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King defends Rilling’s plan to merge Fair Housing with Fair Rent

Norwalk Fair Housing Officer Margaret Suib, right. (File photo)

NORWALK, Conn. — Mayor Harry Rilling’s proposed City government reorganization has an element that is outrageous, according to one Fair Housing Advisory Commission member.

The proposal would create a Chief of Community Services, who would oversee a Fair Rent, Fair Housing and Human Relations director. This would merge two departments, combining the Fair Housing Officer position, currently held by Margaret Suib, with the Human Relations & Fair Rent Department Director position, currently held by Adam Bovilsky.

“It’s appalling; we just did a study last year that reminds us of how important this Commission and the position of Fair Housing Officer is,” Fair Housing Advisory Commission member Jalin Sead wrote to NancyOnNorwalk in a Tuesday email. “Margaret Suib, has been doing a great job; and has been undermined by this administration for far too long.”

“The ReOrg is not about Margaret Suib’s job performance – as with the rest of the proposal, it is about how to better align city functions,” Assistant to the Mayor Laoise King wrote in a late evening email. “Contrary to what Jalin may assume, one of the reasons the mayor is proposing combining functions into one office is so that both departments function more effectively, specifically because this function is so vital.  The mayor believes this will greatly improve the experience for residents who are seeking assistance from the city on housing matters.”

Rilling has proposed changing the City’s organizational chart to “align city resources and employees in to a more rational and efficient organizational structure that represents the needs and functions of a modern city,” reducing the Mayor’s “direct reports” from 20 to nine.

The Common Council Ad Hoc Committee charged with considering the reorganization is slated to meet Wednesday, with the agenda specifying a “review of anticipated efficiencies of the Mayor’s proposed reorganization” and an executive session for a “personnel discussion.”

“The way the Reorganization plan looks like Margaret’s position will be taken away and combined with another position,” Sead wrote, replying to a NancyOnNorwalk inquiry. “The reason I feel that this is outrageous is because, since I was appointed to the Fair Housing Advisory Commission, Bob Barron has made it extremely clear that he feels that this Commission and the Fair Housing Officer is unimportant. With Norwalk rapidly growing and Gentrification spreading like the Plague; we need the voice of Margaret more than ever. The lack of support is quite disturbing, since many other people seem to get raises while this vital asset to the elderly, poor, and disenfranchised seems to be undermined.”

Sead was appointed in March 2016.

King said in her email that Sead had not reached out to her or Rilling to ask about the reorg, and offered what she called “clarifications:”

“With the Human Relations Director position being recast as Chief of Community Services, there is an opportunity to better align housing issues within the human relations/fair rent office. As most folks know, we have an office and staff in city hall that deals with fair rent (landlord/tenant issues), and a separate office in another building (the health department) supervised by the redevelopment agency that handles fair housing (housing discrimination). We hear from constituents that it is very confusing for them to know where to go and what the difference is between these offices. It causes confusion and multiple trips and calls for some of our most vulnerable residents (as Jalin points out – most people seeking this type of assistance are poor, elderly and disenfranchised). The mayor believes there should be one housing office for residents to come to when any type of housing issue arises.

“… The reasons Jalin states (increasing concerns about gentrification, availability of affordable housing, conditions of rental housing) are the exact reasons the mayor has included this proposal on the ReOrg plans. It is consistent with the effort to ensure like functions are grouped appropriately to increase effectiveness and navigability of city government.  Margaret has long advocated for her position coming over to the city side (rather than being in redevelopment) and this is our best chance to make that happen.”

Fair Housing Commissioner Daisy Franklin, at Wednesday’s Democratic Town Committee meeting, asked Rilling where the Fair Housing department and the Fair Housing Officer stands.

“We are still debating that,” Rilling replied. “As far as I know right now, there won’t be many – there won’t be any change for, uh, any significant change in that office. Yeah, I had a conversation this morning about that.”

Suib’s position was created via a 1986 court order.

