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Brinton and Rilling debate at Norwalk Inn

From left, Harry Carey leads the Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce Mayoral debate Tuesday in the Norwalk Inn, as Democratic incumbent Mayor Harry Rilling and Republican-endorsed challenger Lisa Brinton prepare to joust.

 

The election is Nov. 5.

NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk’s Mayoral candidate contention continued Tuesday with the annual Norwalk Greater Chamber of Commerce debate.

What began as a sleepy reprise of Lisa and Harry’s Greatest Hits soon developed into jabbing back-and-forth, the familiar themes repeating but peppered with new commentary.

Early on, Democratic incumbent Mayor Harry Rilling said unaffiliated-but-Republican endorsed opponent Lisa Brinton wants it both ways and he isn’t sure if she’s using misinformation or is deliberately misleading. Brinton later said Norwalk has been suffering under a Mayor who is “autocratic and commandeering” for six years and accused him of throwing grenades at her “for just simply being a resident who’s had enough of a very close-minded government for the last six years.”

Video by Harold Cobin, of entire debate, at end of story

Jobs

The debate began with moderator Harry Carey asserting that, “Since 2013 Norwalk has been has not been growing jobs while nearby Stamford has increased employment significantly,” losing 500 jobs since 2015 despite a construction boom.

Rilling said jobs would increase because The SoNo Collection is opening, and pointed to the recently created positions of Chief of Economic & Community Development, filled by Jessica Casey, and Director of Business Development & Tourism, filled by Sabrina Church, as sources of hope.

“We’re located perfectly in the lower Fairfield County area. And when people start to look at that and look at our affordability, look at what we have for investors, you’re going to see a turnaround in that,” he said.

Brinton suggested that the first step would be hiring a retired business woman to be Mayor, then segued to criticizing Rilling over the Walk Bridge and Wall Street Place (also known as “POKO”), again asserted that small businesses have not been encouraged and finally, asked Rilling if he’d ever spoken to the corporations at the Merritt Center.

On a follow-up business question, Brinton asked Rilling if he’d reached out to businesses after he’d changed the parking regulations in the Wall Street area, asserting that “everybody got ticketed at BJ Ryan’s.” Carey asked that the conversation stay on business, specifically focusing on economic development outside the purview of the Redevelopment Agency. Rilling repeated his theme of developing the urban core.

“For many years, the downtown area has been kind of ignored,” he said. “But now you’re seeing apartment buildings you’re seeing retail and you’re seeing public transportation that is increasing where people now have an opportunity to take a shuttle to the train station ride a bike to the train station, walk to the train station, or just have a place where they can where they can work and live in a downtown area.”

Brinton countered, “One of the things all great cities in the world have rivers and I think that there’s a lot more we could be doing with our river. I don’t see it necessarily being a lot of industry I do see it being apartments and condominiums and probably shops and things that we could we could develop along the riverfront.”

Rilling said, “She’s been critical of the number of apartments that are being built in a city of Norwalk, even though they’re probably 90 to 95% filled. But now when she starts talking about development along the river, and now she wants more apartments. We can’t have it both ways.”

 

POKO and the Redevelopment Agency

Carey asked about POKO, the benefit of the Redevelopment Agency and “one current proposal on the table with a preferred developer.”

Brinton, as she has previously, referred to a bad photograph of her in the Hour two years ago and reminded everyone that at the time, she said Wall Street Place should be put up for sale and auctioned off.

“Quite frankly, that project needs to be scrapped,” she said. “If I’m elected mayor, I will go back to Citibank, I will tear up the LDA, and I will put it back to Citibank and say ‘you’re going to have to eat the $20-25 million, whatever they’ve lost out of that.”

“I don’t know if there’s just misinformation on the part of my opponent or whether it’s purposely misleading,” Rilling replied. “You cannot just tear up an LDA. There are three partners or three people who are part of that LDA. It’s a contract. And it’s Citibank because the LDA runs with the land.”

“This deal was negotiated by the previous administration, and are many, many difficult layers to it,” Rilling said. “So let’s suppose that you could tear up the LDA. What could happen on that spot? Well, let’s talk about self-storage. That’s certainly not going to bring taxes to the city of Norwalk of any great significance, it’s not going to bring people down to our urban core…. I have been tougher on Citibank than anybody. I’m the one that demanded certain things and they absolutely refused. But we still have to sit down at the table not to sit down at the table would be a disservice to the city of Norwalk, it would be a disservice to everybody involved.”

