NORWALK, Conn. – Unaffiliated mayoral candidate Lisa Brinton Thomson answered a range of questions Sunday from NancyOnNorwalk, revealing biographical details as well as elaborating on her stance on Norwalk issues.
Here is a partial transcript of the interview conducted by Chapman Hyperlocal Media Inc. Board member Bob Welsh:
Welsh: Some of our readers may not be aware of your past activism on education and charter revision. Briefly, what were your specific roles in each of those?
Brinton Thomson: Well, let’s move to charter revision. I was the founder of Norwalk First, which came about in terms, I attended all but I think one of the charter revision commission meetings. I think I shared with you, my benchmarking data of other cities and towns around Connecticut. I tried to implore them to work on planning and zoning and other issues, other than the four that they had. When that fell on deaf ears, we thought when you can only open up a charter every 10 years, that it had been a wasted effort.
Decided to do the No vote. We formed a PAC. I did it with Deb Goldstein and Diane Cece. We kept (spending) under a thousand dollars, and we tried to educate the community of what we thought real charter revision was, and the missed opportunity. (We won) 56/44. I think it’s important to point out that what I thought, it was just the pulse of what I was hearing in the community.
In terms of my education, my involvement in education, I was retired from the corporate world in 2006. I got involved in education when I was retired (from) the corporate role and focused on it. It started out with volunteering in the classroom in ’06, ’07. My mother was a schoolteacher, an elementary school teacher, that’s kind of how I found my way into education. I got very involved.
I got involved in the district and the management team, which was at that time, it was for the Alliance School Districts. It was those districts that were in need of improvement, based upon the No Child Left Behind testing results. I was put on the district management team, this was back in the Sal Corda days. Was a community member on that. I was on it for about seven years. As I was intimately involved in the operations, went to visit all the schools. The various interventions and things that we were trying to do. It’s always been the goal at school to close the achievement gap. I sat on that for about, I think nine (years).
What I also started doing was I started this grassroots group, Red Apples, as a result as well. Which was my intent to educate the community, educate parents, that really go for the heart of a lot of the educational and operational issues in backing public education. That’s what I did here in Norwalk. Before there was Norwalk Parents For Education, which Barbara (Meyer-Mitchell) and Jessica Garnett have taken to new levels, but before it was that, there was Red Apples. The website’s still live, and it has lots of connections to lots of different things. It was more just about trends in public education.
Then (I) was very involved in the elections on the Board of Ed, because a lot of our dysfunction stemmed from a part of the Board of Education. I have been involved with that. Red Apples was also. It was nonpartisan but we were political, in terms of trying to foster (a) nonpartisan Board of Ed that was focused on kids and taxpayers, instead of the political insiders, if you will.
Then my other involvement in education is I ran before and afterschool programs. Teach kids how to write. I’d been tutoring in the writing programs for 10 years. I cut back. From the start it was a volunteer activity in 07. Turned into a full-time, part-time job. I have taught in the housing authority, the libraries, from the parochial schools, Brookside Elementary, Rowayton Elementary, Roton Middle School. I’ve been eating, breathing education until things stabilized with Dr. Adamowski, and then things started happening in Planning and Zoning and I shifted over to that, about four years ago.
Welsh: What’s your proudest accomplishment from your time as an activist?
Brinton Thomson: I don’t know, I’ll let you know on Election Day. In many ways, this is my ultimate activist act, running for mayor. I don’t think I have a proudest moment, because I think the activist, you’re constantly (working) to improve the city. I’ve been proud that education, I worked for 10 years, that’s why I’ve got perhaps a little frustrated with Harry’s comments about closing the achievement gap, as if that happened on his watch. The school district’s been working on that for a long time. I’ve certainly been involved since ’04, that didn’t happen overnight. I am proud of the fact that we have closed the gap. I would be prouder still if we could get our fair share of revenues, so that we could relieve the tax burden on property owners.
That’s why I would like to take this message that we have of our school system, and start touting it as one of the best midsized school districts in the country. That’s how we should be comparing ourself, and for our achievements and our magnet programs and such. Not in the parochial comparison of comparing ourselves to our leafy suburb neighbors where they have absolutely zero to no poverty. Zero to no minority school children. Comparing with Darien, Westport, or New Canaan is ridiculous.
I believe we can get money. I’ve talked to Dr. Adamowski about this. We go up there and tout what Norwalk’s doing. We are the epitome of what is American, in terms of our diversity, socioeconomically, as well as racially. Our school district, like I said, is performing well. When you consider that Connecticut’s one of the top five states, that puts us in good stead. We’ve got to quit comparing ourselves to the neighboring towns. I think that’s one of the mistakes. We are a city, and we need to be proud that we’re a city.
