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
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.
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.
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.”