“It’s never your fault, Harry,” Brinton replied. “It’s always somebody else’s fault. You know, I don’t know where the self-storage came in from. I mean, I suggested if we couldn’t do anything else with that building that we would either maybe turn it into artists’ lofts, we are trying to make it an artist district and make sure that you didn’t put kids into the school system that we can afford. They defaulted, Citibank is defaulted. And quite frankly, we don’t really know what’s going on because the whole thing’s been done behind closed doors. And then a deal was in the works until I got cross endorsed by the Republican Party in July.”

 

‘Studies and studies’

The conversation worked its way back to parking.

“We all know there’s no such thing as a perfect plan. There’s only perfect planning,” Rilling said. “And I believe the Parking Authority was extremely aggressive in the Wall Street area. And I’ve made my feelings known to them.”

No tickets were issued and the Parking Authority is considering extending the moratorium on parking enforcement, he said, explaining, again, that the changes were made in response to the Wall Street Neighborhood Association.

“The Parking Authority is a third-party agency and … I would like to kind of revisit a lot of our third party agencies because they do somewhat operate autonomously from the accountability of the people,” Brinton said.

She later repeated that she never advocated for self-storage in Norwalk Center, calling this a “grenade” being tossed at her.

“Harry talks about lots of studies,” she said. “Study and study, on top of the study and other study. One of the studies that we seem to have failed on miserably over the past six years are the traffic studies, because every time we did a new development – ‘no impact on traffic, no impact, no impact,’ and obviously, we see the impact. It’s a red light.”

 

The Walk Bridge

Brinton went on to return to the Walk Bridge, calling the conversation about dredging a “false narrative” and promising to talk to Gov. Ned Lamont about the project. The issuing of a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) was “the biggest crime this administration committed,” she said.

“Here you go again,” Rilling replied. “You just said a few moments ago that you wanted to develop our riverfront. And now you want to close down the Walk Bridge, so there’s no dredging, the river will silt in. We have about three miles of waterfront property north of the Walk Bridge. If we close that Walk Bridge, we’re prohibiting, for future generations, taking full advantage of that riverfront.”

Later, during a conversation about appointments to City Boards, he said, “My opponent says she’s down there in the trenches. When I first ran for Mayor, I attended every single Council meeting that I could and most Board of Education meetings. In the past year or two years, I can count on one hand perhaps the number of Council meetings that my opponent attended.”

“Everyone knows I’ve been trying to help you, Harry for years and years, and you won’t take it. That’s why I’m up here on stage today. What I’d like to know, Harry, is there one thing that the Council didn’t pass that you wanted done? Or anything that you that you haven’t gotten done that you’ve wanted as mayor, in terms of a check and balance, all I’m talking about is a healthy check and balance for our city. It’s the basis of our democracy.

 

Schools

Asked about schools, Rilling said, “My administration has invested more in the Norwalk public school system than any administration prior to me. And I believe in our Norwalk public school system, I believe in our children, and I want to provide for them the best possible education that we can.”

“The mayor also likes to take credit for in the last six years. But that has been with a lot of hard work from the teaching staff. And without a lot of funding,” Brinton replied, later blasting state money for the schools.

 

‘Leadership’

In closing, Rilling said, “I’m here running on my record. I love Norwalk. I believe Norwalk is a city on the rise, not a city on a downward spiral that’s not sustainable.” He referred to The Hour’s endorsement of him, their assertion that “after three terms in office, the mayor gets it. He has a grasp on what is what works and how things get done and what is feasible. On the other hand, Miss Brinton has some good points, but she never conveys exactly how she’s going to change things.”

“It’s about Norwalk,” Brinton said. “It’s about coming together for more inclusive and thoughtful leadership. The only person who has been attacking has been this guy. We need change, and we need change instead of having a police chief mayor. I’m the business and education mayor…. Density can be good, but it must be scaled and not just for commuters. Small business needs to be more than just retail on the first floor. And that requires a mayor with a business background, versus one who lets the Parking Authority run amok…. Without a mayor that will personally fight, not talk about committees, not talk about studies, but one who will personally advocate for this city, we’re going to face increasing property taxes if we don’t seek alternative revenues.”