“The Fair Housing Office, celebrating its 30th year in 2016, is a result of an action brought by the Norwalk Branch NAACP against the City of Norwalk,” then-Norwalk Branch NAACP President Darnell Crosland wrote in a 2016 open letter  to the Board of Estimate and Taxation regarding the Fair Housing Office budget for FY 2016/17. “The settlement agreement/court order from that action is called the Second Amended Consent Decree (SACD). We are proud of this great achievement.”

Crosland’s letter was titled, “City should fund Fair Housing Office.”

“The SACD requires that Norwalk fund the Fair Housing Office, which includes paying the salary and benefits of the Fair Housing Officer (FHO) and providing support services. The City has not provided support services in recent years,” Crosland wrote.

NancyOnNorwalk reached out to current NAACP leaders Tuesday but was not successful in getting a response.

King, in her Tuesday evening email, wrote:

“The court order does not address whether the position reports to the city or redevelopment nor whether it is a stand alone office or combined with other housing efforts.  We believe the we can accomplish a more streamlined delivery of services within the bounds of the consent decree, and are hopeful we will be able to move forward with this with the support of the Fair Housing Commission and the NAACP.  If the council approves moving forward with the proposal we will work out the details with the stakeholders. There is no intent here to diminish the functions nor the importance of the position, merely an effort to realign and make the services more convenient and logical for those seeking assistance.”

17 comments

What a joke May 30, 2018 at 5:17 am

I know that this has become regular practice for the Mayor’s office but why is Ms. King answering all the questions that Rilling should be answering himself. ONCE AGAIN, THE PEOPLE OF NORWALK ELECTED RILLING AS MAYOR, NOT MS. KING. Citizens are getting tired of our Mayor being a no show when it comes to answering questions about anything that has to do with our local government. THE MAYOR OWES HIS CONSTITUENTS THE RESPONSIBILITY TO ANSWER TOUGH QUESTIONS AND IT IS HIS RESPONSIBILITY TO DEFEND HIS DECISIONS. IT IS NOT MS. KING’s JOB, SHE WAS NOT ELECTED MAYOR OF NORWALK BY IT’s CITIZENS.

Patrick Cooper May 30, 2018 at 6:40 am

Assistant to the Mayor Laoise King says… over and over. Again, and again. I mean seriously – enough – please be quiet. YOU are not running the town – or are you? WHY are we not outraged – this UNELECTED individual is the only one who will discuss this “reorganization” – clearly and 100% transparently – this is HER plan (I get to give myself a huge raise on the backs of these tax payer dolts).

It’s one of three excuses for our 3x elected mayor Rilling – either 1. he can’t explain it because he doesn’t understand it, 2. It was late and even at mid-day Harry is challenged to put more than two sound bites together than sound intelligible, or 3. He doesn’t want to be on the record for any of it – case it blows up in his face/reelection ambitions (I pick #3).

There is a cold wind blowing in South Norwalk. Reliably D – maybe not for long.

Next November will be time to clean house on East Avenue. Common council – you go along with this – your complicit.

Bryan Meek May 30, 2018 at 9:52 am

This comment has been disallowed because the commenter has been banned, due to continued comments policy violations after having been warned.

PIBerman May 30, 2018 at 10:07 am

Why is our Mayor avoiding using outside Consultants to advise about a City Reorganization ? Maybe wouldn’t like the results ? A background as Police Chief isn’t ordinarily the background one expects for such a complex assignment.

Unless its “election time”.

Nora K King May 30, 2018 at 10:12 am

This reorg is long over due. I think the Mayor has taken his time, gotten to know what is working and what isn’t working and how the structure can change to benefit the city. The fact that we have the same management structure for the past thirty years should scare anyone. My only wish is that Planning and Zoning gets a major overhaul and stops working where zoning is driving planning versus planning driving our zoning codes. In my opinion the reorganization should only be the first in many steps that need to be done. I say Kudos to the Mayor and Ms. King for doing it! The good old boys of Norwalk High should have open minds and let the changes happen. Change can be very good!

