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Rilling seeks ‘hard look’ at Norwalk Redevelopment Agency’s role

Norwalk Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan and Director of Community Development Planning Tami Strauss speak to the Zoning Commission in January.

NORWALK, Conn. — The Norwalk Redevelopment Agency is interested in a strategic planning initiative, an evaluation of its purpose and interaction with the City, after a new executive director is hired, Redevelopment Agency Chairman Felix Serrano announced Tuesday.

Mayor Harry Rilling would prefer the planning initiative be done before the new director is hired, Chief of Staff Laoise King said in a midnight email.

The Agency, meanwhile, unanimously appointed Director of Community Development Planning Tami Straus as acting executive director, effective July 1. She will replace Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan, who announced last week that he was resigning.

King, on behalf of Rilling, made public the request to “take a look at what has the Redevelopment Agency been working on since it was established,” as the meeting began, asking, “What are the things in the community that could still benefit from the participation of the Redevelopment Agency?”

King also asked that the City play a role in selecting a replacement for Sheehan.

“With Tim leaving, and we are very sad to see him go, we think it is a good opportunity to take a look at the role of the Redevelopment Agency,” King said. “The Redevelopment Agency was established at a time when Norwalk was at a very different place.”

The City has reorganized its top staff and strengthened its economic development function, she said, requesting on behalf of Rilling, who was attending middle school graduation ceremonies, that a strategic planning initiative be undertaken.

“Are there ways that the city and the agency can work better together? Are there some functions that might fit better on City-side going forward?” she asked.

King also offered the services of Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin and Norwalk Chief of Economic and Community Development Jessica Casey to assist Agency staff as they move forward without Sheehan, in much the same way Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton assisted the City when Chief Financial Officer Bob Barron resigned unexpectedly.

“The Mayor addressed this with the Chairman earlier today:  The City would very much like to play a role in the interview process and selection of a new permanent executive director,” King said. “… The chairman gave the mayor an unequivocal no, that the agency would not allow someone from the city to participate in the interview process. The Mayor asked me to ask the rest of the commissioners to really reconsider that position, that the Chairman took, because we think it would be in the benefit of everybody, making sure that our relationship going forward continues to be a good one, where we can work together and balance each other.”

The conversation with the Mayor was a 10-minute phone call, Serrano replied, speaking to the Commissioners.

Strategic planning is a “great idea,” but “it would make, as I mentioned, the most logical sense to do that with the new director that we would be bringing on, as that would be that person’s role,” Serrano said.

He only has the authority to appoint Commissioners to a hiring Committee, but once they’re appointed, he will ask them to invite the Common Council Planning Committee Chairman to join the hiring committee, he said.

“Who better than the Chair of the Planning Committee of the Common Council, as we do work closely together?” Serrano asked.

After a one-hour executive session, on a real estate negotiation matter and the appointment of an interim director, the Commissioners gave Strauss the leadership role.  She has been Director of Community Development Planning for six years, according to her LinkedIn page.

Serrano congratulated her, and said, “recognizing the importance of the executive director role, I will be appointing all five commissioners to serve on the search committee.”

King, in a midnight email to NancyOnNorwalk, said:

“1.  The mayor believes the time has come to take a hard look at the purpose and role of the RDA. He has suggested the agency use this transition time to work with the city to re-evaluate the mission, scope and focus of the Agency. If all options are on the table, it makes sense to do this before hiring a new director. It will be important to know what skill set and experience will be relevant, as well as the longer term expectations for the future of the agency.

“2.  The mayor continues to believe it is imperative for city staff to be included as part of the strategic planning and the search committee for a new director. When the city hires department heads we always include subject matter experts as part of the interview committee, to ask technical questions and assess responses. (Including having Tim Sheehan participate in the selection of our Chief of Community and Economic Development). Since the Agency and City work hand in hand on so many projects it makes sense to be sure city staff has input on the hiring decision. Of course the Agency can include anyone else they wish, and including the chairperson of the Council’s Planning Committee – which would be a valuable addition – and one the Mayor would welcome – but not as a substitution for staff participation.”

19 comments

Ernie DesRochers June 12, 2019 at 6:08 am

Candidly i found it hard to believe that he actually said what was attributed to him. Maybe he should first state what his vision for new development?