12 comments

Jason Milligan October 30, 2019 at 6:59 am

Harry said “You cannot just tear up an LDA. There are three partners or three people who are part of that LPA. It’s a contract.”

Yes the LDA is a contract. It has a default provision that gives the city certain remedies in the event of default. 1 such remedy is for the City to terminate the entire agreement.

**Newsflash-Citibank is in default!!

The City can terminate the entire agreement! (ie. Tear it up.)

The City could terminate the LDA. Then Lisa could have a ceremonial tearing up event. Kind of like a ribbon cutting.

Harry also said,
“I have been tougher on Citibank than anybody. I’m the one that demanded certain things and they absolutely refused.”

That is very funny…

Harry’s comments prove to me that he has no clue about POKO. He just repeats different sound bites of what Mario tells him.

Citibank barely responds to Harry & co. They instead send McClutchy or others.

Citibank is the problem! Just look at their rotting Tyvek Temple in the center of our downtown. Tell them that they are no longer welcome by terminating the LDA!

Jason Milligan October 30, 2019 at 7:00 am

Harry said “You cannot just tear up an LDA. There are three partners or three people who are part of that LPA. It’s a contract.”

Yes the LDA is a contract. It has a default provision that gives the city certain remedies in the event of default. 1 such remedy is for the City to terminate the entire agreement.

**Newsflash-Citibank is in default!!

The City can terminate the entire agreement! (ie. Tear it up.)

The City could terminate the LDA. Then Lisa could have a ceremonial tearing up event. Kind of like a ribbon cutting.

Harry also said,
“I have been tougher on Citibank than anybody. I’m the one that demanded certain things and they absolutely refused.”

That is SAD…

Harry’s comments prove to me that he has no clue about POKO. He just repeats different sound bites of what Mario tells him.

Citibank barely responds to Harry & co. They instead send McClutchy or others.

Citibank is the problem! Just look at their rotting Tyvek Temple in the center of our downtown. Tell them that they are no longer welcome by terminating the LDA!

John ONeill October 30, 2019 at 10:03 am

Harry Rilling talks about a lot of progress without a lot of funding for Norwalk Schools? The Board of Education budget has gone from $150 million to over $ 200 MILLION during the past 10 Years. Maybe, just maybe if he and Bobby Duff had been more proactive on getting outside funding for ELL program we’d be in better shape. ELLers have cost Norwalk $ 225 MILLION over past 10 years. Harry’s a good guy, but he’s being disingenuous (at best) regarding Norwalk schools and funding

Bill Nightingale October 30, 2019 at 1:23 pm

The lack of transparency around Poko is a big problem for Mayor Rilling and it is why taxpayers and residents are frustrated to no end with it.

I understand the sensitivity around the lawsuit but this does not mean that an end goal for the property can not be articulated to the public. For example, how did the project go from 20% to 40 % to 100% affordable housing. What residents would want that?

Why cant the LDA be canceled? Why do we remain on the hook for our commitments (tax abatements, free parking lot and infrastructure investments) as a city when our counterparts have all defaulted?

How does it go from a $30mm development to an $80mm development?

Why couldn’t the building just be developed privately and conform to local zoning regs (which I am pretty sure do not permit self storage there).

Having no good answers to these questions makes the public suspicious that there are ulterior motives involved. I for one suspect the city is hanging on to it because special interests in favor of affordable housing want to see it developed that way. That of course points to the Redevelopment Agency that has always been a contributor to the Affordable Housing Industrial Complex.

And then when we hear that other LDAs are being entered into (North Wall Street for example…?) it really drives the public nuts. For Norwalk to ever engage in another LDA is just the definition of insanity

Al October 30, 2019 at 8:39 pm

Rilling said you can’t just tear up a contract. However, if a party is in breach of the terms of the agreement, as it appears may be the case here, then it follows that there would be some remedy for the other parties to the contract. Is this LDA publicly available somewhere for the voters to review? What were the terms and obligations on the various parties and who is in breach?

