Updated: 4:55 p.m., comment from James White.
NORWALK, Conn. – Zoning Commissioner Adam Blank has not been reappointed by Mayor Richard Moccia, and Blank is calling it payback for failing to be a rubber stamp for the mayor’s preferences.
Blank, who was praised for his work on the commission by Republican members last week, said Moccia instructed him to vote for an amendment that would make it possible for big box stores to be built in Norwalk. Blank voted instead for a compromise that would affect only Connecticut Avenue, where the Lowe’s store is now expected to be built, but not Main Avenue, where BJ’s Wholesale Club is seeking approval to build.
“The mayor wanted people on the Zoning Commission that he can control,” Blank said. “I was going to remain independent.”
The controversy comes at a time when Norwalk is defending itself from a federal lawsuit over the decision not to approve plans for a mosque on Fillow Street.
Blank said Moccia would “sporadically contact me when something came up that he thought important.”
Zoning Commissioner Mike Mushak brought up Blank’s situation at the end of last Thursday’s Zoning Committee meeting. Mushak congratulated commissioners Emily Wilson and Jill Jacobsen for their reappointments, but then said he wanted to put on the record the reasons Blank gave him for the mayor’s decision.
“Somebody on this commission told him that Adam would not let them speak but would encourage Nate and me to speak,” Mushak said, and “wouldn’t let Jim and Joe speak.”
Mushak’s remarks caused a brief verbal melee.
Wilson quickly adjourned the meeting. In the course of the brief discussion, Alternate Commissioner Michael O’Reilly, a Republican, said he was shocked that Blank wasn’t reappointed. Wilson, also a Republican, said Blank was “very good.” Santo, a Republican, said Blank was “a good member.”
Blank offered his version of the discussion with Moccia.
“He did indicate that one of his reasons was that I was not standing up enough for Emily (Wilson), Joe (Santo) and Jim White and, when they were being attacked by Mike (Mushak), standing up too much for Mike when he was being attacked by Joe, Jim or Emily.”
He said that was annoying because he had always tried to act as a moderator, not taking sides.
Asked by email why he hadn’t reappointed Blank, Moccia said, “I wanted to give some new people the opportunity to serve. It is my appointment, not Mr. Mushak’s.”
In addition to Wilson and Jacobsen, Moccia reappointed James White over the objections of those who said the city charter indicated the appointment was against the rules because he had already served two terms.
“Mr. White was legal,” Moccia said in an email. “I am making an appointment of someone new. That is all I have to say.”
Blank said Moccia contacted him about a year ago before the vote on the zoning change that was widely described as a “Big Box Amendment,” as it revised the minimum height requirement of retail buildings that contain more than 80,000 square feet.
“He very much wanted us to all vote for that,” Blank said. “He expected that’s what I would do. He called me afterwards and expressed his displeasure that I would make a compromise that would be just Connecticut Avenue, not Westport Avenue and Main Avenue.”
It was the “same kind of story” with other issues, he said.
“I know he wants the BJs project approved,” he said.
He did not return a follow-up email asking if Moccia had tried to influence the mosque decision.
Zoning Commissioner Harry Rilling, a mayoral candidate who wrote an op-ed piece opposing favoring big box stores over other developments, said at last week’s Zoning Committee meeting that he had been instructed by Corporation Counsel Robert Maslan to recuse himself from the BJ’s hearings and decision.
“Based on this advice — even though I may disagree with it because I’ve heard public comments from other people on this board — but based on this advice I have decided to recuse myself from participation in any review or action in this particular development to make sure that my previously stated opinion is not either a political distraction or a legal excuse that could conceivably harm the interest of the Norwalk community,” Rilling said at the meeting.
Mushak said the mayor had never called him to influence his vote, but mentioned things when they ran into each other at social events.
“I can’t comment on the mosque application because it’s in litigation,” he said. “… I can’t really address that issue, but I think it’s common knowledge that the mayor has tried his best to control the Zoning Commission through his appointments, which he has every right to do. That’s the way the governance is set up.”
He said his own reappointment had been threatened in 2011 when two Republican members told Moccia that he didn’t believe in property rights.
“They lied to the mayor,” he said.
He demanded a meeting with Moccia and “made a deal with the devil,” he said.
That meant not openly supporting Andy Garfunkel in his bid to unseat Moccia. Mushak donated money to Garfunkel’s campaign but could not hold a fundraiser at his home, as he recently did for Rilling.
“It was a nasty backroom deal that I needed to do” to stay on the commission and “counteract … the bullying that was going on,” he said.
Blank is the “best commissioner that the Zoning Commission has had in years,” he said.
White also said Blank was good.
“Although I didn’t always agree with him, I did think Adam was a good commissioner,” he said in an email.
Blank was appointed Jan. 10, 2012, to fill the seat vacated when former member David McCarthy won election to the Common Council. His term expired July 1.
Mushak was re-appointed July 12, 2011. His term ends July 1, 2014.
Blank said he is disappointed and irked by the reason given, that he wouldn’t allow Republicans to speak.
“I’m annoyed because I typically play the role of mediator, the guy who tried to cool everything down,” he said. “Often that involves me really annoying Democrats or Republicans. He made this into a partisan issue.”
Blank wanted to work on revising zoning regulations, but “There’s plenty of groups in Norwalk that need help.”