getting this,” McQuaid said. “Because this was a lot of work.”