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Norwalk Politics: Counsel for the Council

Updated on October 16, 2019
William F. Torpey profile image

Graduated NYU 1964. Worked in NYC in public relations 2 years then as reporter/news editor 32 years at The Hour newspapers. Retired in 2000.

Norwalk, Connecticut City Hall

The Former Norwalk City Hall

Norwalk Museum in South Norwalk, the building formerly housed Norwalk's City Hall
Norwalk Museum in South Norwalk, the building formerly housed Norwalk's City Hall

When the city fathers put together Norwalk's city charter in 1913, they did a pretty darn good job!

I didn't think so initially when I began covering Norwalk politics for The Hour newspaper in late 1968, but I've long since changed my mind.

While I'm not a native of Norwalk, my interest in the city began in the early '50s when my family moved here from Yonkers, N.Y., and I got to see my first real-live cow grazing at Taylor Farm near Calf Pasture Beach. I pulled myself away from urban living long enough to spend two years at Norwalk High School, graduating with the Class of 1954.

Charter Ties Mayor's Hands

My background undoubtedly contributed to my early view of Norwalk's charter as one that aimed at obstructing progress through obfuscation. It seemed to me then that the charter made it nearly impossible for the mayor to exercise proper leadership. His hands are tied by virtue of the power given to the Common Council and the Board of Estimate and Taxation and the large majority of mayoral appointments that require council confirmation.

But lately I realized that a wise mayor can wield more than adequate power by force of character, personality and knowledge. Through competent leadership, he can avoid bickering with the council -- even without his party holding a majority of the seats.

Mayor Wields Powerful Influence

Likewise a strong leader, using the attributes mentioned, can help guide the Board of Estimate's decisions -- which not only affect the city's finances but nearly everything else the city does. No city department can operate to its full potential and no city program can be efficiently operated without wise and proper funding.

Attorney Frank N. Zullo, who served as Norwalk's mayor from 1965 to 1971, set the modern example for running the city's weak-mayor, strong-council form of government.

However, since the 1975-77 administration of Mayor Jennie F. Cave the government envisioned by the city's founders has gone awry.

The council majority that swept into office through cross-endorsements between the Independent and Conservative parties was made up largely of those people, like Mrs. Cave herself, who had been government critics with limited knowledge of the ins-and-outs of running a multi-million dollar bureaucracy.

Power Yielded to Committees

As a result, the chairmen of the council committees were endowed with powers beyond their stations, with the council -- and often the mayor -- merely rubber stamping their actions. Worse, the chairmen, unfamiliar with their newfound power, began delving into (read that "interfering with") the operations of city departments, principally the Department of Public Works and the Recreation and Parks Department.

Council committees are not policy making bodies; they function much more efficiently as fact-finding panels. But, the precedent having been set, councils since 1977 have failed to recapture the powers they've ceded to committees.

No party, no mayor, no councilman and no citizens' group has taken any official note of the council's abdication of its proper role, and certainly no one has moved to curb the excesses of the council's committees.

I live in Darien, so I'm not directly affected by all this. But if I were a Norwalk resident, I'd want my Common Council to hold the reins on its runaway committees.

I wrote this column as a "My View" for The Hour newspaperof Norwalk, Conn., on Sept. 14, 1996.

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Video Promoting Community Features of Norwalk, Connecticut

Norwalk Mayor Harry W. Rilling, 2013-


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