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 NancyOnNorwalk for separate interviews.
As should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been 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,” and 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 some 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.”
Below is a summary of comments from the Mayor’s interview, conducted on Oct. 15:
- Rilling described “POKO” talks as “stalled”
- He’s “certain” that the English Language Learner influx can be handled this year without damage to the taxpayers
- He said there are discussions underway about creating an inter-district magnet school
- Library expansion plans are moving forward
The reorganization: a ‘home run’
NancyOnNorwalk: “The reorganization of top City Hall positions was said to have cost $181,000 in additional salaries. What benefits has it shown?”
Rilling reviewed the reasons for the reorganization, the paring down of 19 direct reports to the Mayor to a reasonable number, and the aligning of city departments.
“It has provided really good results already,” he said, listing among them new working relationships between Planning and Zoning, the Building Department, and neighborhood improvement, and between the new Traffic Mobility and Parking and Community Development departments.
“The most important thing is, as I said, Norwalk is a growing city,” he said. “Norwalk needs to be run in a professional manner with professional people. And that’s what we’ve done. We brought in people with significant experience and other areas, significant talent, people that really have a proven track record of getting things done. So we feel that this is a real home run for us.”
Citizens can see the results online, in the new dashboard. Plus, “We’re going to make it more easily easier to navigate the permit process. We’re going to put online services so that people needing a basic permit won’t have to even come into City Hall.”
NancyOnNorwalk: “What’s your opinion on regionalization? And what role if any, do you see it playing in reducing inequality of educational opportunities between Norwalk and our neighbors?”
“I think Norwalk’s public school system has become a world-class educational system. And I don’t think that regionalization of schools is a very easy thing to accomplish,” Rilling said.
Inviting people from surrounding communities to attend NPS via an inter-district magnet school would be the best way to share resources, he said. “But combining school districts is not, in my opinion, the best way to do that.”
NancyOnNorwalk: “Everyone knows about the stalled Wall Street Place development, referred to as ‘POKO.’ Why spend millions of dollars to complete it as 100% affordable housing, as opposed to letting the bank sell to a private developer that will put 90% market rate apartments there?”
Rilling: “That’s a privately owned piece of property. There’s a Land Disposition Agreement that rides with the land…. We’ve made no changes to the Land Disposition Agreement. We’ve been in negotiations with the bank, I can’t go into great detail about negotiations for land deals because they’re private and confidential.”
But, “We have tried to do everything we possibly can to move this project forward. Wall Street Place is something that’s very much needed. It’s just what the final form will look like.”
Norwalk has asked Citibank and its developers, John and Todd McClutchy, “to also look at the design and look at some sort of a cultural arts center because, as you know, because one of the pieces of property that was purchased by a local Realtor made it necessary to find parking and the only parking available right now is where the Garden Cinema is.”
“But right now, we haven’t gotten much response,” he said. “So everything is on hold until we get a better response. If the bank were to opt to sell the property and brought in a developer, the best-case scenario would be to have a better project down there.”
What would a better project look like?
“Well, again, that’s something that we would have to work with the stakeholders and feel what’s the best fit down there,” he said.
The public had concerns about the 100% affordable plan and “We listened to the public,” he said. “…Right now, it’s really in a state of limbo. We haven’t had much progress in bringing to fruition the kinds of things that the public talk to us about.”
The delay has nothing to do with the election, he said.
Why sue Jason Milligan?
NancyOnNorwalk: The City is involved in a lawsuit against real estate broker Jason Milligan, regarding POKO properties. Why pursue this path, and its mounting legal fees, rather than accept that Milligan bought the properties and move on?
“I don’t feel at liberty to discuss a lawsuit,” Rilling said. “…We feel very strongly that that property should be returned to the city of Norwalk.”
Plans for the library
NancyOnNorwalk asked if the current lawsuit with Milligan has its roots in the previous legal entanglement, when the Norwalk Public Library Foundation appealed the Zoning approval Milligan had gotten to build apartments next to the library.
“I don’t think the two are connected,” Rilling said, segueing to the results of the previous legal drama, the city’s $460,000 purchase of a 6-year option to buy Milligan’s property next to the Belden Avenue library.
“We’ve got drawings that are going to show a 25,000-foot expansion of the library,” Rilling said. “And we’re looking to then determine if we’re going to opt for the purchase of the property that Milligan owns …and the bank, and determine how we can really build that area up so that it’s kind of a catalyst to bring the Wall Street area back and be an anchor. A library expansion down there will be a tremendous anchor, along with other, maybe retail, where the bank is and so forth.”
Packing in the people?
NancyOnNorwalk: “Two years ago, you said one of the biggest challenges for Norwalk going forward with handling the city’s growth. Your opponent criticized the Plan of Conservation and Development, otherwise called the POCD or the city-wide master plan, for failing to address the question of how big we want Norwalk to come. What do you think is the optimum number of people in Norwalk?”
