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Norwalk mayoral candidates debate in City Hall

From left, Democratic incumbent Mayor Harry Rilling, State Rep. Bruce Morris (D-140), Republican candidate Andy Conroy and unaffiliated candidate Lisa Brinton Thomson debate Monday in City Hall.

The election is Nov. 7.

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.

Library Parking

“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.”

Norwalkers watch four mayoral candidates debate Monday in Concert Hall.

“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.”

 

Traffic

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.

 

Campaign donations

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.

Norwalkers watch four mayoral candidates debate Monday in Concert Hall.

“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.

 

City manager

“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.”

 

 

Walk Bridge

“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.”

15 comments

Sue Haynie October 31, 2017 at 6:03 am

Rilling owns the library parking problem. During his 4-year mayorship, the parking lot behind the main library came up for sale, his administration wasn’t paying attention. The lot got sold/zoned and the price of the lot escalated, leaving taxpayers on the hook to clean up the mess. Rilling was asleep at the wheel.

Lisa is awake. Lisa is a fighter.

Lisa is a Norwalk advocate, an education advocate, a taxpayer advocate, a fiscal conservative, pro-business, pro-smart growth, pro-development.

Norwalk needs a Mayor with ideas. Norwalk needs a mayor who’s a strong leader. Norwalk needs a Mayor who pays attention. Vote Lisa.

Bryan Meek October 31, 2017 at 9:56 am

Watch the question about department heads at the 37 minute mark.

Again, the city sacrifices having responsible management in anticipation of having to bail out Dan Malloy and the state.

And the mayor’s office can’t even afford a cup of coffee in spite of expanding headcount and a $23,000 raise.

Someone should start a Go Fund Me page, so the mayor’s office can have coffee again. Imagine the productivity gains.

Donna Smirniotopoulos October 31, 2017 at 10:13 am

The question of accountability at City Hall has never been more relevant, especially because the mayor’s principle objection to a city manager is the lack of accountability to voters. Well where is the accountability now? New hires. A DPW playing Johnny come lately on yard sign enforcement. Bloated head counts everywhere except where they’re needed. And a mayor who says re-elect me on my record, but hey, none of this other stuff is mine—not Fix It First. Not Firetree. Not the library parking lot that wasn’t. And certainly not the Walk Bridge project looming like the sword of Damocles over everyone’s head. You can’t take credit for the good without being responsible for the bad, Harry.

Also while I’m sure Nuri Chavarria was happy you drove to New Haven to sign her mural, the people on Quintard wish you’d taken half as much time to read and react to the 2014 letter from Firetree spelling out their plans long before they bought the house. And everyone wishes you’d applied the same zeal to attending WestCOG meetings and looking out for Norwalk on the Walk Bridge.

Eric October 31, 2017 at 11:25 am

Please can you update the Facebook page of this article to include Lisa’s photo!!!!!

That’s is unacceptable for a news organization! In the world of online media this means everything!!!

NOT FAIR!!!

Donna Smirniotopoulos October 31, 2017 at 1:34 pm

Nancy, Facebook can only load three images, from left to right, which puts Lisa’s image out of view. Can the order be switched up at some point to enable sharing of the link to NON on our Facebook pages without leaving one candidate—and the ONLY woman—out of view? I understand the limitations. But maybe switching the order would be most fair.

Eric October 31, 2017 at 1:41 pm

I realize it’s a FB issue
But optics is everything on Social Media…when a fence sitter is scrolling and this appears on their timeline, it does Lisa a great disservice. Every vote counts.
Can a reset photo of the 4 candidates photos be resent?

Nancy Chapman October 31, 2017 at 1:56 pm

I’m not sure where you’re seeing this on Facebook; I didn’t post it. No, once the post goes online, Facebook is going to pick up the original photo. I don’t know how it works but my experience is that if I change the photo, nothing changes on Facebook.

Nancy Chapman October 31, 2017 at 2:46 pm

I have attempted to resolve your issue. I Googled to find the dimensions of Facebook photos, then created a new composite. FYI, as recently as one week ago, Facebook was cropping both sides of a photo, not chopping off one side. (You can see this here: https://www.facebook.com/NancyonNorwalk/) It’s not a question of “only loading three images.” This is one photo.

