NORWALK – The Common Council unanimously approved revisions to the 110-year-old city charter, but not without a debate over whether the mayor should be given the power to appoint the director for the city’s public libraries.
Last year, the Charter Revision Commission was charged with reorganizing and removing outdated provisions in the century-old charter. At the Tuesday night meeting, the Common Council approved the committee’s final revisions, including the appointment process for department heads like the library director.
While the commission and council removed some contentious recommendations, such as extending the mayoral term from two years to four years, the appointment process for library director garnered some opposition from members of the Library Board of Directors.
According to the charter revision, department heads like the library director must be appointed by the mayor, and confirmed by the Common Council. But at the meeting, Moina Noor, chair of the Library Board of Directors, cautioned against the change.
Noor said the library director should be an apolitical position, especially given a recent increase in the politicization of public libraries.
“While I have no concerns at all about the current administration’s intentions, it is crucial to consider the long term implications of such change,” Noor said. “Libraries have become increasingly politicized in recent times, and their role as unbiased centers for knowledge and community engagement is paramount.”
Noor said that by placing the sole power of appointing the library director in the hands of the mayor, Norwalk risks undermining the neutrality of its public libraries.
In recent years, Connecticut state and municipal officials have debated whether certain books or genres should be allowed in municipal and school libraries. A year ago, Colchester officials discussed a request to remove the biography of a drag performer from the children’s section of the public library. In December, Darien Board of Education members affirmed their approval of a book about gender and acceptance. At the Tuesday meeting, Noor asked officials to maintain the status quo in Norwalk.
“The custom – at least for the last library director of which I was a part – was for the board of directors to interview candidates and present three of them to the mayor for consideration. It was a joint endeavor,” Noor said. “As far as I know, there is no other municipal library in Connecticut where the mayor hires the library director by themselves.”
Another member of the library board, former Norwalk Mayor Alex Knopp, said his request is simple – the city needs to protect the independence of its public libraries in its charter.
“In my view, this occasion of charter revision ought to be used as an opportunity to strengthen the protection of library independence from outside political bias, rather than to undermine it,” Knopp said.
Knopp said the charter provision affirming the mayor’s appointing powers was added at the “last minute” by the commission, and without consultation with the library board. He asked the council to discuss the issue at a later date, and uphold current standards until then.
But Steve Mednick, an attorney hired by the city to assist in the charter revision, clarified that there are currently no city rules regarding the library director appointment for Norwalk to follow in the meantime.
While the current library director is one of three candidates chosen by the library board and eventually appointed by the mayor, Mednick said there is no language in the charter that gives the library board appointing powers.
“The reason that the commission added that language was to make it clear that there is a process, and it’s consistent with all the other departments,” Mednick said. “So without the language, you would be operating by folklore. Basically, in terms of just your customs and traditions.”
Councilmember Nicol Ayers said that while she originally intended to remove the provision, Mednick’s explanation sparked some additional questions and concerns.
Ayers said the library director is paid and employed by the city, and the lack of a clear appointment process is a liability to Norwalk.
“We are talking about a city employee that should have the same processes as every other city employee,” Ayers said. “I think as a city … we allow ourselves to be liable and we cause other issues when we get to make caveats for a particular position.”
Councilmember Ed Camacho said he understands that members of the library board are upset that they were not consulted about the charter amendment, but said the confusion surrounding the appointment process needs to be addressed.
“I think that continuing with that lack of clarity is not in the best interest of the city,” Camacho said.
Councilmember Josh Goldstein added that he could not point to another situation where a city board or commission chooses the director of a city department, and said there should be more oversight for the library director appointment.
The council members voted to keep the mayor’s appointment of library director in the charter, and later approved the final charter revisions altogether.
The officials thanked the members of the Charter Revision Commission for their work, agreeing that the revision was long overdue.
“This is a remarkable moment for the city of Norwalk,” said Mayor Harry Rilling. “What’s even more remarkable to me is that the charter remained in its current situation since 1913.”