Donna Smirniotopoulos May 30, 2018 at 10:46 am

Agree with Nora King that Planning and Zoning need an overhaul, and that this overhaul should include an overhaul of the opaque mayoral appointment process that results in filling these boards with political cronies and/or anyone else who says yes so Harry can say no to someone actually qualified to do the job. As Laoise King said, the responsibility for land use decisions rests squarely on the mayor’s shoulders. The mayor appointed every commissioner who approved the recent spot zoning of 230 East Avenue. The mayor appointed every commissioner who approved a MERV filtration system for 34 Meadow that will spill pollutants into a residential neighborhood. So yes, by all means, overhaul away! Best to accomplish this via Charter Revision—which the people were promised in 2016–and electing new leadership from the top down in 2019.

As for the internal ReOrg that Laoise King is proposing to justify a pay raise and title change—when the mayor can explain his own ReOrg and answer questions at a public Q&A without stepping all over his tongue, maybe then the naysayers (you know us—we’re the ones who pay taxes so the city can cover schools and services) will climb on board. The scariest thing about the 30 year old management structure is the continued reliance on cronyism. Nothing in the “mayor’s” ReOrg promises an end to that economically ruinous practice.

Donna Smirniotopoulos May 30, 2018 at 2:34 pm

Editor’s note: This commenter expresses pride in a “badge” she earned by serially violating the comment policy. For countless instances of ascribing motives, harassing the writer, and insulting the writer – all violations of the comments policy, which also prohibits trolls – the commenter is banned.

V May 30, 2018 at 3:22 pm

@ Nora K King – what does Norwalk High have to do with this issue? Just Wondering? Typo? Freudian Slip from Rowayton’s high lands?

Norwalk native May 30, 2018 at 3:41 pm

Don’t know who this Laoise is and don’t care. I didn’t vote for her or her nominal boss. People deserve the officials they elect into office. If buffoonery is tolerated, buffoonery will be served up.

Can someone please offer up an alternative candidate with a pulse? I’m tired of the current Stoogies movie that keeps replaying itself at City Hall.

carol May 30, 2018 at 4:48 pm

did not know we voted for Laoise as our mayor. Harry should answer all questions without her
enough spending our tax dollars on more people and raises for those that are driving this. Hope the council takes there time and does not reach for the 6 week deadline.
Margaret Suib is the best thing that ever happened to fair housing.she is dedicated,fair and a voice for the people. Bob Baron has had it in for her for years. he is also not the mayor.
SAVE MARGARET’S POSITION.

Mike Mushak May 30, 2018 at 6:01 pm

I support the long-overdue reorganization plan that could potentially improve services to our citizens, including the “poor, elderly, and disenfranchised” as Fair Housing Commissioner Jalin Sead described them, to which I would also add the category “disabled,” having had a family member with serious disabilities live independently in supportive housing for decades in NJ and who sometimes needed assistance from various government agencies.

It wasn’t always easy for our family to navigate the bureaucracy, and anything that can improve the “user experience” in City Hall, especially by our most vulnerable citizens in often desperate need of assistance , is a good thing in my mind.

Big picture, this reorganization effort should be applauded and supported by those who support smarter and more accountable government in City Hall. Some snags are expected and will be worked out, through good communication and cooperation as any organization will prove after changes are proposed and implemented.

My question is, why exactly do struggling and often stressed-out folks currently have to figure out the confusing differences between “fair rent” and fair housing” departments housed in two separate buildings and staffed by different folks, as the article states? I see no one commenting here defending this current status quo that the reorganization is supposed to help fix. Perhaps the Fair Housing Commission members may want to respond to this.

On another note, anyone who has ever met and talked to Laoisa King will understand that she brings a lot of valuable organizational skill and managerial experience to City Hall, and always has the best interest of Norwalk’s citizens on her mind, as does Mayor Rilling.

