Managing a smarter city

Send signed letters to [email protected]

One of the first things you learn in business school is that you can’t manage what you don’t know. Management fads come and go, but data-driven decision making whether by spreadsheet, big data, analytics is how management is measured.


Knowing stuff comes in many forms. You can count things, like potholes. Then you can ask questions, like how many have been filled? Or how long does it take to fill or how many people does it take to fill them? Data is the currency of performance. Norwalk has operated from a data void ever since horses dragged trolley cars up East Ave. New census estimates show Norwalk’s population around 89,000. Things have changed since those trolley car years, and so should how the city is managed.


Today’s Norwalk has different needs since the days when people drove cars with fins through cul-de-sac suburban streets. Mayor Rilling has given considerable thought about what today’s needs are, and he worked with his department staff to come up with a plan. It is a modest plan – a rearrangement of reporting structures, a couple of new positions and the expected cost savings and efficiencies that such things generate.


Common Council members get to vote to approve this new organization. There’s a smattering of worries that not enough time was spent analyzing things, or not enough feedback from residents was evident.


The thing is, the structure of Norwalk’s government has been failing for some time. With an antiquated charter and lots of political sniping, it all boils down to questions about who gets to decide how Norwalk’s administrative functions are organized.


As Norwalk’s chief elected official, the Mayor is accountable for ensuring that administrative functions are done. The cost of those administrative functions is authorized, or not, by the Common Council. This is what drives the definition of weak Mayor/strong Council. But let’s not forget the Mayor is the administrative branch of government, and the Council is the legislative branch. The Council makes laws, and the Mayor oversees implementation.


The Common Council gets to vote to authorize spending and contracts. Employment, if we skip over the union stuff, is a mostly contractual transaction. The performance of departments has been a contentious issue year after year. Why? Maybe it is currently challenging to figure out who is evaluating the performance of departments. Politics and the lack of a clear reporting structure has made it nearly impossible to measure performance, and so the status quo remained unscathed despite many administration changes.


Got a blight issue? Well, it’s simple right, send out an enforcement officer and fine the offending property owner, right? And yet determining blight becomes a complicated jurisdictional issue when you have different code regulations that overlap but subject matter expertise that doesn’t. Or removing snow from schoolyards, or issuing beach/transfer station permits. Who is in charge of what?


Mayor Rilling has proposed his way of organizing work and is presenting it to the Common Council. He isn’t eliminating functions. He isn’t reducing services. He has aligned the reporting structure and introduced new positions filling a void in management layers to gain operational efficiencies. When we say that government should be run more like a business, this is exactly what any business would do.


Of course, the fear of something new is the catalytic action that preserves the status quo. And there is near universal agreement that the status quo isn’t working either.


Norwalk’s next Mayor might have different ideas about how their administration is organized. They might like to try something new or a return to something old. Voting for a Mayor then is about management of the city. While previous Mayoral candidates have answered the ‘how to manage the city’ question with a call for hiring a city manager, the last election said Rilling should manage the city. He has now spoken about how he wants to do that. We should give him that chance. You see, his next performance review is in 2019.


Jackie Lightfield



Sue Haynie June 10, 2018 at 6:30 am

Many don’t have a problem with a re-org. What Rilling’s proposing isn’t a re-org, it’s a rush job.

James Cohn made some great points on NON here: https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2018/06/consultant-needed-in-norwalks-proposed-reorganization/

Ms. Lightfield says “a rearrangement of reporting structures, a couple of new positions and the expected cost savings and efficiencies that such things generate.” Since when do new positions w/raises equate to cost savings and efficiency without metrics or accountability?

“Employment, if we skip over the union stuff, is mostly a contractual transaction.” You can’t skip over the ‘union stuff’ in a contractual transaction, it is the transaction.

