NORWALK, Conn. – Mayor Harry Rilling is taking credit for the work of others, Norwalk Republican Town Committee Chairman Pete Torrano said Tuesday in response to Rilling’s re-election announcement on Sunday and the release of the proposed 2015-16 operating budget on Monday, a response that was solicited by NancyOnNorwalk.
And while Board of Education Chairman Mike Lyons enthusiastically agreed with the RTC chairman on at least one point, Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) called Torrano’s take on the BoE budget “a trifle absurd.”
“The budget and its small marginal tax increase is responsible. The thanks for that should be placed exactly where it belongs… with the chairman of the Board of Education, Mike Lyons. Without Mike’s work to rein in the Board and its budgeting process over the last four years, Mayor Rilling would have likely been facing an out of control 5 or 6 percent increase. Tom Hamilton has done a great job of keeping the city side in check, but that has always been the case. The reasonable BOE budgets of the last couple years, which have actually continued to improve, have had no input from this mayor, nor has he played any part in their approval. Again, the mayor has let wild accusations of racism hang out there from members of his party, while Mike Lyons continues to do the work that makes Harry Rilling look good.”
“Speaking of budgets, what’s the best thing that ever happened to Harry Rilling?” Lyons wrote in an email. “Me, Rivera and Rudl – giving him the smallest budget increase for the BoE in living memory (covering 60% of his budget). You’re welcome, Harry! :-)”
Rilling, in his speech, spoke of the goodwill now existing between the BoE and the city, which blossomed into full view of the public in January 2013 with a joint meeting of the Common Council Finance Committee and school officials.
NoN asked Kimmel, the Finance Committee chairman, for his take on Torrano’s comment above:
“In Norwalk, as in other towns, the budget belongs to the Mayor. It was Mayor Rilling who provided Tom Hamilton and the city’s finance department with the guidelines, or limits, regarding taxes and spending. The Mayor has made it clear from the start that he was looking for property tax increases under two percent, and that is exactly what Hamilton and Bob Barron, the budget director, produced. The finance department would not have recommended fully funding the BOE budget request if it had come in between four and five percent. It would have been slashed in order to achieve the Mayor’s goal. That’s how it’s always worked.
“As chair of the Council’s Finance Committee from 2001-2005 and currently (I have been a member of that committee for all of my 12 years on the Council), I have always worked for a closer, more trusting relationship between the BOE and the Council. Last year and earlier this year, the Finance Committee held special joint meetings with the BOE to discuss the operating budget. Every member of the committee, both Democrats and Republicans, participated in these meetings. And this year, I invited members of the BET to the joint meeting. The goal is to foster a constructive working relationship among all the city agencies involved in crafting our budgets – the Mayor’s office, the BET, the Council, and the BOE.
“Mike Lyons, who has done an excellent job as Board chair, would be the last person in the world to take credit for the city’s current operating budget request. Anyone who is even remotely familiar with how the BOE crafts its budget realizes that the driving force behind this year’s request was Dr. Rivera, with Rich Rudl, the BOE finance director, doing all the big and little things that facilitated the modest 2.74 percent increase.
“I understand that Town Chairs of political parties tend to be overly partisan as elections approach, but the notion that Mayor Rilling – unlike Mayors Esposito, Knopp, or Moccia – has not had a critical impact on next year’s operating budget tends to be a trifle absurd.”
On the move?
Rilling, in his speech, said, “I am proud to say that Head of the Harbor South is ready to break ground in the spring and Wall Street Place is on the move with demolition and a foundation permit that they have secured.”
“The mayor’s comments on his re-election bid demonstrate that he has done a complete U-Turn with respect to the city and how he views it. Developments that were ‘stalled’ are now ‘on the move’ even though the mayor has done nothing to help or hinder them and nothing has really changed. The major development in Norwalk, PoKo, should have been placed in default five months ago, and now that the final deadline has passed, the mayor chooses to make excuses for the developer rather than step up and protect the citizens of Norwalk.
“The Head of the Harbor project, which was well underway during Mayor Moccia’s administration, and all of the plans now being executed were agreed to by Mayor Moccia, and are not moving any faster than they would have without Mayor Rilling’s lack of action. In this case, as with all development work in town, the council shoulders the burden and Mayor Rilling makes irresponsible comments to pander to his base.”
Head of the Harbor South LLC managing member Michael F. DiScala did not respond to attempts to contact him Tuesday.
The advancement of the long-stalled Head of the Harbor project was heralded in an August press conference, an announcement that an agreement had been worked out to allow DiScala to buy Smith Street in exchange for $660,000 of public improvements and other arrangements.
“I would like to thank the mayor and all the various department heads, working very closely together, in harmony, I might add, for the last several months in order to bring this project to where we are today,” Discala said, at the press conference.
Historical Commission Chairman David Westmoreland was also at the press conference, and spoke of a collaborative effort to work out the issues surrounding the delay.
On Wednesday, he elaborated in an email:
“The progress towards construction of the Head of the Harbor project is directly attributable to Mayor Rilling’s leadership. Soon after his election, he requested all of the stakeholders involved get together and resolve their issues to get the stalled project moving. These stakeholders included developer M.F. DiScala, the Redevelopment Agency, DPW, Planning & Zoning, Corporation Counsel, and the Historical Commission. He also established a weekly meeting to discuss the progress of the project, which is still ongoing. Soon after this strategy was put in place, long-standing issues, such as parking, land disposition and infrastructure improvements were quickly resolved and the project has moved through the city approval process without controversy. Construction is expected to begin this summer.”
Public safety and department heads
“Crime has continued to spiral downward and it’s because of the dedication of the men and women of our police department,” Rilling said in his speech. “The racial diversity of our police force greatly reflects the makeup of our city and we are committed to do that. We are committed to do that not only on the police department and to keep it that way but on the fire department as well, and to make sure that all the employees in our entire city represent the great diversity of our community, the diversity that makes our community as great as it is.”
“Crime does continue to go down in Norwalk, as it does in almost every city in Connecticut, and in fact most of the United States.” Torrano wrote. “Meanwhile, the mayor has done nothing to refute allegations of discrimination in both the police and fire departments and, in fact, seems to be firing one of the most admired fire chiefs in the state because of inflammatory comments made about a lack of minorities in that department. Supporting his department heads and using them to achieve the goals of citizens, and not unions, seems to be unthinkable to this mayor.”
The Norwalk Fire Commission recently declined to renew Norwalk Fire Chief Denis McCarthy’s contract but left open the possibility that a new one will be drawn when the terms of his employment run out on May 1.
Four African American Council members are on record as saying they support McCarthy’s ouster.
“As a Council Member, individuals with direct knowledge have brought some things to my attention regarding certain practices of the Fire Chief and at least one other individual,” Councilwoman Phaedrel “Faye” Bowman (D-District B) said in an email. “I believe at this point the majority of the Common Council has been made aware. Given this information, I take the stand not to support the renewal of Chief McCarthy. If new information is brought to my attention I will consider that as well.”
Members of the African American community assert that there are racial problems in the fire department, but few will go on the record.
Stuck with Rilling
“The mayor has steadfastly refused to make a comment or take any action on issues of importance in over a year in office,” Torrano concluded. “He has few if any achievements to his name, and now takes credit for work that is being done because of his predecessor’s actions. We are faced with chaos in City Hall, department heads who don’t know whether the building is even open or not, and irresponsible comments in the press which have created a potential opportunity for dozens of baseless lawsuits to be filed against the city. This mayor is very good at getting people to like him, so good he strikes fear into his political opponents, who know that he will likely get away with doing nothing for another year or two before the average citizen catches on to him.”