Welsh: What’s a question you’ve heard on the campaign trail, that has led you to reconsider your view on an issue facing the city?
Brinton Thomson: I got an email from a 78-year-old lady the other day who is very concerned. There’s different cars and the next-door neighbor is either renting out room or doing something but she’s very concerned about what’s going on next door. She doesn’t know, so we’ve got some zoning ordinances infractions going on there. Blight issues, legal department issues. I’ve always sensed it, and when I saw how many portables we had over at Jefferson, which is all local schoolchildren.
I think when we started to subsidize those over in East Norwalk and over by the hospital, and maybe you took single-family homes and turned them into two-family homes. Landlords have further subdivided those, and they’re shortchanging the city in terms of tax revenue both for our schools, our teachers, our firemen, and our police. That’s only been in terms of speaking to people about it. That’s not to come off as anti-immigrant, I am not. This is about landlords cheating the city and putting strains on our resources. That’s come through loud and clear from everyone I’ve spoken to.
Welsh: On the subject of business experience, you’ve said that your experience in corporate America would make you a more effective mayor. What specifics can you tell us about that experience in business?
Brinton Thomson: I hired on out of college with what was in the Bell System, Mountain Bell in Utah. Then about 15 months later I switched over to, it was around the time of divestiture. They broke up the Bell System. I ended up on the AT&T Long Line side of the house. Customer service, I managed people, we had to deal with the general public in a service center. I was simply doing that. I’ve opened up a few call centers and things of that sort. I ended up going down to laboratories because of my sales and marketing experience, and I ended up, I essentially spent the bulk of my career on the equipment side. That was under the AT&T network systems. It was spun off and turned into Lucent Technologies, and it’s a side of AT&T that sold switching and transmission equipment to phone companies and operation systems. I was actually in the side, I sold switching and transmission equipment, but my actual division was operation systems. It was provisioning phone lines, and repairing phone lines, and looking for the network when it started to fail. It was all the intelligent network stuff, that is kind of the network behind the network. I was originally with a lot of the operations and that’s what I did.
I worked in London, I worked with British Telecom; Telefónica, Telecom Italia. I sold to the phone companies in Europe. I then was over in Asia, in Singapore for four years, and did the same thing over there. I then went into a management consultant role and worked for a couple of boutique firms, I as the consultant. Did operations, went in and worked with operations and assessed them for efficiencies and such. Offered leadership training, and a lot of organizational behavior where personalities and the kind of personalities you have in an organization will dictate how things operate. I did that for five years.
Then, as many people know, I suffered a couple bouts of cancer. That’s when I retired from the corporate world and went into education. Basically my corporate background, it’s about operations, it’s about customer service. Our customers of Norwalk are the people of Norwalk.
Our permitting process is horrendous. Whether it’s a special permit for an event, or a permit for building, or a new business permit. Basically Norwalk is not easy to do business with. I hear this from everybody I’ve ever spoken to. We have a reputation for that, is because we’ve got these individual departments. I think all these guys do a super job, but they’re only looking for their department. You’ve got seven, eight, nine different departments, and it makes it very difficult. One of the developers came up and spoke to me after the Chamber of Commerce (event). I said I don’t want to come off as I’m anti-development, I just think we need to have more planning around what we’re doing. He said, “No, no, you’re absolutely right Lisa. When I’m doing something, I have to go around to seven different departments and make presentations to the board and commissions and departments.” He said, “I say the same thing over and over again and often times it’s the same people. Maybe a different board but it’s the same people. It’s so inefficient. It’s almost like it’s a lot of activity but not a lot of output.”
I saw that in the business world and in the corporate world, it’s about efficient operations focused on the customer. I’m driven by that as my benchmark, as opposed to sometimes what we call the bureaucratic public realm, you’ll get it when you get it kind of thing. I think my attitude, my inclination, my knowledge of reading balance sheets and budgets, I think Norwalk has so much potential. I think we probably have a lot of people working really, really hard down at City Hall. I think that we need to pull it together and become a one Norwalk. I think we scare a lot of people off.
It’s an operations job, it’s not a political job. I’m an operations gal, I’m a business operations activist sort of person. I haven’t run for office since student body vice president in junior high school in 1973 or ’74, I can’t remember what year it was. I’m a doer. I think we’re too political in this town and too reactive, we need to be proactive. That’s what I think sets me apart from Harry.
Welsh: If you’re elected, what do you expect will be the area of city government where you’ll have the biggest learning curve?
Brinton Thomson: I don’t know. You don’t know what you don’t know, right? Probably DPW is probably the area that I’m least familiar in.
Welsh: Can you say something a little bit about your strategy for climbing the learning curve, with respect to DPW?
