The tenor of the questions from campaign 2009, the mayoral debate was enough to drive me over the edge of despair. Really. If the best the collective minds of Norwalk’s residents can only come up with a smattering of zoning questions coupled with parking and doom and gloom, then I concede, Norwalk is doomed. Oh let’s review the questions shall we.
1. Difficulty enforcing health, demolition or zoning laws.
Well let’s just say that there’s this whole thing about due process, state law and property rights that comes smack up against what a mayor can and can’t do regarding any of the above. And then there’s the whole weak mayor, strong council issue. Oy vey. Who came up with this bonehead question? Let’s identify the real issues that underly this superficial non question. There’s the real problem of trash and garbage that litters our streets, our open spaces, our city. We see it every day. The causes are many; littering, garbage put out for collection that is spilled (variety of causes) and neglected property that accumulates the detritus of Norwalk. Why not ask the question, what can the mayor do regarding any of the above actual issues? And if you want to sharpen that pencil of inquiry, what can the Mayor do to encourage the Council to fund the oversight of these issues? Why dance around the maypole here? Enforcement means one of two things, paying for someone to go around writing tickets/fines or funding positions to clean up that are assessed to all. Hey this is a fundamental philosophical point of government. Why not ask it?
Zoning enforcement. Le sigh. We have around 200 open court cases about zoning violations. We are, the only city in the state of Connecticut that is using the courts to pursue these zoning infractions. We have a dedicated lawyer filing these lawsuits. Can we stop for a moment to ask why? Well there’s an answer, and it goes along the gist of this, the state legislature decided a long time ago that any zoning enforcement official could be personally sued for issuing zoning fines. Personally. No indemnity like any other municipal departments. Until that state law is overturned, then you won’t see zoning enforcement occurring statewide. What you say? Other cities don’t enforce zoning regs? Uh yeah, and they get around it by creating city ordinances with enforcement by city ordinance. And who gets to create city ordinances in Norwalk? The Common Council. And so if we want to follow the bouncing ball on this issue it lands in the court of the Common Council.
Demolition? A backdoor on the issue of 93 East Ave. Who knows? None of the candidates touched it, but again, a property owner has every right to demolish their property. Except when it’s listed as a very important asset to the city. Roll out the debate now folks, because the arbitrator of very important shifts and shimmies like some bad disco dance and there’s no unanimous consensus here. A better question would be why do we allow property owners to create empty lots? There’s an answer. Without the building they get taxed on the value of the land only. Do you see the problem with that? I do. Empty lots are bad for neighbourhood preservation. Why not ask that question?
2. Crime is at a 20 year high in last two years.
Oh my. Doesn’t anyone bother to fact check these days? 20 year high? Does anyone pay attention to FBI reported crime rates? How many murders were there in 2005, 8? October 2009 Norwalk had the first murder. Puhlease. And here’s where the ball was dropped on the question. Why isn’t the Norwalk Police Department releasing the breakdown on aggravated assaults? The Mayor says they are mostly domestic violence incidents. Well, color me skeptical, but I’d like to see the incident reports. Is it 300 out of 400? 201 out of 400? Don’t you want to know?
3. Does Norwalk charge more to park than other municipalities?
Why is this question even uttered. Oh don’t get me wrong, I am loath to pay for parking, just like the rest of you. But just like every driver on the planet, there’s that whole convenience factor that kicks in when I need to go somewhere that I need to drive to. I circle around blocks looking for empty meter spaces, or better yet the free spaces that are tucked away on side streets, and when there are no other options, when it’s raining or snowing or I’m carrying heavy items, there I am in the nearest garage paying someone outrageous parking fees. But the philosophical question that is at the root here is –what is the price of free parking? After all nothing, as we have learned, is free. If the city owns land, should it make it available for parking? But what about strip malls? Don’t they pay for their surface lots? Should the parking that is owned by the city be paid for out of general tax revenue, meaning all of us? Or should it be paid for by the people who use it? You’d have thought that this question has been debated and resolved way back when when the idea that it was okay to shift the burden of paying for it to the user back in 2002. No, the issue comes up because there’s no master parking plan for the entire city. Much like there’s no master traffic plan, because um well, someone would have to pay for those studies, and while we have council committees that should be guiding the process, they haven’t exactly leapt into action. Actually I am doing a disservice to the one person who has called for a master traffic study since 2005, and that would be Laurel Lindstrom. Debate the genesis of the traffic study.
4. What should be done about illegal apartments?
Well here we are back to an issue that affects relatively few areas in Norwalk. First it’s easy to pinpoint the areas in which residents have concerns about illegal apartments. They occur in primarily multi family zoned areas. Within those areas, there are buildings which by law can have up to 6 people who are not related to each other living in a unit. And herein lies the anti immigrant sentiment that floats beneath the civilized surface of Norwalk, because who is it exactly that chooses to live in crowded dwellings? Why immigrants young grasshopper. So what is being asked here? Coded language about tolerance for immigrant populations? Of course there are readily apparent causes of distress for the neighborhood. Six people, six cars and where do you park them? Which brings us to the crux of the conflicts within Norwalk’s neighbourhoods, who is managing on street parking neighbourhood by neighbourhood. A good question no? Too bad it wasn’t asked.
5. Should we have caps on the number of condos and townhouses?
Are we in the 21st century? Is this really a question? The whole problem with affordable housing in Fairfield County is the cost of land. Something to do with location, location, location. So why are we asking this question? Is having to mow a lawn and asphalt a driveway some sort of honor badge out there? Do they ask this question in Florida?
6. Four year term for Mayor?
There are three possible answers to this. Yes. No. Let the voters decide in referendum. Worthy of a debate question? No way.
7. Should Senior Citizens get property tax relief?
Let’s review the Norwalk municipal budget shall we? And I’m including capital expenditures in this rough back of the envelope calculations here. BOE 70%. City of Norwalk 30%. Expressed in trident gum dentists prefer language– 7 our of 10 of your tax dollars somehow make it over into the BOE budget. So let’s rephrase this innocent looking question, should senior pays for education. Oops, them dars a lightening rod question, old generation versus younger. Can’t do that. But that’s really the question isn’t it? If you want to refine it, should a property owner who has owned the same home for 20 or 30 plus years be revaled into a higher valuation? That really hits the heart of the matter. There seems to be a penalty inherent in the property tax code that penalizes long term home ownership. Let’s debate that. Or rightfully kick it up the the state that allows Fairfield County to fund the BOE budgets of upstate and big cities.
8. Emergency preparedness?
Okay my Wiltonian ostriches, what does every evacuation plan of coastal Fairfield county call for? Bueller? Bueller? Why they call for an evacuation inland, upstate. And we are all to jam on route 7. Uh huh. Can we be a little more specific on these types of questions? If we can’t commute during work hours, and we live all one influenza vector from plague like status, what else are we too debate here? Did anyone expect any candidate to state they were against emergency preparedness? Duck and roll my friends, because ya know the big mushroom cloud is coming to get you.
Where were the hard hitting what question like where do you see Norwalk in 20 years? Should we invest in more mass transportation? What happens when the average age of a Norwalk resident is 75? What services should be improved to our residents? What happens when revenues fall further? What happens when Westport peeps start shopping at our Walmarts? Oh wait. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could debate big issues worthy of the highest elected municipal office?