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Norwalk's Freshmen Leaders Surprised By Workload

NORWALK, Conn. – A freshman Democratic Norwalk Common Council member says he was greeted early in his term by a veteran Republican with the words, "Welcome to your second full-time job."

"He wasn't lying, it really is a huge time commitment," said Warren Peña (D-At Large) of the sage words of Doug Hempstead (R-At large). "...I don't think the public has any idea the time, effort, energy that we put into this."

Peña is one of five Norwalk politicians in their freshman year as council members, contrasting reality with their expectations.

"Coming into this thing, not knowing much, I have to say that the campaign aspect of it was really fun, it was really exciting," he said. "Actually governing is much more difficult than I would have ever anticipated."

"I thought I could make a difference," Michelle Maggio (R-District C) said at a recent meeting. "It's a little frustrating how political things can be. It's disappointing."

A poor man couldn't do it, according to David Watts (D-District A). Between the time he spends as a member of four committees, the meetings themselves, the prep work and the community events he visits, he basically has two full-time jobs, he said, and he doesn't take the $50 a month stipend the city's 1913 charter stipulates to cover expenses.

But, "It is a really cool second job because you get to help the city move forward," he said in an email. "We don't do it for the money, we do it for the love of our great city."

Peña said he has heard councilmen in Hartford make $15,000 a year plus benefits and thinks it might be time to raise the amount of money Norwalk pays to give people more incentive to be involved.

"It's really difficult to do this job unless you're one, retired, or two, you have means and are making means, or have the schedule or the job to have that type of flexibility," Peña said.

A "good week" is 30-40 hours, he said, adding the paperwork never stops flowing, as backup material for the four committees he is on arrives continually.

David McCarthy (R-District E) recently hoisted the more than 100-page agenda for a planning committee meeting with the comment, "You need to eat your Wheaties for this one."

Peña said he'll run again as he feels a responsibility to the Hispanic and Latino communities, of which he is the only representative. He's working to get others involved, he said with a laugh, so that "I'm not doing this for 10, 15, 20 years."

Jerry Petrini (R-District D), McCarthy and Maggio declined to be interviewed for this article.

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