Brinton Thomson: I would go in and sit down and talk to this guy. I got really friendly with the DPW guys when they were taking all the signs. I’d beep and honk and wave when I’m driving around in my Lisamobile, I’ve got to know a lot of the workers along the way. I sit down and talk to people. I sit down and talk to people from the ground up. Tell me about your job, what do you do? I used to have to map out operational processes in one of my jobs, in the phone company. When we were mapping out, how do you write an order, take us through the time the customer calls, what systems you interfaced with, etc. etc. That background, I would sit down, and I’d talk to Bruce, from the top down, and people from the bottom up. I’d take a lot of notes.
Welsh: If you’re elected, what would day one of your administration look like?
Brinton Thomson: I would hang out the shingle, and I would start asking people who are interested in participating in the government to come on down. No prerequisites in order, Republican or Democrat. One thing my campaign has done, is involved people previously have not been involved in the political process, for whatever reason. I think I have inspired folks, whether it’s enough to put me over the top, I don’t know. Old people, young people, all colors, all genders, have gotten involved in mayor campaign. We’re an all-volunteer campaign. We’ve done this, compared to Harry, we’ve done this with about $25,000. Everyone has been a volunteer. The only thing we’ve paid for is our supplies. Otherwise, everything has been a volunteer effort, in the neighborhoods and across the city. I think day one is it. People said they want to help and I’d say, “Send in your applications and we’ll start looking at that, and your resumes.”
Welsh: What in your opinion, are the three biggest challenges that you believe Norwalk will face during the next two years?
Brinton Thomson: I’m very worried about the Walk Bridge. It’s critical. We blow up that part of the city, that’s going to kill us in terms of revenue. I’m thinking about that. I believe the challenges is where we’re getting this unprecedented growth and I do believe it’s a bit helter-skelter. I think traffic.
Managing the growth of what we’ve built. I do believe that the state, we got through this crisis but it’s not going away. The state’s going to continue to cause problems for us. We get about $20 million from the state in terms of all the different grants, which is better than other cities, because we fund ourselves largely, more so than other cities. That goes to our bottom line and I think we’re going to continue to struggle with our grand list. We’re going to be struggling with our grand list despite the development. We’re going to be getting pressure from the state as they try to offload their mistakes.
Welsh: To summarize the three for you are: Managing the issues arising from growth, the financial challenges coming from the state, and the Walk Bridge.
Brinton Thomson: The Walk Bridge is going to take revenue away. One of the things I proposed is, I think it’s an infrastructure project, I think the state needs to give us an infrastructure (compensation.) A school would be kind of nice. That would relieve a lot of pressure from our budget. They’re going to be taking away revenue by the chaos that’s going on down in East Norwalk and South Norwalk, and we’ve still got a couple of schools to build.
Welsh: I see. For each of those issues, what would be your strategy for addressing them?
Brinton Thomson: In terms of my strategy for adjusting the education (funding), which is 52% of our budget, is to go on the road with Dr. Adamowski, and start touting our successes, and start bringing in outside money. That will help mitigate our educational costs. We are adding kids to the school system as a result, I believe, (of) apartments being built. The fact that we have illegal apartments that are not producing tax revenue. What I would do is I would also put in more building inspectors, and start dealing with our blight and our illegal apartments because that becomes another source of revenue for the city. Let’s enforce our blight and our building ordinances to the same degree we enforce property tax collection. If you don’t pay your property taxes, the city will take your house. We don’t have that same approach to our ordinances. What that does, you have blight or illegal apartments that devalue people’s properties, and that hurts the grand list and it puts strains on our police, fire, and teachers.
Welsh: What would be your strategy for addressing the Walk Bridge?
Brinton Thomson: I’d call the governor. I’d call Gov. Malloy and say, “Listen, you know, we’ve been shortchanged in our educational cost sharing formula for as long as I’ve been in the school system, 15 years. I am concerned that you’re thinking of rebuilding the IMAX theater, it’s great, and putting fencing around local boundaries is great. But you know what? IMAX brings in state revenue, which goes to Hartford, we don’t see any of that. It doesn’t help Norwalk. I need somebody who is going to help Norwalk residents, not help Hartford. It’s in Hartford’s best interest for Norwalk to be a strong viable city, because then we send our revenues. We send our income tax, our sales tax revenue to Hartford. If we become injured or suffer as a result of projects that the state does, that doesn’t help the state either, it hurts us and it hurts the state.”
I would try to appeal to the governor, in terms of, what’s in it for him? What’s in it for Hartford? We’re the sixth largest city, but we’ve got city issues like the other five cities. Unfortunately they treat us like Darien, or Westport, or New Canaan because of our property value. Like I said, those have not necessarily recovered.
Welsh: Were you a supporter of the plan to build the mall on 95/7?