One of the ‘models’ for this re-org is New Haven, a poorly run city that just imposed an 11% tax hike on its property owners. That’s efficiency? https://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/11_tax_hike_cut_5m_from_capital/

PIBerman June 10, 2018 at 1:03 pm

Best I know neither Mayor Rilling nor any of the Common Council members have senior level business experience in large organizations. So how could they make astute judgments about reorganizing our high cost of public service City ? Every college freshman business student learns Reorgs are all about saving major monies and hiring the best talent available. But Mayor Rilling offers no major cost savings and studiously avoid hiring Prof. Search Top Talent for the City to reduce costs and improve services.

Not surprising the Mayor avoided hiring a major management consultant company to advise how to better manage our City.. Such a report would be a major Management. Nor has Mayor Rilling convened a panel of City residents who have major league experience running large organizations and understand management. So we know the results before hand – an pre-election move.

Norwalk residents pay a huge price for electing officials without the skills to manage large organizations. Paying City Admiistrators far above what their skills could earn in the private sector.
So we get a decade long stagnant GRadn List, falling propoerty values, exodus of long time residents and broad agreement that City Hall works for our public Unions, not our residents.

Mayor Rilling has long talked about leaving a major Legacy. Why leave a much better managed City. That requires hiring outside consultants, knowledgeable City residents and using Prof Search to hire Top Talent. As the first CT City (outside corruption plagued Waterbury) that elected a Former Police Chief as Mayor why not strive for a much better managed City than the notorious “hole in the middle of the donut”. Mayor Rilling needs hire/consult with those who are experienced senior managers. Not politicians.

Hugh Sling June 10, 2018 at 3:20 pm

skip the apologistics please. It’s simply the latest in a never-ending series of hose jobs perpetrated by a crew that needs to be Kicked out of office.

Lisa Brinton Thomson June 10, 2018 at 5:18 pm

Once again, Common Council members – what’s the rush? From the conversations I’ve had with different folks, this reorganization was 1) kept close to the vest by the mayor’s office, 2) city employees were not asked for their operational input 3) no outside expertise was consulted and 4) no data/metrics were produced or shared regarding operational efficiencies. Although, we all know about the asst mayor’s raise.

For those council members claiming to ‘love’ the city and supposedly representing the people, not the mayor- I advise caution. You each have the awesome responsibility and authority to think long and hard and act as a skeptical check and balance (on any and all mayors, per the charter) and not simply rubber stamp political whims without understanding or vetting the unintended consequences. Being such a ‘young’ council, your responsibility is to the employees and residents who will have to live with the implications of this politically expedient and rushed move, long after the mayor has left office.

Jlightfield June 10, 2018 at 7:47 pm

@sue Haynie, I’m not understanding what you deem a rush job. Reporting structures are exactly how you align vision and accountability. Having three departments responsible for plowing, is what you get with the current structure. If operational tasks were changed, which is what I’m referring to in Union/transactional then maybe there would be greater scrutiny, especially with an increase in personnel in those areas, but that is not case here.

@peterberman, one day you will discover that merely repackaging tired arguments in formulistic sentences is kinda like expecting a million monkeys to churn out a Shakespearean sonnet.

@hughsling, consult the dictionary definition of apologistic.

@lisabrintonthomson, so let me understand this—you’ve called for combining the planning and zoning commissions even though they are staffed by a single P&Z office. Explain how that is different from opposing a reporting reorganization designed to achieve the a level of accountability? You’ve now stated that Rilling didn’t consult with “city employees” yet it is clear that he did in that he has 20 direct reports currently, and he spent a year working through issues. And that you want Rilling to spend tax dollars on an outside consultant to come up with his management organization. So either you devalue our department heads as not having operational aptitude, or you think they are operating at max efficiency and there would be no cost savings. I’m curious, which is it? A friend wants to know.

Hugh Sling June 10, 2018 at 10:30 pm

@jlightfield: Apologistic isn’t in the dictionary. I invented it expressly for this discussion. The dictionary also lacks a definition of Hosed that would correspond to my use of that word. P.S. for what its worth, you have all my respect.