Thank you to everyone who is working so hard on this effort, and I believe the valid concerns of those quoted in the article will be addressed.

Donna Smirniotopoulos May 30, 2018 at 8:47 pm

The Ad Hoc Committee of the Common Council met tonight. The CC will rubber stamp this as they do everything. But they cannot vote to accept this without a public hearing. Hopefully they’ve scheduled one.

Anyone who supports a major reorganization at City Hall that the elected mayor cannot explain himself should be screaming from the rooftops. Someone no one elected with accountability to no one but the mayor—who cannot answer a question or reply to an email without her support—is leading a reorganization that includes a raise for herself and WE AREN’T RIOTING? Wake me up when the 1984 nightmare ends.

Jalin Sead May 30, 2018 at 11:10 pm

In answer to Mike Mushak’s concerns: yes sometimes people call or visit the wrong department, or don’t know that Fair Rent deals with excessive rent increases while Fair Housing deals with housing discrimination including helping people with disabilities get accommodations they need. But actually going to the wrong office doesn’t happen frequently, just occasionally.

Margaret often assists people like Mike’s relative, who live in group homes (frequently STAR clients). Sometimes the client and their service provider comes to the Fair Housing Office. Other times, Margaret goes to them, in their homes. Whether meeting at the Fair Housing office or the client’s home is the client’s option.

Fair Rent and Fair Housing have had their own offices and separate full time staffs, for 32 years precisely because they provide completely different services.

Similarly, the Town Clerk and City Clerk have offices far from each other in City Hall, with long hallways on multiple levels that are difficult for the elderly and people with disabilities to navigate. Yet the elderly or folks with disabilities often walk all the way to the end of a second floor hallway, seeking a death certificate for example, only to be told by the Mayor’s office that they need to go back down the long hall and downstairs, and across the big lobby to the Town Clerk’s office. Yet this reorganization plan doesn’t combine the Town Clerk and City Clerk offices, probably because they have very different functions that only sound similar.

Finally, if it’s important to be “efficient” and have Fair Rent located near Fair Housing, there is a large empty office area directly across the hall from the Fair Housing Office, larger space than the Fair Rent Office has now. This would preserve the full-time Fair Housing Office and Officer and provide the convenience of having Fair Rent directly across the hall from Fair Housing.

This seems like a better idea: move Fair Rent across from Fair Housing and maintain the existing staffing so that when anyone comes for help, it’s not only convenient but someone who needs Fair Housing help will actually get that help from Margaret, our Fair Housing Officer.

Sue Haynie May 30, 2018 at 11:17 pm

Agree with above posters. Rilling is the Mayor, he ran for the job. He needs to start talking and acting like the Mayor and quit letting the unelected Ms. King call the shots and speak for him. It’s insulting to voters and taxpayers.

Rilling also needs to explain why Norwalkers will now be paying for Two Mayors? The self-serving Ms King has given herself a $30,000 raise in this reorg. What does that have to do with ‘efficiency ‘? King will be making $100,000 more a year than her counterpart in Danbury, a town of equal size, demographics and growth as Norwalk. Why is this OK?

Only in a city that has a disregard for its taxpayers would ‘efficiency’ require more staffing, new titles and more money?

Travis Simms May 31, 2018 at 10:11 pm

Merging Fair Housing and Fair Rent is a great idea, but they should be staffed separately. They are two totally different functions and should operate as such.

Deidra Davis June 1, 2018 at 9:43 am

As being a previous Fair Housing Commissioner of Norwalk I do know how vital this department is. So I must say under the current leadership Margaret Suib my hat goes off to you for the phenomenal job you continue to do. I have never seen anyone fight for justice so hard for the people no matter the back lash she may receive. There is still much work to do and you must have someone who is willing and understanding and not turn the blind eye to the wrong doing or afraid to call it what it is.
So I ask that with the merging of these 2 departments we keep Margaret Suib as Director and she is one that definetly deserves a raise.I support Margaret Suib..

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