NORWALK, Conn. — Mayor Harry Rilling took most of the heat Tuesday, with strong backup from Common Council President Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large), with his department heads occasionally answering a question or piping up to join in positive comments from the mayor.
About 20 citizens attended the latest Mayor’s Night Out, some of them expecting a “zip-line” meeting.
- Rilling & Kimmel: Not spending $500K on ‘worthless’ POCD
- Once more with feeling: ‘No’ on East Avenue widening/lowering
- Rilling to Cranbury leader: ‘We didn’t understand either’
- Lauricella decries ‘scapegoating,’ suggests ‘listening session’
- Rilling explains SoNoCC after newcomer slams Pena
- Almost-accidents on Maple Street
- ‘South Norwalk is bleeding’
- Mosby: ‘I am thinking about putting my house on the market’
Video of entire meeting at end of story
The $50,000 POCD ‘placeholder’
“How are we going to get a 10-year plan done with $50,000?” Third Taxing District Commissioner Deb Goldstein asked Rilling, commenting that other cities spend $250,000 on a Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD).
There has been talk about the city needing a new POCD; in early March Rilling and Finance Director Bob Barron said they were looking for less expensive avenues to pursue other than the $500,000 that has been spent in the past.
Goldstein said the proposed operating budget has only $50,000 for a POCD. Rilling said that’s a placeholder.
The Board of Estimate and Taxation was given a presentation in which the current POCD was described as worthless, Rilling said.
“I am not going to put $500,000 in a budget for a plan that is worthless until we can get our arms around it,” Rilling said.
There are ongoing discussions about the topic with Planning Commission Chairman Torgny Astrom, Zoning Commission Chairman Adam Blank, Economic Development Director Elizabeth Stocker, Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan, members of the Business Advisory Council and certified city planners, Rilling said.
“We don’t know how much it’s going to cost, so I am not going to put in $500,000 and make that the tax levy until I know what we are talking about,” Rilling said.
“I agree, it’s a placeholder, but the bigger issue is the quality of the master plan. We want to do it right,” Kimmel said.
“A lot of people thought about this and said, ‘Let’s think this through,’” Kimmel said. “Other people may go through the motions every time this comes up, they spend the same amount of money, they get a laundry list of stuff which are recommendations, some of which they do, some of which they don’t do. Let’s look at this carefully, perhaps we can have a more focused plan with priorities that has some kind of coherent vision of where we want to go as a city instead of just having everything that everybody … throws it in… It will probably end up much better and less expensive. So we want to make sure we look at this.”
The Economic Action Plan that was released in September has clear goals with benchmarks, which are in the process of being reviewed, as a way to study progress, Rilling said.
With the POCD, “there’s no responsibility placed, no time frame, it’s just a statement. You need to have an action plan, not just a statement,” Rilling said.
More pleas to lessen the proposed height of the East Avenue railroad bridge….
So, yes, Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) Commissioner James Redeker said that the state is sticking to its original plan for the lowering of East Avenue under the railroad bridge – but what has been done about it since then?
That was the question posed by Goldstein, who said she had learned through Freedom of Information requests of the meetings that were requested by local officials after the Common Council voted to approve a resolution asking ConnDOT to reconsider, but did not know what has been done since then.
“After the letter came back from the Department of Transportation, there was expression of disappointment made to the Commissioner’s office but nothing further,” Rilling said.
ConnDOT has made its position very clear and, “Unless there is some sort of court injunction, I don’t see any way they are going to stop,” he said.
“I don’t think we throw up our hands and say we have to wait for a court injunction,” Diane Cece said later.
Redeker never met with the residents, there are alternatives, and Darien got its way, she said, suggesting that perhaps that had something to do with demographics, commenting that, “We don’t feel the love.”
Darien’s Route 1 railroad bridge is a non-standard 11 feet, 3 inches; ConnDOT plans a 14-foot, 3-inch height for East Avenue.
ConnDOT officials said in January that there were many logistical problems and drainage issues involved with lowering the Darien roadway.
“I don’t think in this case it’s fair to Norwalk to say we are not pushing like Darien was pushing,” Kimmel said. “There are some environmental issues they were concerned about with the Darien bridge, and if you are ever in that area when there’s a storm, it’s pretty bad. Whatever the state did I think is related to those drainage issues, so the bridge stayed the way the folks in Darien wanted. If I lived in Darien I would be going crazy about what happens to Route 1 in August when we have those downpours. I don’t think they have gotten any relief yet as far as I know. It’s really, really bad; it can be a couple of feet of water.”
A June 28, 2014 article in the Darien Times confirms Kimmel’s account.
Leader: Cranbury Preservation Association does not condone behavior
“I just feel like there’s been so much bad press on our behalf that I would come tonight in a nice manner in a nice forum and just kind of state our mission,” Sarah Calise of the Cranbury Preservation Association (CPA) said, early in the evening.
