NORWALK, Conn. – Democratic mayoral hopeful Vinny Mangiacopra says he doesn’t want more big box development in Norwalk, but it’s not just a matter of saying “no.” He says “new eyes” are needed on the budget to give Norwalk the most bang for its buck, and that Norwalk’s “divisive” culture needs to be changed.
The 31-year-old Democratic Party candidate for mayor made the statements while responding to a series of questions from NancyOnNorwalk.com during a trip to the Greek Festival over the weekend. The same questions were put to the other three Democratic candidates – Andy Garfunkel, Matt Miklave and Harry Rilling. Garfunkel’s responses can be found here.
The big box store question has gotten a lot of attention recently because of the controversial plan to build a BJ’s Wholesale Club on North Main Avenue. The plan has drawn fire in some quarters because of the size of the building, the size of the lot and fears of increased traffic congestion. In addition, several people have spoken out against continued big box development citing their lack of value to the grand list.
None of that matters as things are currently constructed, Mangiacopra said.
“I really wish we could go out there and actively pursue better projects around town,” he said. “Unfortunately, we get put in the predicament here where we have to settle for what’s presented to us. There’s no aggressive outreach from the leadership of this city to get out there and bring business to town. … We have to have this turf battle – do we want Lowe’s, do we want BJ’s?”
Mangiacopra said he would like to see a more diversified tax base, but the city is locked in by its current zoning regulations, which allow big box stores.
“We can’t discriminate on it. If you want to fundamentally change the vision of the city or complexion of the city, then you’ve got to do the hard work, and the hard work is changing the regulations,” he said. “That’s one of the two things I want to do right away – adjust the regulations, because I feel that it’s hindering us from going forward. And that’s not just me talking – it’s business people, developers. We’re meeting with stakeholders every day and they tell us that it’s a problem.”
Another story that gained traction recently regarded committee and commission appointments. Some argue that citizens appointed to certain boards should bring some expertise to the table, while others say citizens with no special qualifications are perfectly capable of understanding complex issues and making important decisions.
“I think you need a combination of both” types of members, Mangiacopra said. “You need qualified people for certain things, but by no means do we want to discourage people from being active and wanting to serve. We need more people no matter what to get involved with government no matter what their backgrounds are.” Mangiacopra said his trying to reach out and get more people engaged and involved. He said he wants to “have an environment where we can attract professionals” in addition to average citizens to serve Norwalk.
When it comes to the budget, some NancyOnNorwalk readers have complained that none of the candidates have given specific items they would have cut in the 2013-14 budget to hold down the tax rate. But Mangiacopra said it isn’t that easy. He said the problem is the same people have been looking at things the same way for too long.
“No matter who’s elected mayor, you have to get new eyes looking at the budget,” he said. “We want to make sure we have news eyes, new priorities set. We have a pot of money. We have a handful of guys who are crafting the vision and the path year in and year out. The mayor, the president of the Common Council, who’s a Republican, Fred Wilms, whoever’s on the Board of Ed – however it is they work it – and Tom Hamilton. We have a handful of guys that decide the direction and the course of the budget. They tell the mayor which direction to go. They direct the mayor’s course on the budget.”
The candidate weighed in on a recent report that the Norwalk Housing Authority is making a play to take over Norwalk’s Head Start program from embattled Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON).
“NEON needs to get their fiscal house in order, to make sure they’re abiding by all the regulations that they are contractually obligated to” set by the state and federal governments, he said. But “no matter how it shakes out, I’m all for whoever can provide those services … whether it’s the housing authority, whether it’s a new direction over at NEON. I’m going to support whichever entity winds up” running the program. I met with housing authority. They have a plan, a good collection of people. I’m sure NEON does as well.”
Mangiacopra said he has some extra insight into the importance of the early childhood education program.
“My wife’s a kindergarten teacher,” he said. “You can tell the difference between a kid who’s prepared and one that’s not prepared. Studies have shown that you can start from behind in kindergarten. We set our kids up to be at an extreme disadvantage when we’re not taking advantage of these opportunities to give them a head start like it’s purposed for.”
NEON’s outgoing interim president and CEO Patricia Wilson Pheanious recently said she thinks Mayor Richard Moccia is out to destroy the agency, but Mangiacopra said he does not believe that is the case.
“I don’t think mayor wants to destroy NEON,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the mayor’s intent. … I think he’s frustrated by the activity that’s been going on there for a long time, and I think that it’s a frustration that a lot of people share across party lines. When you’re frustrated you say and you do things that give people the impression that you’re against them.”
Mangiacopra was referring to a series of audits that have turned up financial irregularities in NEON’s books, including misused federal grants that must be paid back. The problems helped lead to the ouster of former president and CEO Joe Mann.
“People want that organization to succeed. I want those neighborhoods in South Norwalk to be successful,” Mangiacopra said. “I want those kids who come out of there, and come out of the Head Start program, to go on and not only be good citizens and get a good education, but value that they’re from Norwalk and have a sense of pride about and want to come back here and want to give back to our community.”
There have been some complaints about negative campaigning, and how it could affect the eventual candidate in the November election. There were anonymous complaints to NancyOnNorwalk that Mangiacopra’s campaign had used a “push poll,” a phone poll with questions designed to plant negative messages about the competition. The question brought a sharp response.
“I think that’s a farce. That wasn’t a push poll. And Harry (Rilling) just did one. He did the same thing. You should ask him the same questions (we did; his responses will come later this week).”
Mangiacopra said the polls are necessary to make sure a candidate’s message is getting through, and to see what might need a boost. But he also indicated that pointing out what he sees as weaknesses in his Democratic competition is not off the table.
“I’m happy to talk about my record,” he said. Mangiacopra’s record includes making a documentary for former state Sen. Ernie Newton’s campaign after Newton served four years in a federal prison on corruption charges. Newton was trying to regain the seat e had held for 18 years when Mangiacopra made the film about his rehabilitation. Newton was later charged again.
“Some candidates haven’t had that exposure,” he said. The voters “need to be reminded about people’s records. … I don’t consider those negative. Don’t think that will hurt” the (Sept. 10 Democratic) primary winner against Moccia in November.
Mangiacopra said he wants to find a way out of the negativity surrounding Norwalk politics.
I’m trying to get out of that in this campaign,” he said. “It’s a divisive culture, pits one entity against another and what happens is we still get stuck in the mud. Positive – that’s kind of mayor I want to be.”