Adolph Neaderland June 10, 2018 at 10:31 pm

Although this city’s “Organization Chart” is a muddled affair, the result of lack of attention by a long list of Mayors, attempting to ram through, on short notice, a format that increases our governance cost is not a sound approach to good, participative management.

If the rational of the proposed change as understand it, is that the Mayor (an elected official) is unable to adequately supervise and cope with the “reports” from the number of departments that exist, requiring a non elected “Chief of Staff” and hiring a series of “competent” department managers to solve the problem, it appears to me that a serious issue of competence and/or training exists.

Additionally, adding to the already high governance overhead to grand list ratio is not a sustainable alternative at this juncture.

A verifiable fix plan for the skimpy Grand List growth we tolerate given the millions of new construction since 2014 needs attention first.

Lisa Brinton Thomson June 11, 2018 at 5:36 am

@Jackie, Love you dearly, but you and I both know, the most $efficient$ reorganization this mayor could do (if he wanted) is to shut down the autonomous Redevelopment Agency and Parking Authority. The ‘window dressing’ he and his New Haven operative call a reorg is a fait accompli with a 14-1 council. And my reference to employees refers further down the organization food chain. Btw… who was the last direct report to challenge a political mayor?

It’s unfortunate a majority of the 28% of homeowners bothering to vote, punished long serving Republicans like Bonnenfant or O’Toole-Giandurco or Suda and Kassimis – resulting in NO check and balance on this mayor. The (national) backlash against Trump landed (local) Norwalk with a lopsided, rubber stamp council – who go along to get along because they either lack city expertise and history to challenge, don’t want to rock the boat or have full time jobs.

What I’m tired of is a mayor who refuses to acknowledge the biggest challenge Norwalk faces- reconciling land use revenues/strategies with BOE costs. Combined, they likely represent 70% of the budget. That’s where the focus needs to be. I’m tired of paying for repeated and expensive land use screwups.

This mayor like the others pick and choose where they want to govern. (I refer specifically to their over involvement in land use and under involvement of the BOE (as outlined in the charter.) Unless of course it’s election time 🙂 Politicians count on voters with short memories. Norwalkers must have the shortest!

Weak mayor – strong council – maybe in our dreams. #charterrevision

Jlightfield June 11, 2018 at 7:00 am

@hughsling, I wanted to clarify whether you were inferring that supporting a management reorganization is either some religious treatise. That aside, let’s assume that our stagnant grand list growth is contributing to the “hosed” perception, the issue then is how to reduce operational costs, and increase revenue outside of property taxes. This reorganization step addresses the former, and i’ll Say having four different departments garage plow trucks is a good sign that operational efficiencies that a management reorganization could solve.

@adolphneaderland, The status quo has resulted in inefficiencies because all department heads are treated equally come budgeting. Alignment of operations will yield cost reductions and might even improve service levels. I suspect that the first year is an unknown because there are still sunk costs to be dealt with. I don’t think a management reorganization rises to the need for participatory government. Open budgeting process, yes? Greater control of spending within districts by the people within the districts, yes. But to get there, alignment of services needs to happen because right now we have years of gifting outside authorities or agencies with service responsibility with a lack of structured oversight. 50% of CDBG planning going to plans generated by the Redevelopment Agency springs to mind. An almost $2 million profit going to a private parking management team at the expense of economic development policy that fosters commercial and job growth. This reorganization is not a complete solution, but I do think it is the first step in the right direction to attempt to change the direction of how to look at budgets and services from a streamlined management perspective.

Bob Welsh June 11, 2018 at 8:27 am


Your 5:49am comment posted immediately, and your early-morning comments regularly post immediately. You respect the comment policy so your comments are not set to go in moderation.

Characters such as the percent sign and the dollar sign and the hashtag which you used in your comment have programming functions — they may have tripped a filter that screens for malicious code. You could try eliminating those characters and re-submitting the comment.

