NORWALK, Conn. — It was a tale of two Norwalks when incumbent Mayor Harry Rilling, a Democrat, and his challenger, Lisa Brinton, a Republican-endorsed Independent, sat down with Nancy on Norwalk for separate interviews.
As should come as no surprise to anyone who is following the mayor’s race, whether these are the best of times or the worst of times depends on which candidate is doing the talking.
Video by Harold Cobin below
The mayor described himself as “really high on Norwalk,” said he’s bothered by people who “spread misinformation to say that Norwalk is on a downward spiral.”
Citing numerous areas that she perceives as problems, Brinton said, “My campaign’s called ‘Lisa for Norwalk’ versus Harry’s is called ‘Rilling for Mayor. And I think that pretty much sums up who we are. I’ve been honored by the number of Norwalkers who’ve lived here far longer than I have, I have picked up support from people who, three or four generations of Norwalk, who are saying, you know, thank you for stepping up for our city and the change that we see that’s happening too quickly.”
Brinton, interviewed Thursday in her Rowayton home, touched on many issues and offered clarity on her history as a businesswoman. The interview was longer than the one held with Rilling, who said he was pressed for time.
Here are some highlights:
NancyOnNorwalk: “The Mayor talks about smart growth, what you’re talking about sounds at times like slow growth. The city’s expenses are largely personnel, labor contracts go up a point or two a year. That’s really beyond the city’s control. So the mayor says we need more density to collect these taxes to pay for these increases. If you slow growth, how do you grow revenue?”
“The mayor and I disagree. I think what’s happening is he believes the growth is being driven by apartments and so increasing density, but every time you increase density, you increase city costs,” Brinton said. “…Actually, the cheapest thing to have in a city, if you want to reduce your expenses, is to have green space because it doesn’t generate any costs. But the problem has been, we need jobs.”
The Grand List is growing but not keeping up with expenses, and with all the appeals on the year’s property reevaluations it will be going down, she said.
“The mayor does have control over contracts and Board of Ed has control over contracts and our personnel costs,” she said. “Part of the problem is that in order to sustain a 1% increase in the grand list, which right now would be about $3.6 million or something like that. You need $250 million growth in the grand list in order to keep taxes flat. We’re not doing that.”
This year’s budget factored in a $6 million draw down from the Rainy Day Fund, she said, also alleging “tax credits” associated with the growth.
“The reality is we’re not keeping up and the more people you add, the more you need police, you need more teachers,” she said. “We need more firemen and so I’m disagreeing on that one.”
NancyOnNorwalk: “So you’re comparing the Grand List to the budget; one is a factor of billions and the other is millions.”
“The Mayor used that yesterday in our meeting,” Brinton said. “The bottom line is taxes are still going up… we had to use the Rainy Day fund. We don’t have enough jobs.”
NancyOnNorwalk: “The mayor has reorganized city government in a way that he maintains will be more efficient and cost effective. You’ve said that last year’s reorganization produced only another layer of management. ‘Some positions generate cost, others protect taxpayers.’ Which are which, which would you eliminate, and would you undo the reorganization done by the Mayor?”
Brinton charged that City Hall employees are stressed, trying to keep up with unexpected growth because Norwalk has “been caught off-guard with a lot of volume.”
“I would talk to the employees first before I would look at the reorganization, right, in that regard,” she said. “I would, I’m not going to do anything without talking to everybody on staff. The thing that the Mayor has done is he took what was a grant-writing position and turned it into a public relations position. I would be doing a lot more grant writing and going after money for the city there … I come from a background of sales revenue, I generate revenue, I would be looking for other sources.”
She spoke of illegal apartments and, “I would be looking for more … inspectors … I would beef up the finance department. We lost two (tax) assessors and we lost our finance director, and I do understand our new director’s very, very good. But 90% of our revenue comes from land and I don’t think that we have enough expertise in this city for, in land, and the part that generates our revenue.”
So how would she pay for these new employees?
“I have to go in and look at it,” she said. “One of the things that I have felt we were very aware of our finances during the Moccia Administration primarily because we were in the middle of a recession. And so we were cutting back and there was a lot of awareness. There hasn’t been a lot of awareness or numbers used by this administration. It’s almost as if there’s been police tape around the building.”
Whatever happened to the city manager?
NancyOnNorwalk: “In your first campaign, you advocated adding a professional city manager, a nonpartisan person accountable to the Common Council. I don’t believe there’s been a mention of that in your current campaign.”
