Updated. 2:42 p.m.: new photo. Updated, 1:48 p.m.: Copy edits.
NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk’s mayoral candidates met Monday to share their views with about 150 voters in Concert Hall.
Topics ranged from cronyism to library parking and from a city manager to the Walk Bridge, in the League of Women Voters mayoral debate, the second to last mayoral debate of this election cycle, with Democratic incumbent Mayor Harry Rilling defending his fundraising after again being criticized on where his campaign’s massive amount of money came from.
Video of the entire debate at end of story.
“We have a problem with parking throughout the entire city of Norwalk. Specifically, I know we can’t continue to do deals with developers that get a chance to come in and buy property and sell property to us for a large amount of money after the fact,” State Rep. Bruce Morris (D-140) said, referring to a situation that has developed with 1 Belden Ave., where developer Jason Milligan won Zoning approval for an apartment building next to the Norwalk Public Library.
“This goes into my larger view… I am talking about public private partnerships that alleviate us from using so many state and local dollars,” said Morris, who will be listed fourth on the ballot as a petitioning candidate, a Democrat challenging Rilling’s reelection.
“There’s private investors that would be glad to invest in the city of Norwalk,” Morris said. “… What is our total plan of development throughout the city and the diversification of our tax base? The fact that we don’t have traditional industrial complexes, therefore we are limited in whatever ability as for taxable revenue.”
“The parking problem isn’t something that just happened overnight,” Rilling said. “It’s been decades with parking problems at the library. We are working on it now with the owner of the property trying to acquire the property.… This problem did not occur under the Rilling administration but I can guarantee you it will be solved under the Rilling administration.”
“The parking problem stems from my professionalism and government problem, the left-hand not knowing what the right hand is doing,” said Lisa Brinton Thomson, an unaffiliated activist running as a petitioning candidate, with a charter revision to create a city manager as a key part of her platform.
“At one end of Wall Street you want to give away a parking lot, transfer air rights, and another end we double the price of a parking lot because we didn’t know the property was going on the market, we zoned it for additional apartments and then doubled the value,” she said.
The “parking lot giveaway,” sometimes characterized as “selling a parking lot for $1,” refers to a plan developed by M.F. DiScala to build its long-awaited Head of the Harbor North apartment complex over a Main Street parking lot. DiScala in January said that it would level the city lot at a cost of $3 million to its company; Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan said in August that this would involve a conditioned option agreement for DiScala to buy the property, with a fee. Appraisals would be factored into the fee.
Republican Andy Conroy said the library is “a heck of a resource for learning.”
“It’s unfortunate that we don’t have the ability to park there,” Conroy said. “I remember fighting over parking a long time ago and discussions on the Council a long time ago, and we are really in a position now where we need to force the issue and come to some conclusion. There is an opportunity with the current owner, we should see if we can develop that opportunity into a solution. Absent that need to find another solution and keep looking. There’s other properties nearby that are about to change hands in a relatively near future, I think. We need to be ahead of the curve rather than responding afterwards.”
Morris mentioned a holistic approach to the city, stressing inclusiveness in the unfolding effort to create a new Plan of Conservation and Development.
The POCD Committee met recently to discuss plans for what it said would be the biggest outreach Norwalk has ever seen. The Planning Commission plans to meet Wednesday in the South Norwalk Library to again discuss the issue.
“The mayor said he would fix the parking under his watch but quite frankly, one of the reasons I ran was four years ago the mayor said he would sort out the Planning and Zoning issues and it has not been done,” Brinton Thomson said. “It has not been dealt with.”
“The problem is a lot of our development does not match up with the aspirational elements of our master plan,” she said.
“Under my administration every capital project goes before the Planning Commission for its connection to the POCD,” Rilling said. “We now have a form that we used to make sure that unless the capital project is subject comes consistent with our plan of conservation and development it does not get approved.… All of an information is or will be available on the website.”
Asked about the impact of traffic from continuing development, Rilling again reminded voters that every project goes before the Planning and Zoning Commissions. If there’s a need for infrastructure improvements, the developer pays for them, he said.
Traffic engineers always say there will be minimal impact, Brinton Thomson said, mentioning the traffic backups inspired by the new Chick Fil A and the new Popeye’s on Connecticut Avenue. This led to the first mention of campaign donations from developers, garnering a smattering of applause.
“We have processes in place,” Conroy said. “The question has always been in my mind how well we convey the information from one Board to another Board and make sure the public knows what we are doing.”
It’s great that Board of Education meetings and Common Council meetings are televised, now it’s time to televise other Board and Commission meetings as well, he said.
Morris brought up The SoNo Collection, the mall currently under construction next to the Interstate 95 on ramp on West Avenue.
“If it doesn’t work out well for us you need to blame the current administration,” he said, urging smart growth and economic development.
The candidates were asked what portion of their campaign funds came from $1,000 donations, and what percentage came from out of town.
As of Oct. 1, the Rilling campaign had raised $144,000; Morris had $22,000, Brinton Thomson had nearly $16,000 and Conroy had close to $7,000.
“My mother gave $1,000,” Brinton Thomson said, explaining that her mother lives in Arizona. Her other three $1,000 donors live in Norwalk and her campaign is funded by regular Norwalk people, other than her former boss at AT&T, she said.
