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Norwalk Council decision brings on ‘The Wrath of Cahn’

Norwalk District A Republican James Cahn
Norwalk District A Republican James Cahn would like to weigh in on the development in his district but Mayor Harry Rilling withdrew his appointment to the Zoning Commission.

Updated, 12:36 p.m.: Comment from Steve Serasis. Correction: Shannon O’Toole Giandurco is minority leader, not majority leader.

NORWALK, Conn. — James Cahn is not letting his non-appointment to the Norwalk Zoning Commission go without a fight.

Cahn, a District A Republican, sent an email to every Common Council member last week asking for direct answers regarding his appointment, which was withdrawn by Mayor Harry Rilling last week. Cahn said Monday that he plans follow up phone calls to the Council members Tuesday.

Speaking to NancyOnNorwalk last week, Cahn emphasized that he is not on a personal vendetta, but annoyed as a taxpayer and property owner, concerned about the development in his district.

“I am not trying to be the village lunatic, but I just feel like these are serious issues which are not being taken seriously. We are playing games with things we shouldn’t be playing games with,” Cahn said.

“I can understand James’ frustration and I think he is owed a clear explanation for the rejection. There is a difference between ‘I can’t support your appointment’ and a cheap shot pulling of the appointment.  The implication is that James did or said something highly objectionable – I’d be frustrated and angry if that happened to me,” Norwalk Republican Town Committee Chairman Andy Conroy said in a Friday email.

The appointments of Cahn and Republican Cindy Cossuto, meant to fill Zoning Commission terms that expired July 1, first surfaced at the Aug. 9 Council meeting. Council President Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) tabled the appointments, a non-debatable motion, although he had said on the Sunday before the meeting that he supported all the appointments.

Rilling, at the time, said problems had developed in the Democratic caucus.

“I just believe there’s some questions that people have and they just want to have a chance to look at those questions,” Rilling said.

Rilling did not comment last week as he withdrew both the appointments.

Kimmel has since declined to comment, citing the confidentiality of the caucus.

Cahn said that at 4:22 p.m. Aug. 8, the Monday before the first Council meeting, he got a voicemail from Assistant City Clerk Irene Dixon suggesting that he come to the meeting to be sworn in. At 11 p.m. that evening Minority Leader Shannon O’Toole Giandurco (R-District D) called to tell him his appointment was off.

“This is a guy who is pushing for charter revision for four year (terms). He can’t even get people appointed to Zoning. He can’t even get people appointed to Boards and Commissions,” Cahn said last week. “The 11th hour – this guy is the mayor of Norwalk, at the 11th hour he gets the carpet pulled out from under him. He can’t build any consensus; can you imagine? Oh, my God, he’s saying there’s stuff he can’t get done without a four-year term, there’s stuff he can’t get done with a two-year term.”

According to Cahn, Rilling told him, “‘There was overwhelming opposition and that’s all we can tell you.’”

“That sounds like the only reason was political reasons to me, because that’s all I’m left with,” Cahn said.

Doing the math, if Cahn got all four Republican votes then he would need four Democratic votes for approval.

Cahn asserts that when he called Rilling to ask for an appointment the first words Rilling said were “We don’t normally appoint people who run against us.”

Rilling calls that “absolutely wrong,” saying that comment came up in a subsequent conversation and that he relayed that sentiment from someone else in leadership.

“I said that was mentioned in our leadership meeting but we said that we have to overcome that,” Rilling said.

The two differ on who brought up the appointment first. “I was the one that reached out to James and asked him if he would like to be considered for an appointment,” Rilling said, but Cahn, who ran to represent District A on the Common Council last year and lost, said he asked right after the election.

Cahn produced a phone bill to prove he called Rilling; Rilling said the bill did not offer evidence of what was said during the phone call.

Cahn said he asked three times to be put on Zoning. He saw Rilling at a mid-June social event and brought it up, and produced an email to substantiate that claim.

Rilling agreed that the conversation took place. “I told him I would put his name forth for Zoning and I did,” Rilling said.

Cahn attacked the “confidentiality of the caucus” reason that’s being provided.

“Effectively, the Council opposed him. Since he wanted to do this supposed favor of not embarrassing publicly, he pulled my name. … I’m more interested in not having my time wasted,” Cahn said last week. “… I am annoyed as a taxpayer that what we thought was going to happen didn’t happen, and it was because there was a secret meeting, that we can’t talk about because it’s secret. Where is the accountability there?”

