NORWALK, Conn. — It’s ridiculous to take credit for great things going on in Norwalk parks, developments that were years and even decades in the making, and then claim the Recreation and Parks Department was mismanaged before the latest director came in, Mike Mocciae said.
Mocciae, speaking recently to NancyOnNorwalk from his retirement enclave in South Carolina, hotly took aim at comments made by Norwalk Chief of Staff Laoise King when it was announced that his replacement, Recs & Parks Director Nick Roberts, was leaving.
King had said, “Nick was instrumental in cleaning up a long-mismanaged department, which is exactly what he was hired to do. It was a big ask, as many very popular programs were held together by handshakes and personal relationships. This was not acceptable to the Mayor, and Nick did an outstanding job professionalizing the department – putting in cash controls, ensuring fair and transparent leasing of city space, and developing policies to standard usage of field and event space.”
“That’s a stupid statement,” Mocciae said. “That’s a statement to hide the fact that the reorganization is not working the way it should. And then you got people coming and going.”
Mayor Harry Rilling declined to respond to Mocciae’s comments.
Roberts left after just two years on the job, after the Common Council approved Rilling’s reorganization of City administrative positions. It was also shortly after a seasonal part time Recreation and Parks employee was arrested and charged with 32 counts of forgery.
Mocciae retired in mid-2017 after 33 years in the Recreation and Parks Department. He had been department director since 1997.
In that time, Fodor Farm became a Norwalk park, its farmhouse rebuilt from within by department staff members. Calf Pasture Beach was transformed, Cranbury and Oyster Shell parks were beautified and Norwalk’s high school fields were returfed.
People forget what the beach was like, Mocciae said.
“Nobody remembers, none of the new people, they could care less that Shady Beach was a zoo. People parked wherever they want, changed their oil, boomboxes, liquor out the kazoo, and nobody remembers that,” Mocciae said. “…You had drugs every day on the beach. The lifeguards had to deal with it, in the corner at Shady, until we made it a family place. So you know, they had better remember what it was like. Who made the changes? It wasn’t (Roberts).”
Beach improvements include a third softball field, a sidewalk along the sand, new lighting and children’s equipment.
Also during his career, the department’s staff went from 15 to four.
“We had a full-time accountant, which they got rid of,” he said. “…How does anybody with four people try to run a huge department and try to catch everything? It’s almost impossible. But we did. We caught them stealing and they were prosecuted.”
The Rilling administration is trying to make a big deal out of “poor Billy Howard,” characterizing what happened as “stealing money,” Mocciae said.
Howard, 70, has been charged with 32 counts of forgery, with bail set at $100,000. His business, Sonny & Bill’s Sports Center, got a total $60,085 in contracts through the alleged forgery since 2014, his arrest warrant states. Howard created fake bids to make it appear that he had competition, and provided the fraudulent documents to then-Recs and Parks Athletic Director Gerald Anastasia, thereby coming in as the low bidder for City contracts, Norwalk Police say.
“He didn’t steal anything. He made a mistake,” Mocciae said.
All the vendors got quotes from each other, as “local people, they just decided who would get the job and who wouldn’t,” Mocciae said. “And you were talking nickels and dimes. There’s not a lot of money involved in that.”
He said, “So, ‘we caught Billy Howard,’ why do you keep putting that in the paper? Poor Billy Howard was a standout person in the community. His daughter’s on the police force. I think you might have handled this a little different,” Mocciae said.
Moreover, it’s not the first time a Recreation & Parks employee was caught stealing money, he said. There was the highly publicized case in 2015, when beach gate attendants were accused of charging residents $30 for parking, issuing a receipt for $10 and then pocketing the difference. But there have been many more incidents, it’s just that the Mayor at the time chose to keep it quiet, Mocciae said.
Rilling “did the right thing” in 2015, because it “added up to quite a bit of money,” Mocciae said. But, “There’s other situations where they simply said, ‘OK, it was wrong. We understand. And there wasn’t that much money involved.’ Or, ‘We can’t really prove how much there was. So we’re going to handle it in-house and say, you know, the person cannot work for us anymore, or there can’t be any more dealings.’”
Former Mayors Alex Knopp and Richard Moccia declined to comment.
Mocciae said he’d “never” make the call when an employee was caught stealing. He took it to the Mayor. The value of the employee, in terms of community service, was a factor.
But back in the day, “the system was tough,” he said.
When he first took over, people sat at picnic tables at the docks, collecting cash from visitors, he said. “Sure, you had people that were giving people receipts and keeping the cash. But they never worked again, for us, you know.”
As things progressed, the city moved to credit cards but earlier, wanted cash, he said. People would have to go to an ATM to get cash. The city didn’t want checks because checks might bounce.
The Common Council didn’t want to charge for beach passes, “that was kind of a screwy thing to keep,” and now LAZ does beach parking with modern technology, a “fine” system because it “avoids all the potential for theft because there’s nobody at the gates anymore,” Mocciae said.
“We asked for years to do it differently,” but no one wanted to, Mocciae said. Recreation and Parks was dealt a hand and when there was a hint of people stealing, had to figure out how it was being done.
“It was hard to do,” he said. “You would think that the staff you have were honest enough but that’s what happens when you get part-time people, sometimes. It was easy for them to pocket the receipt, and then take the cash, you know, until you finally call people and say, Hey, what happened?”
Again, there used to be a full-time accountant. But, more recently, things like the paperwork Howard put in go through the purchasing department, he said. “If they thought there was issues, then nothing’s changed with the reorg. It’s still the same people.”
“But you know, we did, we caught people,” Mocciae said. “And it wasn’t just them, they got one part-time guy that made a mistake. I just don’t think the way it was handled was appropriate.”
Rilling was Mayor when Calf Pasture Beach was named one of the five top beaches in the tri-state area, and took the kudos, Mocciae said. Nobody remembers that and Rilling is “big on talking about the reorganization, how wonderful it is.”
“I don’t think is that wonderful,” Mocciae said. “I think was ridiculous. It added another layer of bureaucracy, and nobody can get anything done because nobody talks to each other.”
What did Roberts do in his two years? The West Rocks Middle School soccer field was already in the works, and the Broad River baseball complex was also planned, Mocciae said. Yes, the city is about to work on a Recreation and Parks master plan, but Mocciae had one, too.
The City’s website offers a master plan from 1996. Mocciae said the beach plan included an esplanade around the peninsula and a boating center, which marine police could use as a base to patrol the harbor. The Harbor Management Commission objected to that aspect and the plan never came to fruition, according to Mocciae. The fire department was also involved in taking another route, using docks along the river near the Stroffolino Bridge.
No one talked to him when he retired, no one thanked him with coffee and a conversation to see what the history was to various situations, he said. “Nobody said a word…. it doesn’t equate to the long-term viability of communities.”
“Now all of a sudden, people aren’t there anymore, you’re going to say ‘it wasn’t run correctly.’ That’s just absurd,” Mocciae said. “… You can’t say the department was mismanaged, we made it 100 percent better than it was before I was there.”