CPA burst into Norwalk’s consciousness with a press conference that, in part, accused the Recreation and Parks Department of illegally dumping fill into the southern end of Cranbury Park in preparation for a Go Ape! treetop adventure, with self-described consultant Diane Lauricella advocating that the proposal be tabled so that “due diligence” could be done.
This was after two ugly Common Council committee meetings and before the full Council meeting, where an opponent of the plan tore up signs posted by Mike Mushak and took his phone.
Calise said CPA does not condone the behavior.
“What has happened at the meetings, it makes me horribly uncomfortable that that would happen and people would behave as such. That is not who we are, that is not what the neighborhood of Live Oak Road is, and the immediate area,” Calise said.
CPA seeks to protect neighborhood property values, see that city parks are developed in a balanced way and inform neighbors when there is a neighborhood issue, she said.
Comments were short-circuited at the full Council meeting, as the issue was tabled shortly after the pledge of allegiance. Rilling said that he and others had told CPA during a “very cordial, very civil” meeting on March 8 that the proposal would be tabled if the Council felt it did not have enough information.
“What happens at Council meetings – I know people’s emotions get involved, I understand that, but sometimes we step over boundaries,” Rilling said. “We just have to take a deep breath and step back and have some civil discourse. I know we can all agree to disagree or we can all agree to agree and we can move forward in a good fashion.”
Calise said she and other residents are very new to the process. They didn’t understand that tabling meant there would be no public comment, she said.
“We didn’t understand either. That was kind of new for us,” Rilling said.
“I think some of the frustration is we don’t understand the process so we don’t know what to expect when you do things like that, but please try to be patient with us, maybe educate us a little so that we aren’t so vocal in those meetings,” Calise said.
“Point well taken,” Rilling said.
Lauricella again takes issue with process, etc.
“I don’t think it’s fair to use any citizen, especially someone like myself who has served this city well for many years, to be used as a scapegoat for people not handling process properly,” Lauricella said, specifying that she was “speaking as an individual” on “observations about city that I have experienced and others near and dear to me.”
Former Republican Town Committee Chairman Pete Torrano as well as Democrats are making her a scapegoat, said Lauricella, a Democratic Town Committee member. There should have been a more transparent process and clearer communication path with the Cranbury Park treetop adventure proposal, she said.
“The process I experienced at the Recreation and Parks Department should not have occurred. So I am here tonight to recommend … we look at a way of training Council people and training some of the staff to be more responsive,” Lauricella said.
“I myself am tired of doing the homework of the staff on things that count. One of those things recently was an Illegal fill pile at a city park,” Lauricella said.
“How does a citizen file a complaint when a staff person, especially a director, is not forthcoming, is slandering the good name of a citizen or worse? Because I think the public needs to know,” Lauricella said “… One of your directors attacked one of the people you are serving. That can’t happen again, sir, because you are better than that and I know you are.”
Recreation and Parks Department Director Mike Mocciae recently slammed Lauricella in a rant published on NancyOnNorwalk. People were slandering his name, he said.
Rilling did not mention that and told Lauricella that the proper procedure would be to call his office. From what he could see, the staff is very responsive, he said.
Council members do the best they can while juggling jobs and personal responsibilities, Kimmel said.
“I will admit on occasion they will get tired of dealing with certain issues or certain people, where the calls never end and there is nothing good enough, there is never an answer that is good enough,” Kimmel said. “… All in all, when you think about it, they do a terrific job.”
Rilling pointed out that, of the 19 people there to meet the public, he was the only one being paid for his time at that moment.
Lauricella asked if a complaint – or praise – could be made to the personnel director. Rilling said a complaint would go through his office, and he does get many letters of praise.
Councilman Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large) said that whether Republicans or Democrats are in charge, there is usually time made at the end of committee meetings for the public to air complaints.
Lauricella is a regular attendee of committee meetings.
South Norwalk Community Center like ‘imploded fortress’
“I have been trying to revitalize the South Norwalk Community Center,” William Stowell-Alonso said. “As you know, it is run by Mr. Warren Peña. I have been going around town, looking on the Internet, and I have found there are widespread allegations that he is mishandling funds up to almost $1 million.”
There are no programs for youth or families at SoNoCC, Stomwell-Alonso said.
“As it stands, to me, the South Norwalk Community Center looks like an imploded fortress,” he said. “I wanted to know if the mayor’s office would work with me and others. I am looking for no credit, to revitalize that center. In the last 60 days, I have facilitated – I haven’t done it single-handedly – but I have facilitated the ouster of the director and also one of the Board members, Mr. Reese Morales, who I have a good working relationship with as we speak, but nevertheless he is out.”
