Big decisions for Norwich charter panel

The newly formed Charter Revision Commission in Norwich will be spending 2014 evaluating and making recommended changes for the document that serves as the city's constitution, setting the rules within which all public policy happens.

The process is off to a good start. The City Council has appointed a seven-member commission that is diverse both politically and in terms of experience. It includes members with public education, business and government backgrounds. Remarkably, a council controlled by Democrats 5-2 in a city dominated by that party, named four Republicans and three Democrats to the panel. That should remove any concerns about partisan politics guiding the process.

The council also set a schedule that should give the charter commission ample time to get the job done. It set a deadline of March 16, 2015 for the commission to report its recommendations to the council. That would provide sufficient time to present proposed changes to the voters in the November 2015 municipal election.

It is the first charter commission since 2001.

One thing the commission should certainly recommend is ending the City Council's dual service as the city's Zoning Board. This is an antiquated system. Zoning decisions should be based on sound land use and planning practices. The council is too political a body to play that role. Norwich is one of a only a handful of towns in the state that have not moved zoning responsibilities to an independent appointed or elected panel.

Also deserving of serious consideration is doing away with the added City Center District tax, paid by property owners downtown and in some surrounding neighborhoods to provide for a professional department serving the central district. Property owners in the five outlying fire districts pay only a small tax to cover volunteer firefighter pensions, while other costs for all departments flow through the general fund. In practice, fire apparatus and personnel routinely cross district lines to meet firefighting needs in the city.

This special, added tax impinges on efforts to revitalize the downtown area. It hurts property values in adjacent neighborhoods. The setup is archaic. Yet any proposal to do away with the tax will have to address how the city provides and pays for fire protection throughout Norwich, a difficult challenge.

The commission should evaluate the office of mayor. Right now Norwich neither has a strong nor a weak mayoral system, but something in between. The mayor is responsible for economic development, but is a part-time position. The mayor has but one vote on the council and no veto power. It is a difficult, if not impossible challenge, for the mayor to drive economic policy with so little political authority. Day-to-day administrative duties still rest with a city manager.

How Norwich resolves this situation, if it does, will be an interesting debate. The current system, however, appears ineffective.

The council has asked the charter commission to consider revising the $800,000 limit on borrowing without the need for voter approval and tying the limit instead to some percent of the city budget, so the number rises with inflation. This makes sense. But the commission must guard against abuses that can allow councils to bundle together multiple bonding resolutions, all under the limit, but collectively exceeding the spirit of the provision.

Serious consideration should be given to dissolving the Public Parking Commission. There is no good reason not to make parking administration part of normal government operations; in fact, it could improve things by coordinating parking policy with other economic and strategic goals.

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