Brinton Thomson: I was skeptical. I’m not in the real estate business, the commercial real estate business. That’s the other thing I would do, would bring in commercial real estate people to advise on some of the things that we’re doing in this town, rather than leaving it purely to politicians. That’s why I yielded before, when we were talking about POKO and I deferred to Mike McGuire, he’s in the commercial real estate business. I cannot profess, just because I’m running for office, to know everything there is to know about that.
I’m a little nervous that we’re the only people building a mall in the whole country. I think people, if they’re going to come in and shop at the mall, will come in … on one exit and they’ll go off the other. It’s not going to necessarily to support Norwalk businesses. I think it’s going to create traffic. I think it creates sales revenue for the state. Helps to bring sales revenue for Hartford. I don’t think we should have lost the hotel. I think we should have gotten more than 3 1/2 million dollars, I think we should have gotten 10 million. The hotel would have supported a tourism industry. We’ve got probably the best beaches in Connecticut. I am concerned about a mall. I have to believe that the GGP wants to make money so I don’t want to second-guess it. I’m nervous.
Welsh: Is that a qualified, “yes” to whether or not you’re a supporter? You support it, but you’re skeptical?
Brinton Thomson: That ship has sailed. How could I not support it, (if) I’m mayor now. That ship has sailed. It’s a done deal. It doesn’t matter what I think.
Welsh: You and your supporters have highlighted the incumbents campaign contributions from developers. Do you believe that the current administration’s actions have been influenced by donations from developers?
Brinton Thomson: I’m concerned that they have. Nobody gives money for nothing. It was told, in the old days, that developers used to give money. They give $1000 to the candidate that they supported or the incumbent or whatever, and $500 to the other candidate. There was some of the money that we seem to have traced back to some of the big box stores, I’m not trying to name names. I’ll be honest with you, one of the reasons that I spent a lot of time, and Harry knows this so I’m not telling any secrets. Two days after the election Harry called me and said, “You know, we still want you to run the charter revision.” I said, I would be honored. I said, “I really think we need to upgrade our city for the 21st century, instead of being reactive.” Then basically I was strung along in three-week increments until it was, I think, the Poetry Jam. Harry said, “Oh, we’ve got to get together.” I just said, “You know, I got the message Harry, we’re not doing anything. Don’t worry about it.”
Then I saw the fundraising. I was concerned by that, very concerned as someone who is paying taxes. If all this development was either holding my taxes at bay as a resident … Property taxes fund the majority of the city, and it’s predominantly being funded by residential property owners. All this development is not necessarily making my taxes go down or do anything. It’s producing traffic, the street still looks abominable. I think there’s a concern and I would do things differently. I think I’ve proven, irrespective, we’ll see what the vote is, you don’t need $150,000 for a campaign in Norwalk. We can’t seem to hire a city manager. We can’t hire a professional city planner, but we can draw the equivalent of that salary on a campaign, a four-month campaign. As a taxpayer and a resident, that concerns me. That’s why I ran. That’s why I’m running.
Welsh: Would it be fair to say that you’re not certain that the incumbent has been influenced, but you’re concerned about it?
Brinton Thomson: Like I said, let’s put it this way, it inspired me to run. I did not declare my candidacy until I started an exploratory in June. I saw the fund numbers, when did Nancy run that story? In April?
Nancy: Yeah. First quarter report.
Brinton Thomson: April. That’s when alarm bells went off for me. Four years ago, Harry said he would fix Planning and Zoning. When he came knocking on our door, it was in John Igneri’s kitchen. He came knocking on Nora King’s door, and we were in the middle of our fight on Farm Creek. I just highlighted, that’s when I started learning about Zoning issues. We’d just came off of the mosque, and I told him that I was very, very concerned about planning and zoning. At the time, Harry blamed it all on (former mayor) Dick Moccia’s appointment, “They’re all Moccia appointments, I can’t control the Zoning Board, I will offset it when I can.” “Okay, fine.” That was four years ago.
Then that thing with Firetree. Then two years ago, Harry said he would do charter revision, you can see where that’s gone. Two of my three campaign issues have gone nowhere. Then I saw all that fundraising. As a citizen, this has been a citizen campaign, this has been a grassroots campaign.
Welsh: You’ve said more than once that your campaign is not accepting donations from developers.
Brinton Thomson: That’s right.
Welsh: Have you or your team solicited any donations from developers?
Brinton Thomson: No, no, we didn’t do that. No, we did not. We just took it from residents. We took it from people who are paying their taxes in this town. My mother and two people. Two of my former bosses at AT&T donated to my campaign. One lives in Chicago, Wheaton, Illinois and the other one lives at Centennial, Colorado, and my mother. Everything else is from a regular person.
