Opinion: Almost 6 months in, time for mayor to step out front

Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling has been playing it close to the vest when it comes to sharing information with the public.
Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling has been playing it close to the vest when it comes to sharing information with the public.

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?

No comment.

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”


21 responses to “Opinion: Almost 6 months in, time for mayor to step out front”

  1. Wow, what a love letter to the mayor – no denying your affection for the ineffective mayor (so far).

  2. the donut hole

    Govern within the charter. NO more Czars and Committees. More action required within the construct. If the charter is flawed, fix it. That’s leadership.

  3. Ms. ACA

    As a supporter of Rilling, I am disappointed with him so far. While I’m mindful of the fact that campaigning is different than serving in office, the Mayor has not been out in front of many of the issues noted in the article. If the election were to take place tomorrow, he would not have my vote.

  4. Suzanne

    Um, Lily, not so fast. I believe this to be a balanced perspective maybe because it is the one I hold. I find the lack of communication VERY frustrating. I want my Mayor to take a stand, to have a vision and re-focus that vision on all issues through a consistent message (like Theodore Hesburgh quoted above.) I know he is working and that is illustrated in this opinion. However, the particulars of that work on our behalf? I have no idea. So, there is no way we, the taxpayer, can judge whether he has been “ineffective”. We see the boat (including the Island Belle, unfortunately) is still afloat. This opinion piece also informs us of some of the work that has been accomplished so far. First and foremost, however, is the constituency who elected him and the taxpayer who pays his salary. I appreciate Mayor Rilling is working hard and some things we just don’t need to know. But, I need to know that he is taking a stand and doing a job he was elected for at some level, any level. So far, this has not been communicated.

  5. Benthere Donethat

    “Where’s Harry?” The answer should be obvious-He’s at a photo shoot. Not a day goes by when his picture isn’t in one of the local tabloids planting a maple tree, yacking with local NFL draftees, etc. Today he’ll be at Fox Run Middle School to throw out the first pitch of the Ripken baseball season.
    What about the 4.5 million request by Oak Hills Park Authority? No comment.

  6. EastNorwalkChick

    I too am a supporter of Rilling and frustrated just like many others are with the lack of communication. I keep telling myself that maybe this isn’t his style, but come on, the public needs to know a little more than, “I can’t comment on that right now”.

  7. piberman

    The uusal standard by which Mayors are judged is their ability to deliver desired municipal services that are affordable to the community. For a community with median household incomes of only about $70,000 [aying the highest municipal salaries of any City in CT and the 5th highest teacher salaries in the state many would argue there’s work to do to make Norwalk much more affordable and able to attract new homeowners. But our stagnant property values for years on end and major new rental housing constructions suggest otherwise. Mayor Rilling apparently has other interests than making Norwalk an affordable place to live. Here he follows Mayor Moccia’s “legacy”. The “smart monies” are betting Mayor Rilling will not focus on downsizing the City’s budget making the City more attractive to current and prospective residents. Finance doesn’t seem to be his interst.

  8. Oldtimer

    Harry will not make waves just for the sake of looking busy. The changes he can make will happen, but they will be done carefully. As an old friend, I advised him against running because it is a very hard job with limited power. When it was clear he had made his decision to run I supported him, confident that he would be an excellent mayor. My confidence is still strong, although I understand we all hoped for radical changes all at once and waiting is not easy. People have been replaced, with as little fanfare as possible, and more will be, when the time is right, and the best possible replacement is available. We forget sometimes that support needs to be assured before a mayor in our system takes a step. That process takes time. Give him time, he is working hard for all of us, even those who voted against him.

  9. Mr Norwalk Ct

    Rilling is a joke. He makes Moccia look like a superstar.. He is the same waste as Mayor as he was as police chief. He has accomplished ZERO and a full quarter of his term is over.

  10. Suzanne

    Those who believe Mayor Rilling has accomplished ZERO: What do you really know about that? In addition, I do not believe we are asking “Harry to make waves just for the sake of looking busy.” Rather, his constituency would like to know that he doing anything at all. That he has replaced key people is laudable but what for? Why can’t that be shared along with the reasons in that he would be communicating an overall vision for Norwalk? What is that vision? Taxpayers would like to know. That is not “making waves”. I don’t believe people are in a hurry for certain results of governance so much as wanting communication of progress or a why as to why there is none. The longer there are no consistent messages from the Mayor, the less confidence people will have in him and the job he is doing. That would be a great shame.

