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Former Norwalk Recs & Parks director, accused of ‘mismanagement,’ defends record

Then-Norwalk Recreation and Parks Department Director Mike Mocciae, center, shows off the second floor of the Fodor Farm main house to Common Council Recreation, Parks and Cultural Affairs Committee members in 2016. (Archive photo)

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.

The community garden at Fodor Farm. (John Levin)

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.

Norwalk Recreation and Parks Department Director Mike Mocciae talks to the Common Council in 2016.

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.”

Calf Pasture Beach in 2017.

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.”

15 comments

M Murray April 29, 2021 at 6:44 am

While all this political bashing is fun to read, I would like to see a little more investigative reporting into the forgery/fraud case about Billy Howard. It seems to me that $60,000 spread over 32 contracts amounts to a little over $1,800 per job. Plus this $60,000 was over a 7 year period. Now according to earlier reports, these contracts were for goods, namely printed T-shorts, not merely time or services, so there was merchandise delivered to the City in exchange for this $60,000. Has Nancy inquired how many T-shorts, trophies, or other merchandise was received by the City in exchange for this $60,000?? I think the readers would want to be able to determine how much of this $60,000 appears to be a profit or financial gain to Mr. Howard vs. assuming that he personally gained that entire sum. For example, if an $1,800 contract was for 500 printed T shirts for a Parks and Rec summer camp, and the wholesale cost of those shorts to Mr. Howard was $3 each, then he only profited $300 for his labor. And over the 32 contracts he would have made less than $10,000 profit over the 7 years. Having an idea what was in those contracts would give the reader a better idea how much the fraud was really worth to Billy Howard, and how much it really cost the City.

Ursula Caterbone April 29, 2021 at 7:26 am

Friends of Cranbury Park and The Carriage House Arts Center were a part of Mike’s wonderful vision for Norwalk’s Parks. His outstanding support for both organizations made him a joy to work with. He took a garage at Cranbury Park and turned it into an active Community Theater that is still providing theater lovers with popular shows.
His support of Friends of Cranbury Park helped us found an organization with over 500 members.
Mike was responsible for the development of the Master Plan for Cranbury Park. He opened the mansion to events and private affairs. He restored the park Tea House. He turned the overgrown formal garden back into its former glory. He was always available to us. Something that was lost when he retired.
Ursula Caterbone
Secretary
Friends of Cranbury Patk.

Bryan Meek April 29, 2021 at 7:46 am

Those who know, know the real story. Notice how Harry can’t actually list one thing Nick Roberts actually did. It’s always platitudes with no specifics. The fact is Harry has driven morale into the tank like it has never been before. Expenses are up 6% after the “reorg” and “downsizing” which is really just empire building at the taxpayer’s expense and worse the work isn’t even getting done. The grass is almost a foot tall in front of Cranbury school for one and the pot holes are worse than they’ve been in a long time. City Hall being closed has ruined productivity and morale. Ask anyone who actually goes in to work.

BAS April 29, 2021 at 8:59 am

“ as many very popular programs were held together by handshakes and personal relationships.”
Of course be certain this isn’t still going on with the current guy in office.

P. Nolin April 29, 2021 at 11:29 am

Mike Mocciae ran a perpetually underfunded parks department and did a phenomenal job for the City. He was extremely dedicated to Norwalk and our parks program and constantly battled to ensure parks got enough funding despite the pressing needs of police, fire, DPW and schools. He actually cleaned up a parks administration that was mired in problems under his acting predecessor. All of our parks improved under Mike’s Leadership and he turned Fodor farm into something special for our City. Trashing him 4 years after his retirement for current political reasons is very unfair. Mike enjoy your retirement; most in the know thank you for all your work for Norwalk. Parrot on!

Tysen Canevari April 29, 2021 at 12:15 pm

Boy oh boy does it ever end? What’s really appalling Laoise is that you make $130,000 to do the mayor’s job while he stays home. You need to be reminded that Mayor Rilling was the person overseeing the Parks and Rec department that you called mismanaged. What in the world did Nick Robert’s do in 2 years except use us a stepping stone to go back down south for a job. We have some of the nicest parks around and you say the department was mismanaged? How bout the fact that you are pushing out the sailing school director at the beach who is a non profit and employs high school kids in the summer. 36 years he has been there.. My great uncle deeded the beach to the city and would turn over in his grave if he saw what is going on. The disrespect you show people like Mike Moccaie is disgusting!

John O'Neill April 29, 2021 at 1:27 pm

I am a big fan of Calf Pasture beach and the turn around over the past 20 years there. Whoever has been responsible deserves kudos from everyone who now uses that beach. I remember the first time trying that beach; There was a shooting and gang related shenanigans mid day on Memorial Day weekend 2012 ish…It took us 3 years to retry the beach and we’re happy we did. The transformation has really been amazing…Let’s hope it continues.

Educator April 29, 2021 at 3:06 pm

I can tell you exactly what Nick Roberts did for Norwalk, he decimated our adult softball leagues. When Mike was in charge our fields were busy every night of the week and tournaments on the weekends. Norwalk made money from the rentals. Now, we have nothing, zero, zilch! Our softball fields have become a litter box for geese.

Scott V. April 29, 2021 at 7:28 pm

Funny how the city picks on certain people! Maybe we should look closer at this admin from the top down to the Personnel director!! Looks to me like there’s some hinky stuff going on! I see it from the inside!

Scott V. April 29, 2021 at 7:30 pm

Mike did a hell of a job when ther, then he retires and gets blamed for the b.s. that the new managers do? Ken Hughes saves this dept.!

Lisa April 30, 2021 at 6:36 am

Ken Hughes was hired by Mike Mocciae! Not only did he have effective staff but he was always looking for grant funding and partners to support the projects because The city wouldn’t fund the projects – like Fodor and Cranbury Let the man who worked hard at his job that he loved, retire in peace. Harry and his overpaid staff should just do their jobs and stop trying to pass the buck on their short comings.

Jim Cooper April 30, 2021 at 10:38 am

I’m a BIG Mike Mocciae supporter. Not only our two stellar beaches he renewed, but how about our OYSTER SHELL PARK!

He did way more than I am aware, and the Parks & Rec dept was/is the best in the area.

Nick Roberts did a good job: Adding trash receptacles, park benches, and filling in the muddy pathway at OSP, and I have nothing bad to say about him.

Recall Norwalk had a windfall profit from the Fireworks one year. They took in $15,000 more than expected! What did Mike do with that? He used THAT money to fund the waterpark for the kids. Yes he did.

Thanks to him AND to Nick Roberts for their service. No bashing needed.

jim whiskey April 30, 2021 at 9:45 pm

the parks dept ran flawlessly before harry, they had 1 mechanic gave him no help,a superintendent no help, bare minimal work force,crazy projects to accomplish,2 guys mowing 1800 acreas
1 guy with a couple of temps holding down the beach, a carpenter,
a plumber, get some temp help during the summer, mike did a great job.

Don Sexton May 3, 2021 at 11:20 am

Mike and Ken have done an outstanding job for the Norwalk Parks. Norwalk’s parks are the envy of the state.

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