Jason Milligan June 12, 2019 at 7:46 am

Clearly Mayor King does not want the agency at all!

Unless they can have complete control of the agency and access to MONEY!

Is Laoise going to campaign and debate for Harry too?

Patrick Cooper June 12, 2019 at 8:54 am

What exactly is a “hard” look? What does that mean?

The article is a snapshot of much that ails Norwalk – namely a perfectly framed moment when the elected mayor is focused on the ceremonial duties he so favors – while the non-elected vice-mayor is effectively running the city.

Then there is the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency. I can’t recall entering a West Rocks voting booth and having any say on virtually any aspect of this semi-autonomous body. How is it funded? Who pays for it? Why do Norwalk stakeholders continue to allow this agency to operate with impunity, outside of any level of transparency to the taxpayer – and apparently with zero accountability? Instead of an open and participatory/ community lead POCD, we get an executive session POKO.

The position of the mayor’s office appears to be – we want to use this moment to consolidate our power and authority. But to @Ernie DesRochers point – without ever explaining exactly why they should.

Expect more apartments – that’s for sure.

Michael McGuire June 12, 2019 at 9:19 am

The purpose of a Redevelopment Agency is to put themselves out of business by addressing all the Blight in the Community.

Their sole mission is the removal of blight and sever economic malaise that is so bad only “special powers” above and beyond normal community policing (building department, zoning, planning etc.) are needed to ensure Blights removal. That’s a summary from the State Statues. That is/was RDA’s mandate.

Save for a few isolated spots like POKO, not entire neighborhoods, there is no blight needing an entire RDA department.

If the decision is made to keep the RDA I believe the City should require term limits on the Commissioners (5 years) and the Staff leadership (5-7 years) at RDA. This will help prevent the accumulation of excessive power and its attendant abuse that we so recently experienced.

Diane Lauricella June 12, 2019 at 9:38 am

I agree the time to review RDA role is NOW…Please stop the “kill the messenger” mentality so prevalent in Norwalk!

In this case, Ms. King was reflecting what the Mayor feels is necessary during Reorg…and he joins many others who have not been satisfied with the Redevelopment Agency’s autonomy and lack of accountability (think POKO, Wall-West Avenue Master Plan ETC.) and the Council Planning Committee’s rubber stamp habits (think all of the above plus approving Mall LDA removal of mixed-use provision).

I agree that there needs to be a structured review of the Redevelopment Agency and its role , both historically, present day and future. Please include Citizens on this panel and get it done this summer!

If Redevelopment balks, I ask the Mayor to create his own independent review committee given all the PUBLIC DOLLARS, both local, state and fed that keeps this RDA alive.

Many of us wanted to discuss the Redevelopment Agency ‘s role during Charter Revision but our dreams were squashed by lack of Council interest and support.

Public should watch what Council members have done and will do about this Redevelopment Agency matter and demand accountability all the way around.

EnoPride June 12, 2019 at 10:17 am

The public could demand that an audit of this RDA be conducted EXTERNALLY by an OUTSIDE FIRM, like what was done to expose RDAs run amuck in CA, so the poor oversight, negligent unaccountability and wasted taxpayer money can finally be transparently presented. A random external audit should have happened before Mr. Sheehan resigned. Stakeholders have a right to know where their hard earned money is going. Mario Coppola should not have anything to do with conducting the audit for obvious conflict of issue reasons. Maybe we push for a referendum on the ballot – “Should RDA be abolished?” Or, “Should Norwalk call for a moratorium on overdevelopment of giant affordable housing fortress apartments?” Norwalk taxpayers are tired of being played for fools.

Piberman June 12, 2019 at 10:58 am

Norwalk’s Redevelopment Agency has been a major failure of City governance predating Mayor Rilling.
Norwalk’s business sector is smaller both absolutely and proportionately than any other CT major City. Together with a reputation among major business interests of a City “hard to work with”. Clearly there’s a need for major reform within City Hall. Appointing new friendly “Chiefs’ is not a likely solution. Using Prof. Search to secure real Top Talent is the way forward. As is hiring acknowledged Major Development Consultants to advise. But MayorRilling resists using Prof. Search. Or seeking Prof. Advise. So Norwalk’s reputation will likely endure.