  11. diane c2

    Does seem like a lot of the “same old” at city hall, both in processes and department heads. Only decent difference is perhaps the tax and spend “like money grows on trees” republicans may have been tamed?
    Time to clean house of the lifers who, at best, contribute nothing, and at worst, have made our quality of life horrid with crumbling infrastructure, traffic congestion, shoddy workmanship, poor development planning, abysmal city website, disrespect for taxpayers and especially unacceptable customer service processes.
    Oh, you know who you they are…..c’mon mayor, get tough. Identify those “peter principle” deadbeats and bring in qualified, responsive, responsible leaders -and maybe even ask them to actually LIVE in Norwalk, too 🙂
    Other than that, same message as to your predecessors: thanks for doing a thankless, tireless, (almost) payless job.

  12. Mr Norwalk Ct

    Tell you what Suzanne as one who obviously supports a Democrat no matter what please enlighten the rest of us to what the Mayer has accomplished… A bullet point list without spin please.
    FYI Forming a task force or better attitudes at city Hall is not an accomplishment.

  13. Kelly

    The editor writes a letter of encouragement to the mayor. How very sweet. Really. Not often you see that. However, happen to agree with oldtimer that its too early for an official evaluation, which the letter appears to be, on face value. In between the lines easy to read the love and encouragement and even a rallying chant. It’s quite a transition from leading a rigidly structured organization, going the extra mile to avoid political positions to jumping right into the political pond. Going by the book for decades to flying by the seat of your pants, overnight is quite a leap and does take some time for adjustment, skills transfer, assimilation and integration. Unless your a fool with an maverick ego to match in which case you will crash and burn before even getting air borne. Oldtimer is right, that its too soon to judge and the editor is right to help citizens stay informed and to get officials positions on record, when law allows. The mosque, Island Belle, NEON, all are in legal processes that limit if not legally bound some officials from commenting. Confident the mayor is taking it all into careful consideration, burning the midnite oil and working to find his voice and leverage capabilities, confident, he will. If he didn’t think he could make a difference and handle the job, he wouldn’t have run. Hope the editor makes this a regular feature and we can compare say in another 6 months and every 6 months thereafter. Give a realistic comparison for a fair evaluation.

    1. Mark Chapman

      A little overboard on the emotions ascribed to me, but otherwise I mostly agree.The between the lines thing is actually frustration and some disappointment. I do like the mayor (I have a long record of writing honest critiques of people and things I like going back to the ’80s and my sport writing years), and I know he is working hard. But you get 24 months to make your mark and then stand in judgment for the voters. The clock is ticking. For the record, the position really needs to be a four-year term so a new mayor can get up to speed with his or her own team, assembled at his or her own speed, without worrying about getting re-elected.

  14. Suzanne

    Kelly, the six month evaluation is an excellent idea. Perhaps this will be the service people need to feel comfortable with the mayor’s progress.
    MNC, you obviously did not read my comment. I don’t have a bullet point list. I would direct that request to Mr. Chapman.
    You actually do not know my political affiliation and, I believe, like all commentators who like to sling insults without really reading the column or comments, you are resorting to the hobgoblin of little minds thing.

  15. Piberman

    The Hour’s traditional stand of not taking sides in endorsing candidates for City office or office holders is looking better and better.

  16. EveT

    I think the essence is here: “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.” Especially when talking about employees and board/commission appointees who have the equivalent of academic tenure, and pending lawsuits. Better to refrain from commenting than to say the wrong thing and have it come back to bite you.

  17. Joe Espo

    Mark (and everyone else): Give Harry an f’n break. He’s on a new venture. He needs some room. What did you accomplish six months into yours and Nancy’s new venture?

    1. Mark Chapman

      @ Joe Espo

      OUCH! Low blow! Never saw THAT coming. 🙂

  18. Dennis DiManis

    No need to “give Harry a break”, the old-school pols don’t need your help to do their thing.

  19. Peter Parker

    I currently continue my support of the Mayor, but wondering when he intends to clean up the largest mess the City has, DPW, its poor planning, management, and incompetent Director? Harry where’s the change you promised in your campaign? At DPW it still appears to be business as usual and it gets worse with every passing day.

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