NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk’s four mayoral candidates stood before the West Norwalk Association on Thursday, delivering stump speeches to about 100 people.
Republican Andy Conroy again mentioned Rilling’s support last month of Gov. Dannel Malloy’s veto of the bipartisan-approved, Republican-designed state budget; unaffiliated candidate Lisa Brinton Thomson pushed governmental reforms by blasting results under the current system, and State Rep. Bruce Morris (D-140) talked of proactive leadership, echoing Brinton Thomson’s calls for a strategic plan. Rilling said he is extremely proud of his record, pointing toward low mill rate increases and support for Norwalk Public Schools as examples.
Candidates spoke in an order done by a drawing. First to the microphone was Conroy.
Conroy offered biographical information – been here 37 years, raised children, sent them to Norwalk public schools, after which they have did well – and went on to say that he has executive experience as well as 10 years on the Common Council and time spent as Zoning Board of Appeals chairman.
“I was particularly challenged (on the ZBA) with the various things that came before us. I think we handled it well,” he said.
He worked “closely with two mayors” on the city’s finances, attaining a triple A bond rating that has lasted to the present day, he said.
“The challenge going forward is how do we live with all the things that can befall us from a state government that is failing,” Conroy said. “We know that we are triple A, we know that we are if not the best city positioned financially in the state of Connecticut, one of the best. That puts us in good stead but we have to be wise going forward in being careful on how we spend our Rainy Day Fund…. It’s very important to not just treat it as a pot of money, but to treat it as a buffer. If it has burned down you have to replace it.”
The Rainy Day Fund is a popular term for what Norwalk Finance Director Bob Barron calls the general fund or the fund balance.
“I don’t think you can, as we recently had our mayor do, agree with a governor when he vetoed a budget that was Norwalk-friendly. We’ve got another budget … it too is Norwalk friendly. I expect our mayor will jump in and he will support that budget. At least I pray so.”
“I am the woman who dared to run for mayor after never having run for office,” Brinton Thomson said, qualifying that to add that she ran for student body vice president in 1973.
She continued her traditional campaign speech by asserting that the two-party system is broken.
Rilling “has raised a good portion of his money from out of state. A lot of it is tied to controversial development that is going on in our city,” she said.
“With all due respect to our Republican candidate, I like Andy, but I believe he is a placeholder. I have managed to raise more money, as an independent petitioning candidate than a major party. It is no disrespect to those two candidates but the party system is broken,” Brinton Thomson said.
Norwalk is a mess from the Walk Bridge to Wall Street, and is being “cherry picked by developers,” she said, emphasizing her three goals of land use reform, ordinance enforcement and a charter revision to allow a city manager, which will “professionalize City Hall,” she said.
Finally, Brinton Thomson said she was raised in Utah but has been in Norwalk for 20 years, raising her children here and turning her energy toward making the city a better place when she left the corporate world, after fighting off cancer three times.
Rilling was third.
“You know my story,” the incumbent said, describing growing up in Norwalk, entering the military after his father died, then going on to join the Norwalk Police Department and work his way up to police chief.
He said he has a masters in public administration with a concentration on labor relations and said he is running for reelection on his record, of which he is “extremely proud.”
“We start talking about the lack of a state budget,” he said. “That was very troubling. I have a good news bad news situation. Bad news is, we don’t get a lot of money from the state of Connecticut. The good news is, we don’t get a lot of money from the state of Connecticut. Because if they decide to cut our budget, cut our revenue, it can’t hurt it us as much as it hurts others in the state.”
“S&P just issued report saying Norwalk is probably the only city in the state that will be able to come through the budget crisis unscathed,” Rilling said. “That is because when we were under a lot of pressure to draw down our Rainy Day Fund, and give the money away and spend irresponsibly, we decided that we were not going to do that. We are not going to have to, like some cities, issue a supplemental tax bill… we are proud of that.”
Norwalk has had the lowest mill rate increases, historically, and yet, enacted senior tax relief for the past three years, he said.
“We have invested $130 million in our school infrastructure, the largest in our history,” he said, touting the largest operating budget for the Board of Education ever, calling the financial support the reason why Norwalk Public Schools has reduced the achievement gap by one-third.
The grand list had lost $1 billion when he took office but 40 percent of that has been recovered, he said, and, “We stand up for Norwalk. I am fighting for Norwalk on the Walk Bridge.”
Morris was last, explaining first that he is in his sixth term as state representative and feels that he has kept the promises he made 11 years ago when he first ran.
There were 20,000 inmates in the state when he took office but there are 14,000 inmates now, he said, calling himself a proactive leader.
He’s a minister and was public service co-chairman for the United Way and chairman of the Norwalk Community Health Center, he said.
The state budget kept the cities intact during his tenure as a state representative, he said.
“Did Norwalk receive its fair share? No. But it received more than it had been during those years, it was kept whole during those years,” he said. “But the state is in trouble, the state doesn’t have the means to continue to do that. … It’s great that we have a Rainy Day Fund, but where are we four years from now, where we are five years from now?”
Quality of life is not considered during efforts to grow the grand list, Morris said.
“There is no real plan. Yeah, we’re doing a Plan of Conservation and Development now, but the current one, we just look at it whenever we go to Planning and Zoning, see if it meets those goals. I support a strategic plan… one that you monitor, one that you make certain what is happening with that plan.”
Morris mentioned, as he has previously, that some Common Council members recently protested a lack of information when they were requested to vote on an issue.
“Under a Morris for Mayor administration that would not happen,” Morris said, hurriedly listing goals of transparency, affordable housing, code enforcement and leveraging Norwalk’s diversity as his five minutes ran out.
Conroy had released a statement earlier, following the legislature’s passage, on a veto-proof majority, of a bipartisan budget.
“The last time the legislature passed a similar budget that protected Norwalk’s funding, Mayor Rilling stood with the governor and supported his veto, in spite of the harm the executive orders would cause Norwalk,” Conroy said in the release. “The governor has indicated he might veto this budget, too. Although the legislature seems poised to override it, I hope today that Mayor Rilling will join me in standing up to Governor Malloy and supporting this compromise budget. I call on the mayor to this time be loyal to Norwalk instead of the governor.”
Rilling, in a Friday email, said he did not support the previous budget due to its cuts in higher education.
“I do support this budget that has WIDE bi-partisan support,” Rilling wrote. “We are evaluating its’ impact on Norwalk but because we made difficult fiscal decisions during our budget process, we are confident we will weather the storm unscathed. We will not have to send our citizens supplemental tax bills like some communities might need to do to offset a reduction in their state aid.”