Scott June 12, 2019 at 12:18 pm

The NRDA audited financial statement via the link about is from June 2015…4 years ago. Nothing more recent?

EnoPride June 12, 2019 at 12:36 pm

I had perused the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency website through following the POKO goings on, which is why I questioned why there has been no request for an externally conducted audit more recently. A whole lot of stuff has hit the fan between June 2015 and now.

Norwalk native June 12, 2019 at 12:57 pm

Norwalk can afford to have two Mayors politically, even if it cant financially. Harry knows that Joseph Stalin could run as a Democrat in Norwalk and still get elected. Maybe that’s why my property value hasn’t moved in 14 years.

Bryan Meek June 12, 2019 at 3:43 pm

RDA and NHA both need full forensic audits, absent following GAAS – generally accepted auditing standards that require basic information to be reported. They never have and no one could possibly dig it out from the subterfuge posted on their websites.

Like Berman said, this problem goes back decades. Can someone put it out in layman’s terms why these agencies are involved in myriad joint ventures with private entities having formed multiple LLCs to manage various projects? There are good reasons for doing this, but without any transparency into the operations one can only guess where our money is going.

The per SF construction costs on simple refurbs and new buildings should have been the first red flag, besides the rents being charged out of dilapidated old buildings. The real issues.

Hopefully we figure it out someday, because it clearly is not working.

Adolph Neaderland June 12, 2019 at 4:27 pm

I am all for assisting the Mayor (and his staff) in taking a long overdue “hard look” at the relationship (and contributions) of RDA to Norwalk.

In general, I agree with Mr. McGuire, a new, long overdue review of RDA’s contribution is required that includes stakeholder participation (well beyond the 3 minutes currently allocated).

My observations,
a)From an economic standpoint RDA’s developers have done far better financially than Norwalk over the last 7-8 years – our Grand list has remained essentially flat (3% growth over 5 years) in the face of many millions of dollars invested.

b)RDA’s visual entry to central Norwalk from I95 (looking North), locked in with circa 1940’s type cookie cutter 6 story classless residential buildings lining West Ave, with virtually no “street-scape” consideration, no public green space nor any solar panels to offset the city’s electrical power costs.
(Visionless and hardly inviting!)

On the South entrance from I95, towards South Norwalk, an out of place Mall, without (thus far) any indication for streetscape plans that might encourage sidewalk activity, and overall, (opinion !likely to generate a traffic nightmare.
c) Similarly, unfortunately, central Norwalk is doomed to a similar fate by Council approval (ignoring local disapproval) of RDA’s Central Norwalk’s Wall Street Plan.

Buildings , more residential mixed use 6 story of similar design built right up to the limited sidewalk, without consideration for sidewalk dining or coffee shops that would encourage pedestrian traffic and with limited streetscape consideration.
(Note: a recent HOUR article confirmed that sidewalk dining encouraged pedestrian traffic)

.Mr. Sheehan’s departure provides that golden opportunity for reconsidering RDA’s +value.

Bill Nightingale June 12, 2019 at 5:30 pm

The Redevelopment Agency needs to be abolished. Period. I welcome these first steps by Harry Rilling but he must be bold and take it to the finish line.

Doing so will fundamentally alter the accountability of Norwalk government and give encouragement for more citizen involvement – something that the RDA always frustrated. The “staff” of the Planning Committee can now be an objective city professional rather than conflicted Tim Sheehan.

The responsibilities of the RDA should be handled by planning and zoning like any other normal city.

Sue Haynie June 13, 2019 at 7:01 am

Mayor Rilling has his Assistant Mayor answer this question? Including benefits,having two mayors costs Norwalk taxpayers about $400K/year. The Mayor’s Communication Director (whose hiring replaced the Grant Writing position) wasn’t available I guess.

City Hall is top-heavy, ineffective and my property values decreased by double digit percentages. What’s wrong with this picture?

Niz June 14, 2019 at 7:53 am

Norwalk is a FIASCO
efforts from sensible ppl are lost because residents are unaware or uninterested

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