“I chuckle with that because how do we say, ‘Okay, no more people coming into Norwalk’? I don’t know how my opponent would limit the number of people coming in. Norwalk is a vibrant community,” Rilling said.
Norwalk has come a long way and is drawing a “wow” reaction far and wide, and it’s good that people want to move in, he said. “I just don’t understand the concept of limiting the number of people that can move into the city. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that anywhere else. And I just can’t get I can’t get my arms around that.”
Plus, “We’re going through a complete study of our Zoning laws to find out where it’s appropriate to make changes, but I don’t think zoning laws are meant to keep people from moving into our city.”
NancyOnNorwalk: “Your opponent says Norwalk isn’t getting enough for the disruption that will be caused when the Connecticut Department of Transportation rebuilds the Walk Bridge. There are people saying the Maritime Aquarium doesn’t have what it needs and the balance of the compensation, air conditioning and new fans for the Lockwood Matthews Mansion isn’t enough.”
“We’re getting a $40 million theater upgrade” as a replacement for the Maritime Aquarium’s IMAX theater, plus $5 million for the Lockwood Matthews Mansion, a new wharf and a waterfront park where the aquarium’s parking is now, Rilling said.
“There’s a lot of things that we’re planning on getting, as well as money to help mitigate the impact on the businesses,” Rilling said. “And I’m cautiously optimistic that the project itself is going to be far less intrusive and inconveniencing that people are saying. The Department of Transportation is really doing a remarkable job in trying to mitigate the impact on our community.”
NancyOnNorwalk: “You said recently that you’d like to see federal money to help pay the cost of educating 300-plus minors recently arrived in Norwalk, mostly from Central America. How realistic is that given that Donald Trump is President, and is vocally opposed to spending of that nature?”
“I’m always cautiously optimistic that people who work together can get things done,” Rilling replied, explaining that he’s reached out to U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D-Greenwich).
“Hopefully, we can get some federal money. If not, then we’re going to have to figure out the best way to deal with it.”
NancyOnNorwalk: “Wouldn’t it be more likely that the state of Connecticut, controlled entirely by Democrats would provide more funds?”
“I would hope so and we certainly will be having that discussion,” Rilling said, adding that the Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) formula is providing Norwalk with more funds since it was revamped two years ago, “thanks to some of the Democratic Congressional legislators.” But “funding isn’t enough. We always could use more.”
It’s early in the school year and “The Board of Education has had surpluses at the end of each year. So rather than have a knee-jerk reaction to this, we’re going to follow this, and if there’s money needed at the end of the term, the City of Norwalk has a large fund balance. I’m sure that we can work it out and make sure that it doesn’t impact the taxpayers,” he said.
Mike Barbis and the NAACP
NancyOnNorwalk: “In your first campaign, you emphasized civility and inclusion. The Democratic Board of Education Chairman has been criticized for a lack of civility and for an ongoing rift with the Norwalk NAACP that remains unresolved. Last we heard you are letting things cool off in hopes that you could arrange a meeting between Mike Barbis and Brenda Penn-Williams. What’s the latest on that?”
Rilling: “It seems at least for the time being, things have cooled off a bit… You know, the Board of Education has a tremendous responsibility to educate our children and put the best programs in place. Sometimes people say things that probably they shouldn’t be saying. The NAACP has a tremendous responsibility to help people and to provide scholarships for young people, sometimes people say things they shouldn’t say. Hopefully that things have calmed down to a point where we can work together.”
So why was Barbis endorsed for reelection?
The 11 Democratic Town Committee members who represent District E could not find anyone else who wanted to serve in the position, Rilling said.
What’s on your mind?
NancyOnNorwalk: Do you have any questions that you want to answer?
The differences between him and Brinton are “crystal clear,” Rilling said. “I believe Norwalk is a wonderful community with wonderful people, wonderful resources and moving in the right direction. My opponent, on the other hand, would make you seem it was just the opposite.”
- Triple A bond rating
- A healthy fund balance
- Contributions to the Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB) fund
- Building new schools
- Financial support for the Board of Education’s strategic operating plan
NancyOnNorwalk: “They say experience is the best teacher. As you sit here with six years in this job behind you, what in your experience, looking back, if you knew then what you know now, would you have done differently?”
Rilling: “The biggest problem that we have in the state of Connecticut is property taxes. I have advocated for property tax reform, seeing how we can take some of the burden off of people who own property and have to pay the taxes. Probably would have tried to perhaps do some more research on how we can make that happen, whether we can get the state of Connecticut to authorize the city to charge a penny sales tax, so that we can use that money. And it would be something that we could do, we wouldn’t have to do, but have add a penny sales tax to sales in the city of Norwalk. …. If I could point out one thing that I felt we could have done a little bit more on maybe that was it.”