NORWALK, Conn. – Republican Mayor Richard Moccia and his former police chief and now Democratic challenger, Harry Rilling, met Wednesday night to discuss issues in front of about 50 people in East Norwalk in their first one-on-one meeting of the Norwalk mayoral campaign.
The only sign of any animosity lurking below the surface between the two was a few facial tics, though Moccia raised his voice demonstratively several times.
Moccia and Rilling sparred a bit during a civil question and answer period marked by the big issue of the day – BJ’s Wholesale Club (see separate story) – and comments about crime, education and development, all organized by the East Norwalk Association in the East Norwalk Library.
Moccia spoke of Norwalk’s AAA bond rating, while Rilling touted his record of public service.
“I was first person to put resource officers in the school,” Rilling said. “We have a lot of outreach programs in the Norwalk Police Department and I am proud to say I started most of them.”
Moccia had a quick comeback to that.
“I was the first mayor to fund school resource officers, based on a recommendation from the chief ” he said. “… He was a good chief, never take that away from him.”
There were no “gotcha” questions. East Norwalk Business Association President Win Baum, who moderated the event, said the purpose was to get to know the candidates, to hear from them “why they’re doing what they’re doing.”
Baum kept strict time on the answers, as the mayoral candidates each got 7 1/2 minutes to explain why they were running and what they plan to do, then five minutes to say what they expected to see accomplished during their two-year term.
“My next two years, when I am mayor again, I want to concentrate on the kids, from their education, early childhood, to their safety,” Moccia said. “There is no more important job an elected official has than to take care of the young people, whether they’re your kids, your grandkids, your nieces or your nephews, any kids you know in your neighborhood. That’s my goal.”
Rilling said that as a a former police chief, he had the children’s safety foremost on his mind. Then he took the opportunity to criticize the mayor’s record with school superintendents, implying that former Superintendent Susan Marks was thrown under the bus by Moccia.
He had said in his opening comments that he is “really, really thrilled” by the selection of Manny Rivera as the new superintendent.
“We (need to) give him all the support we can give him so he can do his job, not so he decides he’s not getting the support and he leaves,” he said. “We’ve lost so many superintendents in the past couple of years. It’s amazing. People don’t leave because they want to make money someplace else or more money, they leave because they’re not getting the support.”
That was followed by five questions from the public, with each man getting a minute to answer.
Diane Lauricella, a member of the Democratic Town Committee, asked a question that seemed tailored to Rilling’s stated goal of bringing civility to Norwalk’s government.
“What are your views on public participation and making sure people feel welcome at City Hall?” she asked.
Moccia spoke instead about transparency.
“It’s usually the people who don’t agree with you always say you’re not transparent enough or you’re not accommodating,” he said.
People will find mistakes in agendas and minutes, he said, showing a list of all the boards, authorities and commissions that need things posted on the website.
“Occasionally you’re going to make a mistake and then people say, ‘Oh, you’re trying to hide stuff,’” he said, going on the explain that “99 percent” of the emails and phone calls he gets he answers.
“If people want to become involved they can become involved,” he said.
Rilling said he would start by inviting people from all backgrounds and all parts of the city to serve on boards and commissions. When somebody goes up to the podium at the Common Council and they have their three minutes to speak, you let them speak,” he said. “If they disagree with you that’s fine. That’s what this is all about.”
South Norwalk resident Brad Schmidt wanted to know if they were both open to new ideas to prevent gang violence.
The easy answer was yes. Both men said it.
Rilling reminded Schmidt that they had worked together several years ago on a coalition “that unfortunately did not get supported or funded.”
About 30 people had gone to Boston on a bus to hear new ideas, he said. But without funding to buy cell phones, two-way radios and other things, the “dedicated group” fell apart, Rilling said.
“New ideas are always the answer to trying to find a solution to a problem that the old ideas are not fixing,” he said.
Rilling rolled his eyes when Moccia set about defending himself from that story.
“I was aware of that program, but all along that program was hopefully going to be funded by private foundations and funders,” Moccia said. “There was never going to be a request made to the city to fund it.”
He went on to mention the camaraderie he had shared with Rilling, recalling meetings about gang violence. The parents whose children had the most problems were the ones complaining about the city, he said.
“New ideas are fine but I think we need to continue to reinforce that parents have a responsibility,” Moccia said. “Government cannot do it all. When I see 12-year-old kids walking on Westport Avenue at 11 o’clock at night, there’s a problem.”
(Check back over the next few days to see what the At-Large and District C candidates had to say during their portion of the program.)