NORWALK, Conn. – Mayor Harry Rilling’s proposed reorganization of City departments is in violation of a court order, a New Britain attorney said Monday.
Nilda Havrilla, managing attorney of the Connecticut Legal Services housing unit, informed the Common Council Ad Hoc Committee that the Norwalk Branch NAACP, party to a 1986 federal consent decree that created Norwalk’s Fair Housing Office, is “not amenable to the city’s current proposal.”
“It never has been and under the federal consent decree, the city cannot simply go forward without the NAACP’s consent,” Havrilla said.
Her comments came after Rilling emphasized to Committee members that he had met with the NAACP and the Fair Housing Advisory Committee, and “made it very clear that the consent decree is sacrosanct” and that the city wouldn’t challenge the court order.
“I believe everybody left the room satisfied that we were not going to change the consent decree, that we were going to abide by it and that we are going to continue to meet until everybody was happy,” Rilling said.
Rilling’s 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, who is leaving to become Norwalk Housing Authority Executive Director.
Monday’s Committee meeting began with Committee Chairman John Kydes asking Rilling about the Fair Housing Officer, the topic Monday of a NancyOnNorwalk story.
Not only would the proposal create a “one stop shop” for citizens, instead of the confusion inspired by having Fair Rent in one location and Fair Housing in another, but, “We also looked at this as an opportunity to make the consent decree more binding,” Rilling said.
The order doesn’t say if the Fair Housing Officer is a full-time position and it doesn’t require that the officer be an attorney, he said.
“We would like to firm that up so that the consent decree is more binding and protects people out in the future when somebody else may come along and challenge it,” Rilling said. “…We think that if the parties agree, we don’t have to go back to federal court as long as the substantive components of the consent decree are not changed.”
The reorg would create a Chief of Community Services; Rilling said other employees under that chief would investigate housing violations.
“It looks like only three people” in the department, Council member Tom Livingston (D-District E) said, and Rilling agreed that was correct, describing it again as combining functions.
“To me it sounds like you have put quite a lot of thought into this,” Kydes said, and Rilling said there would be no lack of services, but “We believe it will strengthen the process.”
“Currently we have four positions that are working on this area,” Assistant to the Mayor Laoise King said, explaining that the Fair Housing Officer works in the Health Department, a separate building from City Hall, and a Director of Human Relations and Fair Rent who oversees an employee working on fair rent and civil rights and a fourth employee who assists with fair rent investigations and American Disability Act issues.
It would still be four employees, she said.
“We are just going to switch around which people are doing the jobs, so that the housing jobs are all focused on one employee doing fair rent under housing, who will be supported by the program person who will help with the investigations,” King said. “So, in essence there will still one full time equivalent dedicated to Fair Housing Officer duties, and also doing fair rent… other duties that are currently being done by the person who does fair rent will be put into human relations position and/or the chief of community services.”
“I can’t stress strongly enough that the meeting we had was a good meeting,” Rilling said.
“It was a productive meeting, we do have an open dialogue,” Havrilla said at the close of the Committee’s work. “… We welcome that but I just want to be clear, on behalf of the NAACP, that they are not amenable to the city’s current proposal.”
NAACP Branch President Brenda Penn-Williams declined to comment to reporters.
“We believe that the Fair Housing Officer position would be diluted under the plan that is being proposed,” Havrilla said to reporters. “… We are at the table, and that’s important. we want to be at the table, we want to be talking to the city.”
Asked what the NAACP would like to do differently, she said, “We would have to sit down and really talk about it and see what we can do but the important piece is that the NAACP has to be part of the conversation. We were talking with them, we were at a meeting with them, but that’s just the beginning of the conversation.”