“No, because time moves on and kind of quality of life and other issues have superseded it,” Brinton replied. “I think the fact that I’m running for mayor is I would approach this mayor’s job more as a city manager.”
“I come at this as a manager, as someone who spent a lot of time looking at balance sheets, and as someone who has spent a lot of time in education,” she said. “… I would be less of the mayor who is out perhaps shaking lots of hands and going to cocktail parties and more of a … workhorse mayor.”
A city manager would require charter revision, and that’s up to the Common Council, “it would not be me to decide that,” she said.
“We are supposed to have a strong Council-weak Mayor, but I think what we saw seen is that we’ve gravitated away from that,” she said.
Attracting more small business?
NancyOnNorwalk: “You want to be more proactive in attracting small business. How would you do that?”
“Well, I would pick up the phone when they call,” she said, adding that Brewhouse would have stayed in Norwalk but “we didn’t help them out.” She also maintained that a potato chip manufacturer couldn’t get a response from the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency and went elsewhere as a result.
“I think the only business that we seem to be in is this apartment businesses and they’re looking to put retail on the first floor, and I would not I would be looking beyond that,” she said.
NancyOnNorwalk: “What evidence, if any, do you have that any of Norwalk’s new ELL (English Language Learner) students are living in apartments that violate city codes?”
“We heard it in the BOE in February by (Norwalk Public Schools Chief of School Operations) Frank Costanzo,” she said. “He spoke to the influx of students that we’ve gradually having over the last few years, because there has been a spike… he articulated the fact that many of these folks do not have leases. They will bring in, you know, a phone bill or whatever, but they, they are paying cash, they have the leases.”
There are anecdotal stories from police officers, firefighters and real estate agents, she said.
What about assuring immigrants?
NancyOnNorwalk: “Many cities with substantial immigrant populations have reassured them that it’s safe for them to report crimes to the police, because absent a judge’s warrant, they would not cooperate with ICE. Would you do as Mayor Rilling has done and appear with Norwalk’s police chief to reassure the immigrant population?”
“I’m not worried about that,” Brinton said. “And that that’s been a little bit of a smear campaign to go after me.”
The question was asked again.
I’m not worried about that,” Brinton said. “…There’s been an attempt to try and paint me as anti-immigrant or, or, racist. Lots of pretty ugly things happening in this election, which means I must be getting close.”
She was involved in land issues “before we started having any immigrants coming in,” she said. “…It was about revenue. …We have apartments that are not on the books, not paying their fair share. Since we’ve always been struggling to fund our school system before we had an important issue.”
Mike Barbis and the NAACP
NancyOnNorwalk: “Your opponent has tried without success to broker a meeting in hopes of repairing the relationship between the Board of Ed chairman and the leaders of Norwalk black community. If elected, what steps would you take to address that issue?”
“I would absolutely get them back together again. I know both of them,” she said. Barbis and NAACP President Brenda Penn-Williams have “reconciled at various times, and there’s been kisses on the cheeks. I know that … they have come together. They come together, they go apart, they come together, they go apart.”
The Walk Bridge
NancyOnNorwalk: “You have said that if you’re elected you would request from the state a 90-day moratorium on the Walk Bridge project. What are the chances of them granting that and if they did, what can you do in 90 days?”
“I don’t think that we did our due diligence,” Brinton said. “Yes, I would ask for, I would request a 90-day moratorium. In fact, I threw myself on the mercy of the Governor when I bumped into the Mayor and him at the Oyster Festival. And it’s still kind of moving along, but it’s moving along pretty slowly.”
“There is a lot of back conversation going on with the state,” she alleged. “And the state is also kind of broke at the moment. So, we could put a moratorium on the bridge and look at some other options and avenues in terms of its impact on Norwalk, and other … engineering solutions.
“And, let me add, I spent 20 years at AT&T and a good portion of my career in Bell Laboratories. And the one thing I know about engineers, if you tell them that you need an industrial strength bridge, which is what we kind of described, we needed something akin to Baltimore Harbor, then that’s exactly what they’re going to give you.”
“Never say never until they start dismantling it,” she said. Plus, “we should have gotten much more compensation than what we got for this. And so, you know, if this goes ahead, we’ve been shortchanged twice. One, I think we’re wasting taxpayer money and disrupting the city. … We were not fairly compensated for taking one for the team in terms of the Northeast Corridor, and I would have fought much harder and the fact that there’s been just remote silence and, ‘There’s nothing we can do,’ is completely unacceptable from my perspective as a resident and taxpayer.”