U.S. Blues June 11, 2018 at 8:43 am

@lightfield, please just stop pandering to the “mayor”. He, like Malloy, want to ram down the taxpayers throats, their plans to cause taxpayers financial damage at any cost. Malloy, because he destroyed the state and can’t handle the blame then rilling, from what one can only assert, is that he owes favors, won’t run for mayor again because of this fiasco or just doesn’t understand the financial implications.

Cecilia Andy June 11, 2018 at 11:45 am

It sounds simple but managing a smarter city should start with protecting residential sanctuaries and not allowing commercial businesses, elder care facilities or halfway houses in neighborhood streets. The math is simple – residential property accounts for the vast majority of revenue collections and the mayor has opted to ignore his promises after the mosque fiasco to shore zoning and legal departments to protect neighborhoods. . . . when “the house is burning” the fires need to be put out before playing musical chairs with organizational charts.

Jlightfield June 11, 2018 at 8:17 pm

@lisabrintonthomson, on the subject of land use and the Redevelopment Agency, I remain firmly focused on the following: 1. Redevelopment shouldn’t staff planning committee. 2. CDBG should stay within city, not passed to Redevelopment. 3. All planning should be performed by the city through the P & Z dept. The reorganization accomplishes 1.5 of these things with the .5 being the shift of economic and community development atop P & Z and thus the potential for all plans being aligned is there. So then, what does that leave Redevelopment to do? Well there’s still that pesky urban renewal plan, still the power of eminent domain, still the land use disposition agreements so, and they own a portfolio of housing etc. Should it be unwound? Sure, but it’s co placated to do so, and my main objective there has always been more about planning than operational issues.

Bonus for adding a transportation planner. That targets connectivity and mobility, and with an aging population (see ACS survey, our median age goes up) we will need to think about these issues more quickly than perhaps the current thinking is.

The BOE has largely been on the right track ever since Corda and Opdahl left and the sanity of budgeting mostly returned. Our school enrollment hovers around 11k, and is well below the peak enrollment of the 90s, so it’s not on my radar to focus on, the current BOE is diligently working on BOE stuff Etc.

So still asking for a friend, how is it that Rilling’s reorganization plan doesn’t actually address your numero uno issue?

@u.s.blues, whatever man, you forgot to blame Obama and Clinton to complete your detailed policy analysis.

Hugh Sling June 11, 2018 at 10:41 pm

Not only are taxpayers reaping zero benefit from the thousands of new apartments that nobody wanted, but our property taxes are expected to rise by more than 3%.
A habitual offender tax-delinquent paving company is awarded further city contracts. Police officers rake in six figure salaries by performing flagman duties using city equipment at taxpayer-funded project sites.
Departmental re-org may be sensible but the notion that it offers a solution to any of this ugly mess seems false.

U.S. Blues June 12, 2018 at 1:04 pm

@lightfield, “whatever man”??!! Lol…not, just sad.
Don’t really get it, do you? Here’s your soapbox, may be someone will buy your snakeoil.

Rick June 13, 2018 at 11:31 pm

Norwalk’s population around 89,000 that is an impressive number, but why not plan for double that? Is the city not responsible for those visiting working or going to court each day as well?

You can count things, like potholes. Then you can ask questions, like how many have been filled? Or how long does it take to fill or how many people does it take to fill them?

This is complex in Norwalk if its the DPW they truly are professionals but if your talking LAZ the long arm of the parking authority your talking eye opening stat difference and results. If you want the work to last you go with the DPW.

So talking a smart city now your talking who one thinks is smarter.Its obvious the city has its critics they also have their has-beens and mistake makers.

We can see why a move should be slow and calculated just like how the city got like this via the same people who want to change it to a more profitable cunning way to screw the taxpayers.

larger budgets with consolidation gives one more wiggle room to play with taxpayers money.

Isn’t it prudent for a department head to protect his or hers budget?

Start lumping it together its easier to lose the big picture.

Then again why not wait for the mall to open, the bridge to be built and the rail yard first and see how all the departments work in unison or dont. The need to fix a problem that started with the trolley cars can wait a few months more

Developers are anxious to run the board in Norwalk no reason to think we are smarter then they are.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>