Welsh: If you’re elected, will you commit to continuing that policy of not accepting donations from developers?
Brinton Thomson: Yeah, absolutely. I told, I’m not going to say his name, because I don’t want him put in the paper, I don’t take campaign donations from developers. I want to talk to them. I want to sit down and talk about how to help Norwalk, but I don’t need to be bought. This city is going to do well. They don’t need to buy influence, you just don’t. I’m happy to speak with them and let’s talk about what we need to do. I don’t think Harry has done anything that maybe other mayors haven’t done, taking money from developers. I think that’s been going on in Norwalk for years and years and years. Harry did not invent that. Perhaps he has perfected it, (after) the great recession. In Norwalk, it’s just another town up the line, where there’s a lot to be done.
What I think has happened is it’s been a little too much too quickly, and without a concerted plan. I want to sit down with developers. We need to move the city forward, to coin Harry’s term, but in a coordinated fashion, as opposed to this onesy- twosy stuff. What we seem to have done is we’ve given a developer over here gets a project, and a developer over here gets a project, and another one here, like handing out gumdrops. It’s resulted in a lack of a plan, and a lack of a concerted strategy. What are we trying to do at Wall Street? What is the Wall Street objective? What is our plan to link Wall Street to South Norwalk? Are we trying to link it?
We’ve put it all as part of South Norwalk and pushing for a transition, because you put in 2,000 apartments along West Ave and Head of the Harbor, and I think it’s a very nice building at the Head of Harbor, I think DiScala builds very nice things. You put in all these apartment and where do people go? They’re not going to walk to the South Norwalk train station. They’re not going to get on a circulator that shows up every 15 minutes, there needs to be a train station. We’re putting in all these apartment and there’s no transit there. That’s why I say, “Where’s the plan?”
Welsh: Are there any other restrictions on donations that you would voluntarily accept on fundraising? For example, besides developers, entities that do business with the city?
Brinton Thomson: That’s not just in Norwalk. I don’t think this is unique to Norwalk. I think it shouldn’t come from there, and I don’t. I don’t think that it cost $150,000 to run for mayor. I told you that. It cost me $25,000-ish, in round numbers. I don’t think we should.
Cronyism is what drives a lot of cities, it’s not just here. It’s been the “good old boy” network, and it hasn’t necessarily benefited the city, its benefited individuals, but I don’t think it has necessarily helped the city, and just ask taxpayers. I think the cronyism has extended here in the State of Connecticut. What has that done for Connecticut? We’ve got 800 people in here today, Norwalk is not unique. This sort of cronyism and complacency, Connecticut’s got to do things differently. If Connecticut’s got to do things differently, so does Norwalk. We’re going to be paying for it for some time to come.
Welsh: Back to the Walk Bridge just for a second. You’ve advocated for repairing the existing bridge, or considering replacement that does not allow ship traffic, is that accurate?
Brinton Thomson: Yes. In my vision, I see that place as being, very few towns have, they talk about a working river. It’s always because of the Harbor Commission and a couple of other commissions that we’ve managed to still get Federal dollars to drag the Norwalk River. That is not coming our way. No disrespect to the Harbor Commission, they’ve got their business up there. There’s very little business upriver.
I see the river being probably a mixture of residential and office and restaurants. The Wall Street area could just be a vibrant nightlife, and attractive to the next generation, if we had the vision for that. There’s not going to be a lot of industry up there. Some of the stuff that’s there could be moved over to Manresa and you can create mixed use over there. The city, to be able to have this vibrant city center, I think that’s what Norwalk suffers from, we don’t have a city center. We could. The center of the city could be defined in the Walk Bridge to Wall Street. That’s what I see as a vision for a city like us. Talk about what is the twenty-year view? That’s what I see.
Welsh: You have this vision, and the city is under a master municipal agreement that gives ConnDOT near-total leverage over the bridge. How would you approach that, how would you bring the state around to your point of view?
Brinton Thomson: I would look to renegotiate. If I am elected, I would go up to the governor. I would go talk to Hartford. I would try to implore them, if you have any grasp of what it’s going to do to the center of our city. It’s not in the best interest to have our city fail. They don’t need to have Norwalk struggle, any more than the state is struggling. That’s what I would do. Quite frankly. I think if it was a Republican governor, and a Republican (mayor), I’m not picking people, but this is politics. If there was a Republican governor and a Republican mayor, they’d want this project through. It just happens to be a Democratic governor and a Democratic mayor, but this being pushed through. I don’t think anyone is thinking about the implications.
When you sit there and think that in 25 years, you can have a high-speed rail running parallel to 95, they would have torn up Norwalk for six years, who knows if we will have recovered. Every time we get ahead, we get slapped down again. I’m not willing to tolerate that. I’ve said this to many people in the campaign and I hope if you print this, it comes out the right way.
