NORWALK, Conn. – John Metsopoulos may be a relative newcomer to Norwalk, but the Democratic challenger for a District C Common Council seat is a veteran of Connecticut’s political scene dating back to the 1990s.
Now 57, Metsopoulos was the youngest member of the Connecticut General Assembly when he was elected to represent the 132nd District in 1984 after earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of Connecticut. A Republican back then, Metsopoulos remained in office for 10 years. Five years later, he was elected to the Fairfield Board of Selectmen and served from 1999 to 2003, the first two years as first selectman.
Now, after spending nine years in Florida before moving to Norwalk in 2012, he is ready once again for public service – this time as a Democrat.
“I’ve always loved public service,” he said Monday in an interview with NancyOnNorwalk. “It’s the highest honor anyone can bestow upon you. I know public service has a bad name today, especially with what’s going on in Washington, but I still think it’s an honorable endeavor.”
If he is to return to public office in November, he will have to knock off a popular incumbent. His running mate on the Democratic side is John Kydes. Republican Michelle Maggio is running for re-election as well, with newcomer Mike Demo as a running mate.
After spending his time in Florida working as a program manager for transportation and development agencies in Fort Lauderdale and the Economic Development Agency in Seminole County, Metsopoulos stepped away from the public sector when he returned to Connecticut, starting a consulting business and working at Harbor Lights restaurant.
“I think everybody needs to take a break from public service,” he said. “Making it a career is not a good thing. You lose contact with reality, with what real people are facing.”
So what is luring him back?
“I met Mayor Rilling, and found we shared a lot of the same ideas. He inspired me in that he was forward-looking,” Metsopoulos said, citing the mayor’s focus on Norwalk’s infrastructure, education and expanding the tax base, saying those were “many of the same issues I faced in Fairfield, and faced successfully.”
He said he put out feelers, was approached to run, and felt his public and private sector experience would be a good combination to bring forward to run for the Common Council.
Metsopoulos said that, when he became first selectman, he “did the third rail station, which did a lot to increase the property values in surrounding areas and expanded the tax base.”
He said his administration did a lot of school projects, including replacing a crumbling school – McKinley Elementary – which had “buckets all over to catch the rain” leaking through the roof.
“At that point they were doing something called ‘pay as you go,’” he said. “If you needed a new roof, you took it out of the operating budget, which was absurd. A 30-year life, you bond it.”
The leaks caused an even worse problem.
“It was infested with mold,” he said. “It was going to cost $18 million to renovate it, and $22 million to build a new school.”
The town decided to raze it and build a new school, one of the projects – along with a third rail station – Metsopoulos said was possible because of the town’s top bond rating.
“All of my projects were done on time and under budget,” he said. “We refinanced our bond debt and saved a lot of money, a few hundred thousand dollars over the term of the bonds. We fully funded our pensions, funded the employee retirement fund. And it was done through what I call, and what I want to bring to Norwalk, what I call budgetary reform.”
He said that, when he took office, he reformed a budget process that had penalized departments for coming in under budget, cutting back their requests for the following year.
“Every year my employees found a surplus,” he said. The money was returned to the general fund and used to hold down tax increases in the coming years, he said.
In Florida, he said, he helped establish enterprise zones with incremental tax incentives to encourage commercial development, something he feels would benefit Norwalk.
“That’s what the mayor envisions for Norwalk, that’s what I would like to bring to the city.”
Metsopoulos said he is aware, though, that quality of life for the residents has to be considered alongside any development.
“You’ve got to make sure that we do not stress our residential neighborhoods with commercial development,” he said. “That is tied very closely to zoning. You have to make it consistent, not ‘pocket’ zoning.”
He said restoring the Wall Street train station would be a “great economic impetus,” pointing to the development of the once stagnant area where the third train station was built in Fairfield. “It’s a great way to increase economic development.”
While some residents – and some Council candidates – have said public safety is a concern, Metsopoulos said he does not see crime as a big problem in Norwalk – despite himself being what turned out to be a random target of egg-tossing teens last summer. The incident was followed by the Republican Party casting doubt on the story, and attacking Metsopoulos over some DUI arrests and his record in Fairfield.
“I have never felt unsafe anywhere in this city,” he said. “I have always seen a police presence, especially in SoNo, especially on Washington Street, especially between 9 and 1 in the morning.”
He acknowledged that “you will always have crime,” but that, for a city Norwalk’s size, it is a safe place.”
He played down his transformation from Republican to Democrat, something he said reflects on where the national GOP has gone since his early years in politics. And, like many local pols, he downplayed the significance of party at the municipal level.
“The mayor is a pragmatist, I’m a pragmatist,” he said, saying he works well with both sides of the aisle and maintains relationships with people with whom he served in Hartford.
“I bring a good, solid experience that I think will do well for this city.”