Updated, Nov. 7 2 a.m.: Minor copy edit.
NORWALK, Conn. — We’ve got a little more on the mayoral contest for you.
Actually, a lot more – we had extensive interviews with three of the four contestants and are planning to post transcripts of them Monday afternoon and evening.
Now, we have Mayor Harry Rilling responding to the criticisms levied by his opponents, with Republican challenger Andy Conroy and unaffiliated candidate Lisa Brinton Thomson elaborating on their concerns.
Today, we have a debate-like back and forth, a follow-up on the discussions that concluded last week. Each candidate was given time to expound at length; below you’ll find an issue-oriented back and forth, even if the candidates weren’t speaking directly at each other.
Responding to the NancyOnNorwalk last minute invitations were Democratic Mayor Harry Rilling, Republican challenger Andy Conroy and unaffiliated candidate Lisa Brinton Thomson. State Rep. Bruce Morris (D-140) did not respond to an email sent Saturday afternoon. On Monday, he said he missed the email.
Rilling agreed to a videotaped interview. Brinton Thomson and Conroy declined.
On to the issues:
The Walk Bridge
“As far as the Walk Bridge, we continue to meet with the Department of Transportation, we continue to meet with the stakeholders in the community, with the Maritime Aquarium,” Rilling said. “We just have to make sure that we have our arms around it to minimize the impact. I’m working with the Governor’s office, I reached out the Governor’s office, I told them that we need to make sure that we don’t lose our business community because of the Walk Bridge project.”
Brinton Thomson said last week that a $2.5 million fence for the Lockwood Matthews Mansion Museum is nice, but not enough compensation from the state for the disruption Norwalk is going to endure as the state rebuilds the aged railroad bridge over the Norwalk River.
“I don’t know where she gets that that’s the only thing we’re looking for,” Rilling said. “It’s very nice at a time during a campaign, with lack of information, to be able to come out and say, ‘We should get this, we should get that.’ I mean, if I was running and I hadn’t been at all these meetings, and I was running against an opponent, an incumbent, I would say, ‘We need 50 million, $80 million from the State of Connecticut.’ The fact of the matter is, the State of Connecticut is having a difficult time with their budget.”
Rilling has said he’s been in 50-60 meetings with ConnDOT.
“I think that, as I responded to Nancy on Norwalk, I said that, ‘It shows, I believe, my opponent’s lack of experience in trying to determine what we are able to negotiate with the State of Connecticut.’ We are negotiating hard, we are negotiating on behalf of the city, and we are working to get every possible thing we can,” Rillign said. “Everything’s still in the negotiation stage. We’re looking at a new wharf for the boats at the Maritime Aquarium, and the Seaport Association. We’re looking for a boathouse down in that area. We’re looking for the sustainability to make our businesses whole. We’re looking … We’ve had a lot of different things on the table, so right now nothing is off the table, everything is on it.”
Conroy has advocated for a fixed bridge, but on Sunday clarified that he’s not talking about repairing the old bridge but building a new one.
New building materials would probably mean that a new bridge would have more clearance over the river than the existing bridge, he said. The savings from a less expensive build could be used to compensate property owners up river, who wouldn’t be able to sail a boat under a fixed bridge.
Go to the ConnDOT website and you’ll see “they are talking about economic development above the bridge and how they can develop it by having an opening bridge,” he said.
“It seems to be not in their bailiwick, it’s not their decision to be making so I thought maybe the mayor had a big hand in that,” Conroy said. “I am sure he has. If you listen to him carefully in the last few weeks, he talks about economic development above the bridge. So I think that is part of the reason he is stuck in this position, because he wants to see that. In addition to that, DOT had said they want to use this bridge as a sort of learning project… if this weren’t an opening bridge they wouldn’t be able to learn as much. So, I think everybody has made up their minds regardless of how sensible it might be to do it otherwise.”
Brinton Thomson and Conroy said last week that the Norwalk Common Council authorized Rilling to sign a municipal master agreement with ConnDOT, thereby losing any leverage the city would have had.
Asked what she would do if she were mayor, Brinton Thomson said, “I would look to be negotiate. I would go up to the governor. I would go up to Hartford. I would try to implore them, if they have any grasp of what it’s going to do to the center of our city. It’s not in Hartford’s interest to have the city fail…. We don’t need to struggle anymore than the state is struggling. This is political.”
“In 25 years ago, we may have a high-speed rail running parallel to 95. Who knows if we will have recovered (from the Walk Bridge project)? Every time we get ahead, we get slapped down again. I am not willing to tolerate that… I wasn’t born and raised in Norwalk. I have lived all over the world. I know how good the city is. I see it it’s potential. Sometimes I think Norwalk feels that it’s on a second-class citizen with its wealth of your neighbors I am tired of being the big box store for Darien and Westport and New Canaan.”
Asked the same question, Conroy repeated his call for an independent engineering firm to review ConnDOT’s plans.
All three opponents have attacked Rilling’s campaign fundraising effort, with much of his $150,000 coming from developers.
“I think it’s really offensive that people would suggest that I would give preferential treatment to anybody,” Rilling said. “I would challenge anybody to find any developer anywhere that I have given preferential treatment to. I treat our investors or potential investors in our community with respect, but they have to follow a process just like anybody else. It’s offensive to me that they would question my integrity and my ethics.”