I wasn’t born and raised in Norwalk. I have lived all over the world. I know how good this city is, I see its potential. Sometimes I think Norwalk feels that it’s some second-class citizen to our wealthier neighbors. I’m tired of being the big box store for Darien and Westport and New Canaan. I think this is the best city in Connecticut, because of our location. Our coastline, a river, we’re historic and we’re old. We’re the best midsized city in Connecticut. Let’s start acting like that. Instead of comparing ourselves to towns. That’s what I would do. I would say that proudly as someone who has lived around the world. That’s what puts me apart. You don’t have to be born and raised here, to see this city’s potential.
Welsh: You’ve called for Norwalk to have a city planner. At the League’s Mayoral Forum, the incumbent said that he has already hired one in Steve Kleppin, and at the League’s Council Forum, one candidate said he thought it was unnecessary because, according to him, the city already has three. What’s your response to that?
Brinton Thomson: It’s one of structural. We may have three (people with) degrees and that’s great. The problem we’ve got is I’m really talking about a functionality, and we do not have one person in charge of planning this city, where all plans come in. We have a master plan with the parking authority, we have a master plan with the redevelopment agency, and then, Steve Kleppin, who’s planning and zoning, has the rest of the city.
And I don’t believe there is centralized planning about what we’re doing in our city. I don’t think it’s coordinated and I think that there are different things going on. So, there’s a difference between … Yes we may have three people who have got degrees and that, but I do not see structurally or organizationally where that’s all coming together.
And that’s, ultimately, you would say then the mayor is in charge of the city, the planning and zoning of the city because the three of those gentlemen, the three, those three agencies reporting to the mayor.
Welsh: Do you believe then that it may not be necessary to actually hire a city planner, it may be more a question of empowering one?
Brinton Thomson: It’s not just empowering, I don’t like that word. I think there needs to be structural reorganization.
Yes, it may not be necessary to hire one. I don’t know yet because I haven’t had enough chance to sit down and talk to everybody there, but I believe we’ve got an organizational problem.
So, right now, if we’ve got three city planners and they’re all doing their different things, we’ve got an organizational issue. So, yeah, it may not be necessary to hire one, but I think we do need to restructure.
Because the redevelopment organization works independently of Planning and Zoning and they have outside dollars. And you know, a lot of what’s going on in Norwalk, the biggest projects, those Norwalkers have a say over what’s going on there. That is being done with outside dollars, federal dollars, and one can even argue the POKO development. Right? I mean that was, that came from federal dollars, state dollars. It was cobbled together with a lot of different strings attached and it went belly up.
Welsh: You held a press conference on Thursday regarding the Walk bridge project, and there you spoke about obtaining more compensation for Norwalk, which you’ve mentioned previously here. You also allowed for the possibility that the project didn’t need to proceed the way it is. The incumbent’s reply was that your comments showed a “lack of understanding, experience, and leadership ability.” He accused you of thinking that you know more than “our elected officials, attorneys, engineers, planners, and citizens at the local, state, and federal level, who’d been immersed in this project for over a year.” What’s your reply to that?
Brinton Thomson: My reply is, I don’t think he’s fighting for the city. He allowed the first phase to go through with a Finding of No significant Impact. I think that our mayor has rolled over for the state and those who want to build this, and Norwalk be damned. And that’s what I think and so, as a taxpayer and a resident, I don’t believe he has fought hard enough for us. And I don’t consider declaring Liberty Square on the historic registry and rebuilding a building that you’re going to tear down, and building that again, when you still don’t know where the money’s coming from, and putting some fencing around Lockwood-Mathews Mansion. That’s great but it’s a billion dollar project, and they’re going to throw a few million dollars at us? That’s unacceptable. The pain and suffering and disruption that that bridge is going to cause, and as mayor of our town, I believe it’s his responsibility to stand up to that.
And I’ll tell you, another thing I did was I was at the … The Chamber of Commerce had a luncheon, oh about a month ago, and it was with Catherine Smith from the Connecticut Economic Development Group and the Walk Bridge came up. (They said) we’re replacing your bridge and yada, yada, yada. And I stood up and I said you know, hey, you did great. Yeah, you’re replacing the bridge. Can we talk a little bit about compensation? Because we’ve kind of been short changed in ECS funding, and just a little bit concerned about whether we’re going to be made whole for this very lengthy project. “Oh, don’t worry about that. There’s plenty of time for that. That’s two years away. Don’t you worry about your compensation.” Lori Toranno from Redevelopment got up and said, “You didn’t answer her question.” And asked the same question and said, “Businesses are concerned, residents living here are concerned.” And again, the commissioner dodged the question, and didn’t answer. And Harry was there in the room, and didn’t say a word.
