NORWALK, Conn. – Spring is in the air – finally. Well, it’s in the daylight air. Some of the hours in the darkness have been pretty chilly.
And speaking of darkness and chilly, there seems to be a dark cloud hovering over Norwalk – especially South Norwalk – and maybe people need to chill out a bit.
Here are a few of our observations:
The turf war over 98 South Main St. cannot have a winner, just losers. Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) has lost all credibility along with most of its contracts and grants. Any thoughts the Rev. Tommie Jackson – the transitional CEO and president – and certain Board of Directors members might entertain of a Phoenix-like rise from the ashes are the things fantasies are made of. There is a reason Ford has not tried to bring back the Edsel. Trying to extort money from building co-tenant South Norwalk Community Center (SoNoCC) by shutting off the electricity and preventing access to the electrical panel is simply adding to the agency’s reputation. Every bit of bad publicity for NEON is like another trip to rehab for Lindsay Lohan.
Meanwhile, SoNoCC needs to realize that there is no upside to angry public responses or attacks on NEON. The minority community is polarized as it is, and every time SoNoCC responds in anger it drives the wedge a bit deeper. That wedge needs to be removed and the healing needs to begin if Norwalk’s minority community and the entire city is to move forward.
Speaking of NEON, it seems that there are a few perceptions of which people need to be disabused. One is that NEON is a city problem, and thus the responsibility of the mayor. This is not the case. NEON was not Mayor Richard Moccia’s responsibility, nor is it Mayor Harry Rilling’s. It is, however, Rilling’s headache.
Moccia has been blamed for a lot of NEON’s financial problems because he, with the support of Common Council and the Board of Estimate and Taxation, stopped giving the organization $1.3 million a year when an audit revealed NEON was spending its grant money inappropriately and was not keeping proper financial records. Moccia was protecting Norwalk’s taxpayers. Moccia put that money back into the general fund and did nothing to ensure that, when NEON inevitably crashed and burned, Norwalk’s neediest citizens would have access to social services. His bad.
Rilling inherited the problem and has, by all accounts of those actually involved, held regular meetings in person or by phone with Jackson, Berkoff and other stakeholders to try to ensure needy Norwalkers are provided for. Rilling has no authority or official input into NEON’s matters, other than to withhold city funding. His advocacy of the city picking up the electric bill at the Ben Franklin school, where NEON is a tenant and was not paying the bill as agreed, was done, he said, to ensure the services provided did not cease. This was necessary because there are other programs, including city programs, also using the building. The BET and council signed off on the payments, for which the city is supposed to be reimbursed. Of course, that could be a problem if NEON, as expected, declares bankruptcy in the next few weeks.
Another misconception – a non-NEON-related misconception – is that Rilling had the ability to clean house and put in his own team when he took office, but chose to retain most department heads.
Norwalk is not set up that way. While many other cities give their mayors the freedom to choose their management teams, Norwalk limits it to a few positions. Personnel is one such area. The Department of Public Works is another. Recreation and Parks, too. But many other positions are held by city employees who have been given contracts that make it difficult, if not nearly impossible, to make a change without cause.
According to a semi-random sampling of city charters:
In Stamford, the mayor appoints (with Board of Representatives approval) and can remove at will the following directors:
• legal affairs (corporation counsel)
• public safety, health and welfare
The mayor appoints the chief of police, fire chief, superintendent of parks and recreation and director of health for terms not to exceed five years. They can be removed by the mayor for cause.
In Danbury, the mayor appoints and may remove:
• director of public works
• director of planning and zoning (planning director)
• chief of police
• fire chief
• director of health
• director of recreation
• executive director of elderly services
• director of human services
In New Britain, the mayor appoints and may remove:
• Corporation counsel
The mayor may appoint and remove, with consent of Common Council, all department heads. They may be removed for cause only, and cause may not be political.
Changes in the wind: We expect to see a new economic development director announced within the next few weeks, filling a role left vacant by Tad Diesel’s retirement. Also, we hear the Common Council’s Democratic caucus is getting ready to announce its third Council minority leader since the November election. Word on the street is that John Kydes will replace Travis Simms who replaced John Igneri. Kydes, who was the top Council vote-getter last November in District C, is in his first term on the panel and has garnered praise from both sides of the aisle. Is the third time the charm? Time will tell. No word about who’s on deck if Kydes doesn’t satisfy the diverse agendas in his caucus.
A bit of housekeeping: In keeping with our quest for commenting civility without neutering, we have decided to ban Nazi references. They are unnecessarily offensive and hyperbolic and tend to diminish the horrible impact of the actual Nazis. We eliminated three such references over the past week. Thank you for your cooperation.