NORWALK, Conn. – Transparency or a lack thereof, is a recurring theme in Norwalk. Whether talking about the school superintendent search, NEON or the Oak Hills Golf Course, many taxpayers – and more than a few city officials and mayoral candidates – think discussions should be more accessible to the public.
NancyOnNorwalk sent a list of six questions to the four Democratic mayoral hopefuls who will face a primary election Sept. 10 to decide who will face off with Republican incumbent Richard Moccia in November. Moccia is seeking a fifth two-year term. Three of the four candidates – Vinny Mangiacopra, Matt Miklave and Harry Rilling – responded, although Mangiacopra missed the fifth and sixth questions that were late add-ons. Andy Garfunkel did not respond despite three requests.
All of the candidates’ answers may be found spread over five stories under the City Beat heading. Today is the sixth and final report in this series as Rilling discusses NEON and transparency.
What needs to happen for Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) to regain the trust of the city when it comes to grants and such? We know that Moccia walked away from the agency over the scandals while previous Director Joe Mann was in office.
“NEON is a valuable resource to the city and unfortunately has been rocked by misappropriation of funds and other claims of mismanagement,” Rilling said. “Many of those on past NEON boards did not hold the director accountable and simply let things happen. Many of the appointments were doled out as political favors. There are many skilled and competent people in the city willing to volunteer their time and their skills to serve on various commissions and boards. We need to do a better job of seeking those individuals out and properly vetting them.
“NEON needs a Board of Directors who will work together to make the anti-poverty agency effective and efficient while providing services to those in need,” he said. “It is important to have board oversight in order to get back the fine reputation it once had. Norwalk is in need of a Head Start program in order to have a positive intervention for our children when it has the greatest impact.”
This one is of special interest to us: Since NancyOnNorwalk arrived in Norwalk, we have noticed a rather liberal use of executive sessions and secret searches, like the one recently used to find a school superintendent. We found from our reporting that the majority of super searches are not secret once it gets down to the final two or three candidates. How will you address, a.) the frequent and sometimes questionable use of executive sessions; and b.) searches for the inevitable replacements for certain high-level administrative posts?
“All processes within the city of Norwalk should be transparent and subject to input from our citizens,” Rilling said. “While I can understand not disclosing certain information early in the process, there comes a time when the citizens have a right to know where their money is going and that it is being spent responsibly.”
Rilling cited state law that requires most information generated by public officials to be made public, and that requires meetings and agendas to be posted far enough in advance so as to give the public proper notice if they wish to attend.
”The Freedom of Information Act is very specific on the appropriate and inappropriate use of executive sessions for public boards and commissions,” Rilling said. “As mayor, I will insist on strict adherence to those regulations. I would encourage any person with a complaint that an agency, board or commission entered into executive session to discuss a topic which should have been discussed in public to report their concern and it would be thoroughly investigated.”
Rilling said some secrecy is needed in large-scale searches to fill job openings, but the public must be brought into the process before decisions are made.
“I can understand and agree with keeping a list of applicants for high-level positions confidential until that list is reduced to a more workable number of candidates,” he said. “However, once the list is down to a predetermined number, perhaps three, I firmly believe the candidates should be presented to the public at a Town-Hall type meeting.
As the long-time Norwalk police chief, Rilling participated in such searches as a panel member in other municipalities, he said, giving him insight into the process. Rilling also was under consideration for chief openings in Trumbull and Newport, R.I., during his career in Norwalk, and both times that was made public.
“Anyone applying for a position should have a clear understanding that, at some point, it will be necessary to contact their current and past employers,” he said. “I have served on many police chief search panels and we always explained to the candidates there would be a time when it would be necessary to contact their previous employer as well as visiting the town or city in which they worked to conduct further interviews.”
Do you have specific questions you would like the candidates to address? Send your questions to [email protected]. We will consider each submission when we ask our next series of questions.