Tough to oust Rilling?
NancyOnNorwalk: “Your son, in a letter to the editor of NancyOnNorwalk said, “It will be tough to dislodge an incumbent Democrat by a hereto unknown candidate in Democrat-leaning Norwalk. What do you think your chances are?”
“It’s tough, but it’s not impossible,” Brinton said. “I think the turnout at the debate on Monday night was indicative. It all depends. And I’ve been tarred and feathered. All I’m doing is trying to present a different view. I believe I have a problem with the fact that the mayor doesn’t think there’s a problem. That’s the problem.”
“I think it’s gonna be a close race,” she said. “But just because it might not be possible doesn’t mean you don’t try the we’ve lost our two-party system in this city.”
NancyOnNorwalk: “Have you considered or would you consider running for state or federal office?”
“No, no, I’m an operations gal,” Brinton said.
NancyOnNorwalk: “So it’s your first day as mayor, congratulations. Jason Milligan greets you with a smoothie, demanding to know why you haven’t responded to his 14 emails and 27 voice messages up until now. He’s been somebody else’s problem. Now he’s yours. What do you do?”
“I sit him down and we sit down very publicly, and we talk about things,” Brinton said of the real estate broker who’s enmired in an intense and expensive legal battle with Norwalk.
“I think we’ve got a, we sit down with all the players in a much more candid fashion,” she said. “I think women are naturally more collaborative. Sometimes there’s just, I think, there’s a little bit too much ego going on. There’s been too many things said by all parties. And I think we just need to tone it down.”
NancyOnNorwalk: “You’ve said that as Mayor you would shut down the Wall Street Place project as proposed by the developer, and make Citibank pay for it. Is that what you would do?”
“Obviously, it’s going to be my persuasion skills on the Council to say that I don’t think that the taxpayers of Norwalk should be bailing out a bad loan that Citibank did,” she said. “…Why is it Norwalk taxpayers’ responsibility to bail Citibank out? I would be much tougher with Citibank. I’m not afraid of them.”
What’s on your mind?
NancyOnNorwalk: “What would you like to talk about that we haven’t asked you about?”
“I’m just a girl, against the guy,” she said. “You know, I’m a citizen. I’m a resident, I was not a politician. I’ve been a reformer and an activist. I guess probably, maybe I guess a bit more about my history in terms of how I came to run for office. I spent 20 years in AT&T. I started out in the long-distance side, then I spent the bulk of my career on the network systems and Bell Laboratories side and I basically put in phone networks around the world. I spent seven years in London, working with British Telecom, Telefonica in Spain, Telecom Italia, so I put in network switching and transmission equipment.”
A business background?
NancyOnNorwalk: “What was the largest number of people that you’ve managed?”
Brinton spoke of “small teams” of engineers and “20-25 people.”
“Our business unit was a billion-dollar operation systems business. That’s what I did. And I also did strategy and stuff,” she said. She sold network equipment in Singapore for five years, then retired from AT&T and worked for five years as a management consultant. “I worked with Fortune 500 executives …We helped prep them for their presentations. I did behavior management, styles of behavior.”
NancyOnNorwalk: “What are your weaknesses?”
“I talk too much,” Brinton said.
NancyOnNorwalk: “What are your weaknesses as they would manifest in the mayor’s job. What would you need to get up to speed on?”
Brinton said the first thing she would do as Mayor would be to open the books and study the finances. She hasn’t been able to do that because Finance Director Bob Barron resigned in January and she doesn’t want to put his replacement in the middle of the political crossfire, she explained.
And as far as getting up to speed, she would bring in former Mayors Alex Knopp and Bill Collins, and even Rilling, she said. “Women are not afraid to ask for directions. I think that’s the big difference between us and the guys sometime and no offense, gentlemen, but I’m not afraid to admit that I don’t know everything… I would be drawing on a whole host of people of all political parties. I have just as many friends, I voted for the Democrat side as I have on the Republican side. And so that’s the difference is I think I would be more inclusive.”
Win or lose?
NancyOnNorwalk: “If you lose, will you continue to seek the office in the future? Will you become an activist in another area? What will you do?”
“I’ll take a vacation,” Brinton said. “…I will be turning 60 right after the election, and you look at your life and you got, you know, I got fewer years ahead of me then behind me. I’m in a position to give back.That’s what I’ve been doing. My children are grown. I have a lot more to give in the public sector. I went back to school for it. And I intend to do that.”