NORWALK, Conn. – The concerns of South Norwalk were addressed Wednesday evening by three of the four Democratic mayoral candidates, from affordable housing to community policing, from the availability of social services to how homeless people and felons can get jobs.
About 40 people attended the NEON (Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now) Community Town Hall, held in conjunction with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Harry Rilling was there to say he had taken a beating over his stance on affordable housing, Matt Miklave was there to talk about the digital divide between the haves and the have nots, and Vinny Mangiacopra was there to criticize Rilling’s achievements as police chief, with an accompanying jab at incumbent Republican Mayor Richard Moccia.
The fourth candidate, former Town Clerk Andy Garfunkel, who ran against Moccia unsuccessfully in 2011, did not attend the event.
NEON interim CEO and President Pat Wilson Pheanious said the men had honored the community by subjecting themselves to questions.
“Sometimes it takes a lot of nerve to come into a community where you know there are problems, where you know there are issues, where you know that there’s crime,” she said. “Where you know there are issues in school, where you know that the health care costs, our ability to access health care, is not what they should be. Sometimes it takes a lot of courage to stand there and face the public that you’re asking for your vote. So I compliment these gentlemen for choosing to do that.”
Rilling earned a “That’s right” from observer John Mosby after state Rep. Bruce Morris (D-Norwalk), the moderator for the evening, asked what kind of services or programs would each mayoral candidate bring, and how would they help the children.
“The problem is getting the right people to the services, because all too often you find that the wrong people are taking advantage of all the services,” he said. “It’s this one’s cousin, it’s that one’s brother, it’s that one’s nephew – that’s not the way it should be. All children need to have the opportunity; it’s outreach, an effective Head Start program, universal pre-K, mentoring program and let people know that you care about them.”
Mangiacopra got applause when he said, “Let’s bolster the libraries,” after mentioning his promise to bring a Boys and Girls Club to Norwalk.
Miklave said the impact of the emergence of the Internet was impossible to understand, and said the switch to Common Core State Standards in Norwalk Public Schools is a problem because it is computer based.
“There is a digital divide in our community that separates the haves and have nots,” he said. “We have to support the families, because, quite frankly, this is a radical change.”
School officials have said that any new curriculum chosen for the schools must be made available in libraries and community centers so children can do their homework online.
In reference to affordable housing, Mangiacopra said zoning regulations have massive loopholes, and that the documents need to be modernized.
Miklave said he had been working for affordable housing for all of his eight years on the common council.
“When the Norwalk Chamber of Commerce says (affordable housing) is one of the key impediments to economic progress in Norwalk, you know it’s a big issue,” he said. “… I was working behind the scenes to develop the housing regulations, the first regulation that was on the books.”
He also said the Moccia administration has worked to discourage affordable housing.
“The POKO development was 60 percent affordable before this administration went after it,” he said. “They had to scale back the project. The Head of the Harbor project had a substantial housing-for-families component before it had to go back.”
Rilling said his vote to keep affordable housing onsite at 20 North Water St., a new development in SoNo, drew cheers from the audience but condemnation from other places.
“I took a beating from that,” he said. “But you know what? … Seventeen years as a police chief, I have a thick skin. I don’t care. You can criticize me, you can do whatever you want, but I am going to vote for what is right.”
The candidates were sharply divided when asked to address relationships between community and police.
Rilling said the community policing department had grown under his watch, but not enough.
“I had a plan of putting five police officers on the department each year for the next four years, bringing the department up to 220,” he said. “Unfortunately that didn’t happen. I had a plan for dividing the city into four quadrants. In each of those quadrants there would be neighborhood sections. Community police officers would be assigned all of those areas. You know what, nobody listened to me. As mayor, they will listen to me.”
Miklave said that, in his eight years on the council, he had never voted against a police request.
“I don’t ever remember ever being asked to vote for increased funds to go for community policing,” he said. “If we were to put more police on the street. I believe we need to have a police presence that’s with our community, not against our community.”
He drew applause when he said, “We need to get them out of their cars and off their cell phones.”
Mangiacopra got a “Thank you, thank you,” when he said, “Leaders here in the city, we’ve been calling for community policing for a long time.”
A decade ago, the community cried out, asking for help with gangs, he said.
“What happened was, people in power turned a blind eye,” he said. “What happened was, and I’ll be candid with you, people lost their lives because of that. What we need to do, and I applaud the new chief, he for going out there and putting his officers on the street. His officers have had a bigger presence out there but we do need to do more, it does need to be enhanced.”
He referred to a video on The Hour’s website, showing four police officers tasering a man in the Webster Street parking lot, and said there was more that needed to be done.
“We don’t need a police officer to be in the mayor’s office, and I mean no disrespect by that,” he said. “We need a mayor in the mayor’s office because the mayor can bridge that gap. That’s the way I envision the mayor’s office to be. I don’t want to go out there an do police work, I want to bridge the gap between the community and law enforcement, so we can start to unite, so we can rebuild that trust out there again.”