It’s “nonsense” and “foolish” that the conversation about his potential appointment began with, “We don’t normally appoint people who opposed us,” especially given that Rilling has said it’s difficult to find people to serve, Cahn repeated.

Again, Rilling denies the conversation started that way.

“’We don’t normally appoint people who run against us; we had a secret meeting, we decided we don’t want you.’ As a taxpayer that concerns me, that somebody would step up and volunteer and they would be told, ‘Well, listen, really you’re on the wrong side and you committed the cardinal sin of running against us and even if you lost you still have to be punished a little bit,” Cahn said.

Council member Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large) addressed that Monday.

“You never know, sometimes people get skittish about people that ran against them but I didn’t get that feeling,” Bonenfant said.

Council member Eloisa Melendez (D-District A) said she would have voted for Cahn.

“No comment can ethically be made for any decision made by the body in any party’s caucus,” Council member Steve Serasis (D-District A) said in a Tuesday text message.

Bonenfant said that he was the one who put Cahn forward.

“I want somebody from District A and there are two people from every other district,” Bonenfant said.

Bonenfant was in Europe and came back to find that Cahn did not get approved, he said.

“We’ll let the dust settle,” Bonenfant said. “But if he doesn’t have the votes – you know, it’s the mayor’s prerogative.”

Bonenfant said he thought Cahn had all of the Republican votes, as it was discussed in caucus before he left.

“They were agreed upon at our leadership meeting, but when they went to the full caucuses there was push back,” O’Toole Giandurco said in a Monday email. “The names were withdrawn at the last meeting and I anticipate another leadership meeting between now and the next Council meeting to regroup.”

“I don’t wish to discuss caucus business. I will say that there was just a difference in opinions about the appointments,” Majority Leader John Kydes (D-District C) said in a Monday email.

A source speaking off the record said that most members of the Democratic caucus didn’t know Cahn, and most of the conversation had been about Cossutto, who had no land use credentials on her resume.

The decision came from leadership, that source said.

That source and another one said mistakes had been made. Rilling had erred, they said; after the names were put forward some information came to light that soured opinions on Cahn, one said, basically painting Cahn as temperamentally unsuitable for the role.

In the time period between the two meetings, some other names came forward, people who are more qualified, the source said, with a “wait and see” air.

Cahn’s Thursday email demanded answers. He wrote:

“Having spoken to Harry Rilling, I have been advised repeatedly that the decision to pull my name from consideration was due to ‘overwhelming opposition’ to my appointment. I need your help to understand that. Harry has made sure to mention (again, repeatedly) that this was the result of ‘extensive conversation’ during the Democratic caucus which he is unable to discuss with me.

“That being the case I am reaching out to you for your personal accounting (and yours alone, so as not to violate the sanctity of caucus) on if or not you opposed my appointment.

“Please provide direct answers to the following:

“1. Did you oppose my appointment?

“2. If you opposed my appointment, please identify, with specificity, the reason(s.)

“3. With regard to your opposition, what was the reason that you failed to reach out to me in any way for clarification on your concerns?

“Please be very clear that I am NOT asking for an account of what was discussed at the Democratic caucus. Accordingly, a continued response of, ‘what happened in caucus cannot be discussed’ is not appropriate.

“If I do not hear from you via email, I will follow up with a phone call. I appreciate your addressing this in a timely fashion and look forward to your reply.”

Cahn’s only response last week came from Council member Mike DePalma (D-District D), who said he did not attend the caucus and did not know what happened.

On Monday, after NoN replied on the email thread to seek comments, Kimmel replied, “Caucus discussions are confidential. Moreover, my views as an individual Council member and Norwalk resident are no different than the views I express in caucus.”

Council member Phaedrel “Faye” Bowman (D-District B) replied, “I have no issue with the appointment.”

Cahn said he’d be calling Council members Tuesday.

Cahn said last week that he had erred when he sent a resume to Rilling, that he sent the resume he used when he ran for Council because his financial resume had too many esoteric terms in it. Rilling asked him to send a “friendlier” resume and he did, but the political one was in the Council packet, he said.