“I would also find maybe a question that you might want to ask some of the people who donated to my campaign, how many people, or how many of my opponents have reached out to them?” Rilling said. “Because, that’s the way fundraising is done. I’ve had some of my opponents go into the Town Clerk’s office, take my filings, and write down the names of my donors. I would venture to say it would be very interesting to find out how many of them reached out to some of those donors that they’re now criticizing me for.”
“The people of Norwalk know me,” he said. “I was the Police Chief here for 17 years. I have an unscathed record, I have an unscathed record as Mayor as far as any controversy, any conflict of interest.”
Asked if there might be a need for campaign reform regarding donations, Rilling said that is up to the voters.
The maximum anyone can give a mayoral campaign is $1,000, he said.
“How would we get the money to run an effective campaign?” Rilling asked. “The people in the community need to know about the campaign issues. They need to have a way. Right now, the only way other than mailings and knocking on doors and hiring a campaign staff and a campaign headquarters, the only way is to write an op-ed in the paper, but then the opponents don’t get a chance to refute that. Pretty much you can say anything, and I will say that a lot of the things that are being said about my campaign are misinformation. I always felt that we needed fact-checking like they had in the presidential race.”
Brinton Thomson said, “I don’t need campaign donations from developers. … I want to sit down and talk about how to move Norwalk forward, I don’t need to be bought. This city is going to do well. They don’t need to buy influence. They just don’t, I am happy to speak to them.”
“I don’t think it costs $150 million to run for mayor. I told you, it cost me 25, round numbers,” she said.
It’s an all-volunteer campaign with the money going toward supplies, she said. Conroy said developers must think they’re buying influence, because, “Otherwise they wouldn’t be giving him the money.”
Rilling’s Oct. 1 filing showed $6,000 from people connected to AMEC Carting or AMEC Construction.
“That’s peculiar,” Conroy said.
But, “I think (developer contributions have) been going on for a long time,” Conroy said. “I objected to it with Esposito, because we were talking about hitting up some of the developers. I worked with him on some of his campaigns; I said you don’t want to overdo this. I think he didn’t go as far as he could have. He could have raised probably another $50,000, $100,000 if he wanted to. I told Dick (Moccia) I thought the same thing. If we get too many developer contributions you are going to look as though you are beholden to them.”
“I don’t know that $1000 donations are necessary to a mayoral campaign. I think we could reduce that… to $250 or to $500,” Conroy said.
Conroy and Brinton Thomson said they haven’t tried to get campaign donations from developers.
“I don’t think Harry has done anything that maybe other mayors haven’t done, taking money from developers,” Brinton Thomson said. “I think that’s been going on in Norwalk for years and years so Harry didn’t invent that. Perhaps he has perfected it after the great recession.”
A city manager
Brinton Thomson is pushing for charter revision, specifically asking that Norwalk switch to a city manager-style of government.
“I’ve been a manager for a long time, managing a police department of 182 officers,” Rilling said. “I was an assistant manager as deputy chief, so for 25 years, I’ve been in a management position. I know the city of Norwalk, and I’m accountable to the public. A city manager would be accountable to the Common Council, not an elected person. City managers traditionally go into a place and build their resume, and then they move on. You bring in a city manager that doesn’t have knowledge of our community, they’re learning on our dollar, and again, they’re accountable to the council, not to the public. She mentions that you need to have somebody in place to do a lot of the things that a city manager might do, and she refers to I believe in one of her websites a director of operations.”
He continued, “I have what is the equivalent of a director of operations in my mayoral assistant, so I’m able to have all the things that need to be done checked upon and evaluated to see the progress on a regular basis.”
He was referring to Assistant to the Mayor Laoise King.
“She has a law degree in the state of Connecticut,” Rilling said. “She’s certified in the bar in New York and Colorado, and she is the former deputy chief of staff in New Haven. She lives in Norwalk, she knows the community, and I’m able to say to her, “Okay, check on this project, check on that project. How is this one going?” She can go out and do those things because I have a span of control of about 17 or 18 department heads. That’s a span of control that’s really very difficult to manage, but again, a city manager comes in, builds their resume, and then moves on someplace else.”
A majority of Council at large candidates said in a recent debate that they didn’t support a city manager. Charter revision would need a two-thirds majority vote.
Brinton Thomson said if the Council didn’t support a charter revision to create a city manager, she’s go to the public with a petition to create a charter revision commission.
That would instantly alienate the Council members she needs to work with for two years, Rilling said.
“I don’t think that’s really leadership,” he said. “I think that’s just doing what you think is right. We have someone who said, ‘I know more than the generals.’ Is that the kind of thing we’re hearing here?”
“I vehemently disagree with that and I think that is a campaign tactic on Rilling‘s part,” Brinton Thomson said “…. If he is wasn’t going to do charter revision then why does he have it in the budget?”
Charter Revision is listed as a goal in the 2017-18 operating budget for the mayor’s office.
The Council candidates are towing the party line, she said.
“There’s a lot of nervousness, they have been told to tow the party line. I have challenged the status quo,” she said.
“Why would I have to do a citizen’s petition on something this is in his budget this year? 2017-18. It’s in his budget to do charter revision,” she said. “Why does he say they’ll do charter revision for Harry, but they won’t do charter revision for Lisa? It’s not for Lisa, it’s for the people.”