Rusty Guardrail October 30, 2019 at 11:22 pm

Norwalk incumbents’ repeated levelling of glib accusatory phrases at opponents indicates the existence of an unwritten script being adhered to. Our growing, changing city needs leaders, not actors reading their lines.

Isabelle Hargrove October 31, 2019 at 8:01 am

We all know that a tiger never changes his stripes… It’s always the same routine.

West Norwalk learned the hard way 6 years ago. Candidate Rilling promised residents he would take care of them if elected while refusing to answer any questions. He played coy, hiding behind the lawsuit, except to say that skeptics just did not understand the full picture. Then bam! He got elected and sold the neighborhood out within his 1st month in office while blaming the prior administration… Thankfully, we had strong people on the council and the neighborhood really rallied, so the ultimate settlement benefitted all but cost the city much more than it should have.

Sounds Familiar?

Firetree, the Walk bridge, and now POKO. Same playbook. Have we had enough yet?

Jason Milligan October 31, 2019 at 8:06 am

Al,

Nancy has posted the full LDA and its amendments in multiple articles.

They are also available on the the Redevelopment Agency website.

It is noteworthy that a breach of the LDA is NOT actually a default. It can lead to an “event of default” if a lengthy process is followed. A process which includes a Notice of Default that includes a right to cure period, followed by mediation/arbitration.

The City and Agency have taken all of those steps against Citibank. Citibank is in Default.

There are 4 Default remedies. They can pursue any or all.

1. Sue for specific performance
2. Sue for damages
3. ReEnter onto the Isaacs St lot. ie take it back (Sadly this remedy was forfeited once phase I construction commenced)
4. Terminate the agreement

Our leaders are not puruing any of the 4 remedies!! Instead they are negotiating a sweeter deal for Citibank and McClutchy.

You will get no answers of substance from leadership about this.

So disappointing!

Jason Milligan October 31, 2019 at 8:25 am

Here is a link to the “final” LDA. It is not the executed copy: https://www.norwalkct.org/DocumentCenter/View/548/FinalLandDispositionandDevelopmentAgreement1of5?bidId=

Check pg. 84
(i) If the applicable Project Property was acquired from the City or Agency, terminate the estate held by the Redeveloper in the applicable Project Property by exercising the Agency’s Right of Re-Entry in accordance with Section 19.10 hereof;
(ii) Pursue an action for specific performance of the Redeveloper’s obligations under this Agreement;
(iii) Pursue an action for any and all actual damages incurred by or asserted against the City or Agency as a result of the Redeveloper Default; and
(iv) Terminate the City’s and Agency’s obligations under this
(ie. TEAR UP THE LDA)

Michael McGuire October 31, 2019 at 1:59 pm

Taxpayers

Consider that there is literally no one on the Norwalk City staff, Redevelopment Agency staff, Commissioners or Council experienced with complex real estate issues.

No one on our side that really understands the critical deal points, how they work together, and their importance to the parties at the table. This places Norwalk at a tremendous disadvantage when negating with Citibank and McClutchey – or any developer for that matter.

This is alarming. Ninety percent of the City’s budget is funded by real estate taxes, yet we have no qualified advisors to guide/protect the City’s interest from this $80 million boondoggle deal that will impact all of Norwalk for decades to come.

This is the same issue, lack of guidance and taxpayer protection, that plagued the Walk Bridge, the Mall, Firetree, the Mosque, etc. In the critical area of land use planning and understanding our value, Norwalk is “Flying Blind”.

When experienced commercial real estate professionals, and stakeholders on Wall Street said STOP to the POKO deal, this administration just kept right on going and steamrolled over us. POKO was only tabled, not stopped, because 14,000+ people said – STOP via the Garden Cinema petition. But this is only a pause.

If Mayor Rilling is re-elected a sub-par, 100 percent affordable and 1/10th the tax revenue POKO is the best we can expect from a Rilling Administration. But when? 5 or more years from now when the dust finally clears from all the law suits? And what will that legal tab be for the Norwalk taxpayer? Thankfully, there are other, much better for Norwalk options available that should be explored. Why they remain un-explored is disheartening.

Since we, the Norwalk Taxpayers don’t have a “seat at the table”, when we need to gather 14,000+ names on a petition just to be acknowledged, that is a clear sign that we need change, that we need balance and that we need our government back.

We need Lisa.

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