“As a taxpayer that concerns me, that somebody would step up and volunteer and they would be told, ‘Well, listen, really you’re on the wrong side and you committed the cardinal sin of running against us and even if you lost you still have to be punished a little bit,’” Cahn said.

“I am annoyed as a person who was put through this process because I feel like I was jerked around, but more than that, I am disappointed that despite the continuous narrative that ‘we’ve got a cutting edge effective government,’ that ‘we vote the people in Norwalk, we’re not really interested in politics,’ that every indication I have seen is exactly the opposite of that,” Cahn said. “That is the type of thing that holds a city like Norwalk back. That is the type of thing that prevents us from being as good as we could be. That is the type of thing that makes everything remain the status quo because everybody is concerned that all the right people are in the right places and all the favors are being done. That we get to decide who is in or out of the club. I am not interested in their club. Their club is safe from me.”

Cahn said that when he first got involved in Norwalk politics he had an “infantile fantasy” that the show was the show and that behind the scenes, smart, effective people were working for the public good.

“The more involved I’ve gotten here the more I have realized that it is exactly what it looks like,” Cahn said. “… It’s disappointing because we are playing a game the stakes of which are higher than just how we play the game. Like, ‘We have this little club, you are either in or outside the club, we have secret meetings and all that.’ That’s all fine. The value of my house is at stake, the quality of my neighborhood is at stake. So you can play your game if you want, that’s OK, but position yourself for real change. Know when you are out of your depth.”

Comments

  1. Betty S.

    I enjoyed meeting and talking with Mr. Cahn during the campaign. After reading this summary oh his infantile behavior, however, I’d say the Council made the right decision rejecting his appointment.

  2. Bruce Kimmel

    The story raises some points that should be addressed.

    Generally, our Mayors withdraw recommended appointments if opposition among Council members arises. It is not a question of pushing someone through with a close vote. The rationale is not to drag the applicant through the political mud. (A rare exception to this took place last year, with the nomination of Nora King, which was defeated, for the Zoning Commission.)

    Although I have witnessed a number of withdrawals, and a few messy debates over appointments, I have never received an email, phone call, or letter essentially demanding that I spell out my personal views on the individual in question. Nor have I ever been told point blank that my personal views on a Mayoral recommendation are somehow distinct and apart from what transpired in caucus. My views, as a resident and as a Council member, are part and parcel of what transpires in caucus. And the same can be said for other Council members.

    Mayor Rilling has done nothing wrong; in fact, he made the right decision when he withdrew the nomination. There are fifteen Council members, and in this case he made the right call. To make wild accusations against his administration, based on this issue alone, is a bit much, and really should not be taken seriously. The goal, as it should be, is to always appoint the best people for the job.

    Until the late 1990s, the Republican majorities in the Common Council would not appoint Democrats who had run for public office in the past. Fortunately, we are past that. True, the issue did come up briefly in one of the discussions of this appointment, but only briefly, and that was that. The majority of the Council has been more than willing to appoint and reappoint folks who were candidates in the past.

    The general procedure for all appointments is for the Mayor to meet with the Majority and Minority leaders, as well as the Council President, about a week to ten days before a Council meetings to get the lay of the land regarding any appointments. Then, the two caucuses discuss the names and the resumes put forward. And anything can happen. That’s how it has always worked, and that’s a good thing. (Plus, we often receive information, pro and con, from residents about applicants.)

    Ironically, for years Norwalk residents have questioned the quality of folks serving on our boards and agencies, particularly when it comes to zoning and other land use issues. The Mayor and the Council want the very best residents serving. The process is not always smooth, but the main thing, in the end, is to get it right.

  3. Piberman

    Unfortunately the end result of those “City Hall conflicts” is discouraging well qualified residents from serving on public boards and Comissions. If Councilman Kimmel truly believes it’s important to “appoint the best people to the job” then why doesn’t he insist the Council demand the Mayor use professional search to secure top talent to the City ? Everyone knows (or should know) that too talent doesn’t respond to the just “ads”. The BOE uses professional search and we see the results.

  4. Casey Smith

    Do not arouse the wrath of the great and powerful Oz.

  5. Rob

    Bruce – me thinks you talk too much.