Contacted by email shortly after the Mayor’s Night Out concluded, Peña said, “I have no idea who this person is, never heard of him before. … Clearly whomever this person is is confused.” Peña said SoNoCC does not have a new director.
Rilling explained that the building at 98 South Main St. is still mired in bankruptcy proceedings after the fall of Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON). There are weekly discussions on this topic, he said.
As a 501(c)(3), the South Norwalk Community Center must document its activities, he said.
“We are aware of what’s going on, what’s not going on, and we are trying to come to resolution so that everybody can be served by that building,” Rilling said.
Norwalk Public Schools operates the After the Bell program at SoNoCC, Rilling said.
‘Forgotten’ South Norwalk
“To me, South Norwalk is bleeding,” William Escobar said, after explaining that he has lived here for 54 years and remembered the neighborhood when it was vibrant.
“Now, it’s just like the man said, a piece of land right there with all kind of hiccups going on right there. South Norwalk to me is not what it used to be. I don’t see the sun shining in South Norwalk,” he said. “… South Norwalk is forgotten. I hear Cranbury Park, I hear East Norwalk, you are talking about a bridge when there is homelessness in South Norwalk, no jobs, it is riddled with drugs.”
The speech included assertions that Washington Street used to be for average American middle class workers and, now, with families broken and services cut, there is money for a mall.
Washington Village “will be completely renovated,” Rilling said, and, “While that is stalled right now and it is not moving forward, we are hoping it will be soon.”
The rebuilding of Washington Village has been held up by a legal challenge filed by Ganga Duleep and the Friends of Ryan Park. Before that, Cece and Lauricella were involved in protesting the city’s processes in attempting to bring the project to fruition, including the transfer of city property to the Norwalk Housing Authority.
Escobar said the same promises were made about West Avenue and now, “Housing is not taking applications for single occupancy” apartments.
“It’s too late,” Brenda Penn-Williams murmured, before publicly decrying gentrification. African Americans are now less than 11 percent of the city’s population, she asserted.
Neither Councilman Travis Simms (D-District B) nor Bowman commented.
Mosby: Nobody listens
“I am thinking about putting my house on the market and leaving town,” John Mosby said, after decrying what is happening to South Norwalk and relaying his personal history.
Tractor-trailers have been keeping him up at night and no one has done anything about it, including his Council representatives, he said.
“When you hear me say, ‘I am going to put my home on the market, get what I can and leave,’ you know we’ve got a problem,” Mosby said. “ … What I am saying to you here is start to listen to us all, I am not here to knock the mayor tonight, but you’ve got to listen.”
Traffic, that perennial topic
“One of these days there’s going to be an ambulance coming down the hill and there’s going to be an accident,” John Einstman said, speaking about a Maple Street traffic situation.
Einstman and his wife said they have been calling the city for six months about a situation that developed when “they took the stop sign out.” This included a conversation with someone who “spoke very little English,” he said.
“I can’t tell you how many close calls I’ve seen from people coming from the Emergency Room and nearly crashing into either myself, if I am coming in, or crashing into other cars,” Einstman said. Carolyn Einstman said she had actually seen an accident; John Einstman said a Norwalk Police officer told him that if he were in an accident the city could be liable.
Police Chief Thomas Kulhawik said he would speak to Traffic Engineer Fred Eshragi. Councilwoman Phaedrel “Faye” Bowman (D-District B) suggested that the intersection be made a location for the upcoming distracted driving campaign.
Wait, there’s more
Facebook posts on Tuesday indicated that some Norwalkers thought the Mayor’s Night Out to be a “zip-line meeting.” The event ended with Haroldo Williams suggesting that the treetop adventure course go in Oak Hills Park and asserting that it would cause parking problems at Cranbury. Rilling did not reply but ended the event, past its regularly scheduled time.
City Clerk Donna King took note of who entered the room, calling off names to see if people wanted to speak.
Many said no. “That’s an interesting concept,” said Cece, who had not signed up to speak but whose name was called. “… Usually the public is not identified if they haven’t self-identified as being in the room. I am just saying it’s an interesting concept.”
Before lamenting gentrification, Penn-Williams had been throwing little light-hearted positive notes into the conversation, such as complimenting Town Clerk Rick McQuaid on his weight loss. Kulhawik and Human Relations & Fair Rent Department Director Adam Bovilsky are the best, she said.
Elsa Peterson-Obuchowski wants you to have numbers on your house to help first responders find you. It’s a state law, now, Chief Building Official Bill Ireland and Rilling said – numbers must be visible from the street.
Peterson suggested that Norwalk put something in the tax bills reminding people that is something they should do.
“Several years ago … we renumbered every single house in the city of Norwalk to include vacant lots and intersections,” Rilling said. “ … At that time we made clear that you had to have numbers on the house.”