I’m sorry, but leadership is about fighting for your city.
Welsh: You touched on the state’s financial difficulties, and you’ve also talked about insisting that the state do more for Norwalk on the Walk Bridge. So, let’s say you’re elected, and you contact the state and ask for more, and they reply that they can’t afford to. What would your next move be at that point?
Brinton Thomson: Citizen’s petition perhaps. Power of the people. I mean, if I win … Let’s face it, if I win, that’s a Cinderella story guys, if I win. But, Norwalk has to start standing up for itself.
And so, yeah, if I win it means that people have had enough and I would have the support to take this to the Governor and say, “You’ve got to re-do this.” I don’t think they realize the pain and suffering economically that is going to be caused to the city.
Welsh: On the subject of petitions, you said that it would be possible to accomplish charter revision without the Council’s support if you did a petition. The incumbent has said that the idea of doing that would effectively start your working relationship with the Common Council in an adversarial way, and it’s therefore impractical. If you’re elected, and if you do have to go the petition route to accomplish charter revision, how would you then maintain a good working relationship with the counsel?
Brinton Thomson: Well, first off, it’s Harry’s opinion that I wouldn’t get along with the Council. So, let me dispel that first myth. I don’t think a citizen’s petition will be required. Number two, Harry has in his goals for 2017-18, Charter revision. Those were at large Council (candidates) who have said it. I get along with all of them, I have worked with all of them, half of the people that are on the Council have had their signs in my yard over the years, both sides of the party. So, first off I would say that I would dispel the myth that I would not have the support of the Council. I vehemently disagree with that, and I think that is a campaign tactic on Harry’s part.
So, it would never come to a citizen’s petition. And, I know that it was in (one Council in-district forum), I don’t know how it went in the others. I know that District B was supportive of Charter revision, I know that District E, all four of them, were supportive of opening up a Charter.
Welsh: So, you believe if you win, certain Council candidates who said they oppose it, will change their view?
Brinton Thomson: Yes. They’re towing the party lines. They’ve been told to tow the party line. I have challenged the status quo, those who are in the Republican party who have been told to tow the line, some have, some have not. And we have at large representatives, and the same thing has happened on the democratic side. I’m non-partisan, I have worked with them on issues of Planning and Zoning. And so, what was defeated, was not Charter revision, what was defeated was Harry getting a four-year term.
That’s what was defeated, not Charter revision, because it wasn’t real Charter revision. And, so I just completely dispel, and completely hold invalid Harry’s statement on that. But I would expect him to say that, so that’s fine.
Welsh: Let’s say you did go the petition route. How long does that take?
Brinton Thomson: I don’t know, and I really don’t want to go down that path. Why would I have to do a citizen’s petition on something that is in his budget this year?
Welsh: There are opponents to the idea of a city manager who’ve raised multiple concerns about the idea. And I want you to have the opportunity to respond to each of those concerns individually. So, I have three of them here.
Brinton Thomson: Okay.
Welsh: The first is that a city manager will be difficult to fire in the event of poor performance. What’s your response to that?
Brinton Thomson: That’s incorrect, you can certainly fire them. You work that into their contract, you put in benchmarks and measurements and things of that sort.
Welsh: The second one, a city manager will not be accountable to the voters the way a mayor is.
Brinton Thomson: Well, when only 30 percent of the voters turn out to vote, how accountable is any of our political establishment? I disagree with that as well because, and this would be up again to the Charter Revision Commission, not Lisa, the Charter Revision Commission, and up to the people of Norwalk, not the politicians. But, the city manager could report in to the mayor, could report in to the Council. That would be decided at the Charter Revision Commission, they would look into different models in terms of how they report in to people, could report in to the mayor, could report in to the Council. Again, that is for a Charter Revision Commission to decide, not Lisa Brinton Thomson.
These guys are trying to kill something before it even gets out the door, and why, because it threatens the daily cronyism structure of the way we have been working, so I think that’s why they are challenging it. More and more the popular form of Charter revision in this country is a city manager or a town administrator. It gets away from the cronyism, moves towards proactive management of a city as opposed to reactive politics.
Imagine the 19 schools in Norwalk not running under a superintendent. How do you think that would work? Basically Norwalk, the city side of Norwalk, which is responsible for generating revenue, figuring out how we fund our city. It’s basically under the guise of a political Mayor. But, each of those … I would argue that this mayor spends more time out there ribbon-cutting and doing various things than actually running the city’s departments. The city departments run their own departments individually. They do a very good job individually, but not sure that necessarily produces the best result for the city as a whole.
