NORWALK, Conn. – “A leader is best when people barely know he exists; when his work is done, his aim is fulfilled, they will say, “We did it ourselves.” – Lao Tzu, philosopher and poet of ancient China
In eight days, Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling will mark his six-month anniversary as the city’s top elected official. Rilling, a Democrat, took office on Nov. 18, 2013, after beating four-term Republican incumbent Richard Moccia in a race in which he put two things front and center: civility and transparency.
With nearly a quarter of his two-year electoral mandate in the books, it appears Rilling has come through on the former, but not the latter.
The good news is that there is a tangible shift in attitude in City Hall, one that is acknowledged by many employees who want to fly under the radar and not be quoted publicly. There is a new attitude of cooperation on the Common Council, freely acknowledged by Majority Leader Jerry Petrini (R-District D) and others.
Yes, there is still work to do. There is an undercurrent, sometimes bubbling to the surface, of unhappiness in Rilling’s own party, as made obvious by wranglings over caucus and town committee leadership changes. There are a few council members who just can’t seem to rein themselves in and get along. There are a few appointed committees with holdovers from the past who have not signed on. But, for the most part, Rilling’s push for Norwalk’s elected and appointed officials to behave in a responsible and professional manner has borne positive results.
But then there’s the transparency issue.
“The very essence of leadership is that you have to have a vision. It’s got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.” — the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame
We have had more than one person – including people who gave unwavering support to Rilling the candidate – ask us “Where’s Harry? Why isn’t he saying anything” about various issues? NoN commenters ask why he has not assembled his own management team, where has he been through the Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) debacle, where is he on the mosque issue and the Island Belle problem?
Legitimate questions all.
It is one thing to tout transparency, another to practice it. The previous mayor would, when he chose to respond, often answer tough questions about his decisions with the simple statement, “Because it’s my decision.”
The current mayor’s stock reply is “It would not be appropriate for me to comment on that at this time.”
Sometimes he’s right. Not always.
“The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.” —Ken Blanchard, author, “The One Minute Manager”
“A great leader’s courage to fulfill his vision comes from passion, not position.” — John Maxwell, author, pastor, leadership expert
The thing is, Harry Rilling spent 41 years being a cop. He worked his way from patrolman to chief, and he did not do that by flapping his gums and looking for publicity. A good cop keeps his mouth shut and his eyes and ears open, keeps a poker face, and takes his time to assemble a case that is air tight.
These very qualities – the antithesis of transparency – do not necessarily make for a great leader.
The mayor has had to keep quiet on the Al Madany lawsuit. The judge has clamped down hard on all participants as settlement talks continue alongside preparations to go to trial is all else fails. Those looking for a declaration of some sort are doomed to remain frustrated. We get it, and accept it.
NEON? A whole different story. We know the mayor has been hip deep in the NEON situation since his election. We know his focus has been on keeping services flowing to Norwalk citizens who need the help, especially the children who need early childhood education and who need structured, supervised programs while school is out and mom or dad, or both, are working.
We also know the mayor of Norwalk has no legal authority when it comes to NEON, an agency overseen by the state and funded primarily through state and federal grants. The most Rilling could do was continue to withhold taxpayer funding, which he did.
But the mayor has what is called the Bully Pulpit. He has an electoral mandate, access to the media and, presumably, enough influence to help move things along by swaying public opinion. And this is where Rilling has, so far, failed.
The mayor could have publicly called for the Rev. Tommie Jackson, NEON’s “transitional” CEO, to shut it down months ago, or to at least announce his intention. Instead, Jackson strung clients and employees along, offering hope of a turnaround when it was apparent to most people close to the situation that there was nothing left to salvage.
Even NEON Board of Directors Chairman Mike Berkoff acknowledged the obvious well before Jackson did, and talked openly at a recent unrelated event of NEON’s imminent Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing, stating, according to those who were there, that it would be Monday, May 5. Berkoff acknowledged to us weeks ago that he saw Chapter 7 as the only way, yet Jackson solicited and accepted applications and deposits for Norwalk summer camps.
Why did the mayor not bring public pressure to bear by letting it be known that, by dragging things out, Jackson was hurting the very people NEON was supposed to be serving? Why did the mayor not step forward and announce that it was, at the least, premature for NEON to be taking people’s money and letting them plan for a summer camp that was in real danger of not happening? We are told by a source who requested anonymity that people who expected to send their children to NEON’s summer camp are being told it was cancelled because the mayor wouldn’t give NEON the money.
Well, there’s that, plus the part about NEON being more than $4 million in debt with no way to pay it off.
Then there’s the Island Belle situation. Yes, there is a lawsuit filed by the city against the party boat’s operator to recoup money for damages alleged to have been caused by the boat during Superstorm Sandy (operator Ken Hart says it was the city’s personnel who caused the problems). The Belle is back in town, and has sat for weeks at dock next to O&G Industries despite Hart being told by harbor authorities to move because he is blocking barges from making deliveries to other businesses.
Again, the mayor and the Common Council may have had no legal authority in the matter, but some strong statements about responsibility and current conduct detrimental to the city’s welfare may well have had an impact in getting things done.
At least the citizens would have known where the mayor stood — assuming that is where he stood. Instead, he deemed it inappropriate to comment because of the lawsuit.
As for his management team, Rilling has let everyone twist in the wind, at least publicly. Anything he has said has been said behind closed doors, which, on an individual basis, is appropriate. Still, with a handful of Norwalk’s squeaky wheels publicly wondering why the Democratic mayor who vowed to change the way Norwalk does business has, for the most part, forged ahead with his Republican predecessor’s long-entrenched team, some sort of statement would be in order.
Does the mayor think he has the right people in place? Is he taking his time assessing performances? Might there be changes on the way?
Rilling has made changes on volunteer boards when possible. He has brought more minorities into the government. He will not reappoint some longtime board members when their terms expire. But can he at least acknowledge to the people who elected him to change the way Norwalk does business that he is not happy with the way some things are being done, and that he will do what is necessary to affect change when he can legally do so?
It would not be appropriate to comment at this time.
“What you do has far greater impact than what you say.” — Stephen Covey, author, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”
Perhaps Rilling is a mayor who will let his actions speak louder than his words. There is something to be said for leading by example, for eschewing the “because I’m the mayor” mentality. But there is also something to be said for letting the people who chose you to lead know where you are taking them, letting the people who are paying you to be mayor know you are on top of things and are full engaged and involved in the city’s most pressing problems.
“The greatest leaders mobilize others by coalescing people around a shared vision.” — Ken Blanchard, author, “The One Minute Manager”