  6. James Cahn

    @Casey Smith: Ha! I thought we agreed that you wouldn’t talk about what’s behind my curtain!!! Anyway, do you know how long Nancy Chapman has been waiting to use this as a headline? I have it on good authority that she’s quite the Trekkie! I also appreciate Chapman’s flair for getting a picture of me at my most incredulous.

  7. Lisa Thomson

    James Cahn: Thank you for taking a stand and exposing the latest ‘status quo’ mentality of the Common Council regarding P&Z. I intend to follow up with my council reps to see if I can find out why a non-partisan, bi-partisan resident, who wanted to serve his ‘blighted’ District A core was snubbed, particularly when the mayor previously went on the record saying it was hard to find people who would step up! I encourage residents to do the same with their representatives.

    Bruce Kimmel: Mr. Cahn deserves an explanation. I must confess that I am surprised at your ‘shock, bewilderment or bewilderment over his email to the Democrat members of the council inquiring why? Hiding behind the ‘caucus’ secrecy is unacceptable.

    I also find it laughable when EITHER party talks about finding the ‘best and brightest.’ Sadly, in Norwalk someone has to already be ‘in’ or they have to be ‘allowed’ in to the club. Clearly, Mr. Cahn was not.

  8. @ James Cahn: I might quibble with your choice of words – I am something of a TrekkER… Anyway, you knew I’d do that, didn’t you?

  9. Casey Smith

    To Mr. Cahn — You do know that Toto has the drop on everyone, right?

  10. EveT

    Of all the boards & commissions, the one that involves both a high level of expertise and a high level of controversy is zoning. We really need people on the Zoning Commission who know the laws, know the implications of zoning decisions, know how to research to get answers to the things they don’t know … AND are able to remain calm under pressure.
    It is not an easy appointment.

  11. Lisa Thomson

    Eve, Agreed, but this was political payback. Governance in this city and country, currently based on the two party system – is broken. It is treated as sport and not service to the community. Party loyalty, tribalism and some false sense of caucus BS secrecy protects politicians from having to individually declare their position. There is no accountability on the common council only a we win, the other side loses mentality and as taxpayers and homeowners, we all pay for it.

  12. James Cahn

    EveT: You raise good and important points. I would mention that at several times in this process, I repeatedly said to all involved that, “If there is someone more or better qualified than me, let me know that and I’ll step aside” and I was serious about that because you’re absolutely correct in your suggestion that getting these issues solved and measurably addressed is priority one. I was assured that I was the pick we were rolling with.

    It was never about being on “a” board or commission for me. In fact, when I was told “Don’t worry, we’ll get you on another board,” I responded that they shouldn’t bother themselves. I don’t need a political consolation prize to keep me happy.

    There are issues in my district that I get to drive past everyday.

    Some bullet points:

    I requested and was told both by Harry and Ken Olson that there’d be a meeting involving myself and the community in 2014 (long before I was foolish enough to overestimate the effectiveness or urgency of Norwalk’s political class) to discuss Wall Street Place and why we were getting nothing but excuses and delays. Predictably, that meeting has STILL not happened.

    I’ve spoken with and advocated for and made phone calls on behalf of Jeff Roseman at David Harvey Jewelers when he couldn’t get answers to what was going on in his neighborhood with multiple issues. This guy is the proverbial canary in a coal mine and it’s absurd that he can’t get a phone call back as to what the city is doing about the issues surrounding his business.

    I’ve had ticket number 164631 open since June of LAST year for the blighted commercial property at 151 Main Street. The sidewalk bordering this property is now unusuable for pedestrian access due to the property not being maintained.

    Anytime I’ve had questions relative to land use and real estate development which are outside my body of admittedly limited knowledge, I’ve reached out to the folks at Austin McGuire whose very business it is to be expert consultants to valuations and matters exactly like these.

    There are other examples but I don’t need to bore everyone here.

    I offer these as examples (hopefully) demonstrative that I’ve been advocating for and building stake-holder relationships on these issues before my attempt to be on the Zoning Commission. I will continue to, as well, since I suspect that progress will remain mired and we will continue to be told, “We’re confident it will all work out in the end.”

    All of that mentioned, my main beef with the process is that this was turned into a political charade when it is my judgement that P&Z, accountability and measurable results are far more important than the care and feeding of our status quo political apparatus.

  13. EveT

    @James, this is interesting background info.
    Gotta agree with you, the photo is outstanding.

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