By Rod Lopez-Fabrega
NORWALK, Conn. – Not to overstress a sports analogy, the guy we need here in Norwalk to occupy the mayor’s box at the big game of civic politics is a Sparky Anderson or a Tony LaRussa, or even at times a John McGraw of the iron fist. As we know and as is frequently made clear, at City Hall we have a weak mayor/strong council form of governance that grants the mayor limited appointment power and only a degree of control over administrative agencies. It is the Common Council that is the law-writing body of the City of Norwalk. The man we elect to move our sometimes divided and quarrelsome “team Norwalk” has to have the quiet strength and sensitivity to take a diverse group of individualistic, ambitious, head-strong, Common Council prima-donnas, who often suffer from tunnel vision, and direct, advise, inspire and mold them into a working team to achieve great things while speaking softly but carrying the nightstick of persuasion.
Is there such a guy in the tunnel? After a good look at the candidates vying to replace Mayor Richard Moccia, who by many accounts has irritated and demoralized the team in many instances and has not always been a productive coach, there is one who has proven himself to have the qualities we seek. We think it is Harry Rilling, who for 17 years served as chief of police for Norwalk, molding a diverse collection of tough men and women into an admirable team of enforcers who have kept us safe from the desperate actions of some and from a rising tide of reactions to unemployment and the deprivations of hard times. So, the man most needed is not a team owner (or a captain of industry or a conventional CEO) but a really effective coach with the proven qualities to cajole, convince and sometimes be very firm but always civil in pushing his players to make the cooperative moves to keep them and their followers in the major leagues.
True that Harry Rilling has never held an elected office and that, as is the case with the current mayor, he has never worked in a large corporation nor has he practiced professionally as a lawyer. So, we ask you, how important is that – a question convincingly posed recently by Peter Berman in his cogent letter to The Hour – when it is the Board of Education chairperson and superintendent who are the city’s most important officials, the mayor has limited authorities and little control over the police and fire departments and “even a new mayor with ambitious new governance goals would be hard pressed to significantly boost spending and local real estate taxes under the current environment”?
Now, Harry Rilling does have “ambitious new governance goals”, and as Nancy on Norwalk has pointed out in a recent article in that publication, those include: An appropriately and adequately funded BOE with support for Common Core State Standards; support of the Head Start program with universal pre-K to direct young people in a positive and productive direction for their lives; a government that is transparent, inclusive, accessible and civil; providing developers a friendly place to do business and not obstacles; encouraging affordable housing so the people who work in Norwalk can afford to live here; and more. He also cites his experience with budgets as police chief, adding, “I put together realistic budgets which allowed me to run the department effectively and efficiently. I feel that all department heads should be held accountable to do the same thing.”
The voters of Norwalk expect these to be the basic goals of any worthy candidate running for the top job in our city. It’s proof of the ability to get difficult tasks done that we look for. Among the Democratic candidates going for the top job, we have seen that Andy Garfunkel is a weathered vote getter (coming close to beating Richard Moccia last time around); Matt Miklave shows huge promise for the future with his analytical talents and big picture planning; Vinnie Mangiacopra deserves our admiration for jumping right in to face up to impressive competition; but we conclude that Harry Rilling has the right stuff to shepherd our divided Common Council on to real achievements, has already proven he can run the biggest municipal departments effectively, and he has the gravitas and presence to make us proud if he becomes our top man.
And to stretch the baseball analogy as far as it will go, Harry, a native Norwalker and the grandson of German and Irish immigrants, explains that he did coach youth baseball in the Cranbury league for about nine years, then coached in the Babe Ruth league for three years. He also volunteered to coach the baseball team at West Rocks Middle School when they had no staff person to do it. For approximately four years, he was an assistant district commissioner with the Boy Scouts of America.
You can’t get much more “American Mayor” than that.