Isabelle Hargrove October 31, 2017 at 2:48 pm

Mayor Rilling’s answer (minute 24) to the question about his campaign financing really angers me.

Mr. Rilling chose to mislead instead of addressing the issue head-on and respect voters enough to explain why he is comfortable accepting so many sizeable donations from outside of Norwalk and directly related to highly controversial developments to boot. He was clearly reading from notes, so this was also premeditated.

Using the number of donations, instead of dollar amount might have been convenient, but it is nothing but a cheap ruse. Most of the total dollars raised by Mayor Rilling came through large $1,000 donations from outside Norwalk.

We deserve a mayor who will stand up and be truthful, not a sleek trickster. We deserve to be respected. What happened on minute 24 is exactly what always happens with Mr. Rilling, a sleek answer that conveniently hides the unsavory truth.

Donna Smirniotopoulos October 31, 2017 at 3:23 pm

Thank you Nancy for addressing an unanticipated bump in the road created by Facebook. Your effort is much appreciated.

Victor Cavallo October 31, 2017 at 5:35 pm

@Isabelle Hargrove: “Using the number of donations, instead of dollar amount might have been convenient, but it is nothing but a cheap ruse.”

Bingo!

I’m really disappointed that the Mayor believes that Norwalk voters are so lo-fo that they would fall for this statistical artifice.

Andy Conroy has eschewed developer money, especially from Tony Soprano country: Staten Island. It always comes with strings attached.

Stephen L Horvath November 4, 2017 at 4:30 pm

As the Federal Government now lowers taxes, Ct needs to lower its income tax, its no longer a deduction the Democrats can hide behind. Local City and Towns need to do the same with their property taxes, the Democrats excuse of “its tax deductible” now has a threshold and ceiling….IN NORWALK… First Norwalk, then CT…Vote them OUT!..As the Federal Government lowers our taxes, the Governor and Mayor of Norwalk think their entitled to our money….For those who think we’ve been taxed enough with out any regard for your hard earned money, show up next Tuesday and Vote, Voting for Lisa Brinton She is on the ticket, an is on row 4. That is four ( 4) boxes down Titled “Petitioning Candidate” “1 D” she is clearly the Independent minded Fiscally Conservative Choice for Mayor. Also consider the choices for Council man at largei the ticket is larger this year so spend some time to read it. You can only vote for 5 council (man/woman), note that Rich Bonnefant has served Norwalk well in the past. So make sure you don’t exceed that amount of choices…You can only vote for 1 Mayor, an if you, as a tax paying resident of Norwalk want to see efficiency brought back into the equation then Vote for Lisa. If you want to see the needs of the City Norwalk better represented and defended against the Governors States projects. Law and order and drugs and gangs also plague this City, that is being glossed over, don’t be fooled were not as safe as one would think. Its just not mentioned in the papers???.. Vote Lisa Brinton again, her corporate managerial experience is what we need, an in the process of efficiency the taxes in our town may just come back down to make this affordable again. The President is cutting taxes so you have more to spend, our Governor Malloy and Mayor Riling see this as more for them to take. Not on Lisa’s Brintons Watch. Conservatives for Norwalk should unite, Republican, independents and Blue Dog Democrats alike, its your money, yes its personal…GET OUT AND VOTE NEXT TUESDAY…

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NancyOnNorwwalk.com was conceived as the place to go for Norwalk residents to get the real, unvarnished story about what is going on in and around their city. NancyOnNorwalk does not intend to be a print newspaper online; rather, it exists to pull the curtain back and shine a spotlight on how Norwalk is run and what is happening regarding issues that have an impact on taxpayers’ pocketbooks and safety. As an independent site, NancyOnNorwalk’s first and only allegiance is to the reader.

About Nancy

Nancy came to Norwalk in September 2010 and, after reporting on Norwalk for two years for another company, resigned to begin Nancy On Norwalk so she engage in journalism the way it was meant to be done. She is married to career journalist Mark Chapman, has a son, Eric (the artist and web designer who built this website), and two cats – a middle-aged lady and a young hottie who are learning how to peacefully co-exist.