I met with Harry in February, I can tell you the date and I can tell you the time, I have my own James Comey memo. February 6th at 11 a.m. We were still talking about Charter revision, and I said … I saw the role as mayor, there were six different things a mayor’s supposed to be doing. They would be an advocate for the city against Hartford, and in our case on the Walk Bridge and the ECS school funding. The mayor was a custodian, they presided over departments and Counsel meetings, etc. etc. They were a figurehead, (with) ceremonial duties. They were supposed to be a manager to manage the department heads, in terms of performances, revenues, expenditures, taxes. They were the head of the party, they were the head of whatever their party was, whether it was republican or democrat. And finally, they needed to be a visionary and set the direction for the city. Those are the six different pieces I saw to a mayor. All I’m trying to do is take away the piece, the managerial piece and give that to someone who is professionally Chartered to do that.
Welsh: So, the last objection that we’ve heard on a city manager is that the city manager will wield power over the Council members by providing or either withholding services to each Council member’s districts. What’s your view on that?
Brinton Thomson: No, you know what I see a city manager doing? And this was a conversation that I had with John Igneri last year on Charter revision. We were both working polls at Roton, and we were talking about Charter revision. And one of the other ideas I threw out, do we need more Council people? All they do is complain that they have too much work on their hands. But, I said, what are the other things you’re looking at with more Council members? Well, I’m saying I advocate for that, but they’ve got more work to do.
I believe that the city manager would make Council people’s jobs a lot easier. Right now you have, the power is a weak mayor/strong Council. Well, I say it’s not such a weak mayor, it’s a completely political mayor that controls appointments to what commission we have. And you have a strong Council, but everybody’s got another job. I mean, everyone has a job and they are part time Council people with full time jobs who are trying to operationally run a city. But, on the record having 88,000, they have more like a hundred thousand or more according to my belief. I believe a city manager would make the job a lot easier. Again I go back to the model of the Board of Ed and that’s like not having a superintendent running 19 schools and trying to have the Board of Ed Control all the operations of the policy. That’s respectively what is happening on the City side of the house. These guys are having to do everything.
Welsh: Some who are supporting other candidates claim that the skills that you’ve demonstrated in activism are different that the skills needed for governing. How do you respond to that?
Brinton Thomson: I will respond by saying that I was in business for 25 years, they’ve seen me (only) in an activist role. My activism is more about the priorities that I see, and not my managerial style. And one of the things that they can all thank me for is that the reason why I’m running is that all my managerial skills and the things I put forward as an activist, at least in the case of the Charter revision things, were ignored. I’ve got a managerial background, I’ve lived all over the world, I’ve managed operations. I have sold, I have marketed, I have vision, I am not your typical politician. I thought Harry, because of his Police Chief skills, would be an effective manager. Harry has turned in to a politician in very short order.
And I was very disappointed by that. So, if they say I’m an activist, I disagree with that. I’ve been an activist on issues that I think need to be highlighted, but you would see me revert in to my managerial roles as an executive as a mayor.
Welsh: So, in other words, you’re an activist, but you’re not just an activist, you’re also a manager and somebody with business experience.
Brinton Thomson: I’m a mother, I’m a manger, a big cancer survivor, I’ve been teaching for the last 10 years. I’ve been teaching kids for the last 10 years. So, I’ve been in education. I’m a fundraiser, I brought in probably a quarter of a million dollars. But nice try trying to pigeon hole me for activism. I’m the closest thing to a referendum this city’s gonna get on changing the way we do business as usual. And all I’m trying to do is bring back professionalism into city government, and to represent the people, the people who pay the salaries in this town, I will be accountable to the voters because that’s who pays the salaries of this town. The salaries are funded by residential property taxes, don’t forget that.
Welsh: You touched on this earlier, in the last municipal election, we had something like 12,700 people vote and Norwalk is a town of 88,000. So, is there something that you’re currently doing or something that you would do in the future to increase civic participation?
Brinton Thomson: Yes, I think my candidacy has increased participation. I mean, we’ve got 755 or whatever, we didn’t have to ask anyone, basically people came to us for signs. I did not have to go put signs out there.
Welsh: What do you imagine would be your greatest strength as mayor?
Brinton Thomson: I get along with everybody and that I’m open to ideas. Despite what Harry put in the campaign, I get along with everyone, I’m open, and I’m a visionary, and I’m practical. I haven’t spent a lot of time saying “I, I, I,” there’s not a lot of “I, I, I” coming out of the campaign from me or my opponents, and I love them all. I’m not playing the female card, but I just think, I don’t think I’m the smartest one in the room, but I’m open to new ideas. And you know what my biggest strength is? I’m beholden to nobody.
Welsh: Is there anything else you’d like the voters to hear before election day?
Brinton Thomson: Get out and vote, if you don’t vote, you can’t complain.