Conroy said 66 percent of his funds come from Norwalk and the other third from Darien.
“I have neither solicited nor accepted contributions from developers,” Morris said, citing “multiple contributions of business owners.”
Rilling said he has donations from 289 people, with more than half of them Norwalk residents; 81 percent are from Fairfield County, and 30 percent are Fairfield County outside of Norwalk. He said 11 percent are from Connecticut outside of Fairfield County, 7 percent are from New York and 1 percent live outside of Connecticut and New York.
Brinton Thomson said one of the reasons she decided to run this spring was seeing Rilling’s list of campaign contributors, from outside of Norwalk, and tied to controversial developments, she said.
Rilling has $51,000 from $1,000 contributions from people who don’t live in Norwalk, Conroy said.
“I am not sure that Norwalk needs a city manager,” Conroy said. “I don’t dismiss the possibility that it could help but there are alternatives; one is a Chief of Staff. The way the city manager has described in some instances is that the city manager is like a dictator, a dictator that is going to run the city, maybe somewhat accountable to the mayor, maybe somewhat accountable to the common Council. It’s kind of questionable to me why you would need a mayor and a city manager.”
Although some call Assistant to the Mayor Laoise King a chief of staff, that’s not what she is, he said.
“If you had a Chief of Staff I think you go back to the times when we actually had a lot of progress in the city… I think that would help move the concepts from department to department to department and help us stay on top of the issues.”
“To some extent a city manager may amount to redundancy of city resources,” Morris said. “I don’t discount the idea but I would not want to use taxpayer resources when they are needed in another places.… If you have a failed administration you just need to get rid of the administration. There is another way, you can do a strong mayor system, where… you get to vote them all out at the same time.”
“The mayor is elected by the people and is accountable to the people,” Rilling said. “A city manager would be accountable to the Common Council, not to the people. We don’t need someone coming out here, a professional resume builder, looking to build his own resume on our dollar and then moving on to somebody else. As Mr. Morris said, if you don’t like an elected official you can vote that person out of office.”
“In February, I spoke with the mayor and talked about the different roles for the mayor of Norwalk, partly as advocate for the city, custodian of the Common Council, a figurehead for ribbon-cutting, the manager of the different department heads here at City Hall, a partisan head of the Party, whether it be Republican or Democrat, or a visionary for the city,” Brinton Thomson said.
She mentioned difficulties with snow plowing around schools, and said that would be a city manager role.
Norwalk’s school snow plowing is complicated, with responsibilities split between the Department of Recreation and Parks, school staff and the Department of Public Works.
“Yes, you can have a Chief of Staff but that person is not accountable to the Common Council and that position is not in the charter. I think we need to move with the direction that most well-run states and cities have,” she said. “…I think you can get rid of a lot of cronyism and the dogmatic culture with a city manager.”
“The other night during the Common Council debate there was virtually no support for city manager in the city,” Rilling said. “So, in the very least that’s going to be virtually impossible to get it done so I think we should continue to work toward professionalizing under our current leadership.”
“There is another way forward on this,” Brinton Thomson said. “If I were to win, one of my big issues is for professional management of the city. I don’t see Common Council ignoring the will of the people but if they were going to ignore that direction, we could do a petition, a citizens petition to be put on the ballot that way.”
“The Walk Bridge is about to blow up our city,” Brinton Thomson said, referring to the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s plan to rebuild the aged railroad bridge over the Norwalk River, and refurbish just about every other train bridge in Norwalk at the same time.
“Why doesn’t the state build us a new school? It’s a construction project, schools are in construction,” she said.
ConnDOT has agreed to compensate Norwalk for the effect the project would have with investments that include an upgrade at the Lockwood Mathews Mansion, restoring the original iron fencing, gates, and associated masonry at the mansion’s original entrance.
“Funding for schools, I think, should be dealt with separately than funding for bridges and infrastructure,” Conroy said. “.. I just don’t want to mix the two and I would like to see instead of Wall Street train station included in the mix.”
Asked if the city has been adequately protected from the impacts of the project, Rilling said he had met a “dozen or so self-proclaimed engineers” who have figured out how to fix the Walk Bridge.
“You can’t weld it shut,” he said. “You have to replace the bridge because it’s old.”
He has had 50-60 meetings with ConnDOT, he said.
“The meetings continue. We are doing everything we can to make sure the Walk Bridge is going to be done and going to be done right and the impact in the city of Norwalk is going to be minimal,” Rilling said, after explaining that he sent a letter to Gov. Dannel Malloy to hold the state accountable and make sure the impact on the city is minimal.
“Does anybody here trust the state?” Brinton Thomson asked. “We signed away our rights, our Common Council, when we signed the master municipal agreement with the DOT. They are determining the engineering, they are determining the rights of way, and they are not discussing payment time frames… I don’t trust the state. If I was mayor, I would be making a lot more noise.”
Conroy said he supports a fixed bridge, based on conversations he had with engineers who described the impacts the construction will have on the river.
“I think the horse is out of the barn,” Morris said. “We signed the master municipal agreement, our leverage is gone… our legislators are going to have to stay vigilant.”
Conroy said the city should hire an outside engineering firm with an expertise in bridge building to review the plans.
“It would behoove the Department of Transportation to have another set of eyes look at this,” he said. “It would behoove the city to have another set of eyes look at this.”