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Opinion: As the weather warms, Norwalk needs to chill a bit

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

• operations

• administration

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.

14 comments

HVAC Check Tech April 20, 2014 at 5:31 am

“Mayor Rilling has no authority or official input into NEON’s matters, other than to withhold city funding.” Well, technically that is correct but, but there is a serious leadership void and as the city’s leader there is a responsibility by the mayor to, well, lead. Meetings are good but not if the meetings resolve nothing. Mayor Rilling mentioned he did not know the specifics of NEON’s charter and it was for the legal eagles. Well Mayor? Been awhile now, how about getting some eagle advice? Its not enough to just say “hey, it ain’t my fault, nor my job.” Well all this horrible press doesn’t improve Norwalk’s image, now does it? And Norwalk’s public relations is, part and mostly parcel task to the job. Is it not? We know Mayor Rilling has been trying to play peacemaker and diplomat and that’s all well and good but comes a time when enough is enough and Harry, we have reached that time. The issue has been embarrassing and is now tarnishing not only your administration but the entire city and all the efforts by so many to progress. Looking forward to the press release fourth coming this week. Now, far as the comment made by the editor,”The minority community is polarized as it is,” think that is a bit of an over dramatization. No it is an overdranatization. The folks directly involved, past and present, yes concur that some are over playing there hands but the “community” polarized? Most folks arent even paying attention to all this, they are too busy trying to figure out how to pay the landlord, the electric, the car insurance, gas and what Shop Rite has on sale this week. There is currently a black hole, nope cant say that will be censored as racist, lets see, there is a well, lets use, void, again shall we, of services for families and folks that need these services. But folks arent going to start hating there neighbors because some politicians and some wanna be’s are squabbling over money. Some newbies may think race is an issue here in Norwalk and if one listens to the loudests voices seeking attention it may appear that way. It isn’t, hasn’t been since the 60s. Black, white, brown whatever, a Norwalker is a Norwalker. That race baiting is tolerated and even promoted in many places and by certain moralless profiteers but not here in Norwalk. Its not about race, its about poverty, oppression and yes our nations oligarchy. If you haven’t read or heard of Martin Gilens and Benjamine Page’s, “Perspectives of Politics,” its time you briefed yourself. You will be hearing allot about it this fall. http://www.princeton.edu/~mgilens/Gilens%20homepage%20materials/Gilens%20and%20Page/Gilens%20and%20Page%202014-Testing%20Theories%203-7-14.pdf
And while we are educating ourselves, French economist Thomas Piketty’s new 700 page fact/data/graphics filled book, “Capital in the 21st Century,” is also a must read for those seeking truth. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dean-baker/capital-in-the-twenty-fir_b_4932184.html As we can see, with the, long overdue, crashing and burning of some extremist hate mediums and propagandist profiteers, Americans are getting fed up with circus clowns pushing the hate doctrine to hide and obscure the crooks robbing the kitty penny less. Folks, yes average folks are waking up how bad they have been screwed and manipulated and when they do awaken from slumber and not talking about fanatical extremist’s packing heavy iron ready looking for some ideological excuse to start shooting, someone, anyone regardless of race or whatever. No we are talking about moms packing babies strollers and grandmoms tearing up their AARP memberships, students, teachers, unemployed, underemployed, everyone opening up there doors windows and will scream. “I am fed up and I am not going to not take it anymore.” The nuts have had their 15 minutes and than some. These in your face facts that Americans are not only getting fleeced and oppressed but being conned on where blame lays are not going to over well with john and jane anonymous. Don’t think the oligarchs have to worry about a million man march on DC and wouldnt count on that old playbook routine that has been so successful in the past to race bait the population and keep them fighting amongst themselves. New communication thing called social media where people can inform themselves of the truth. Powerful weapons, although many bad guys are trying to corral the beasts of social conscious called, Twitter and Facebook, there is no recorking the bottle. Pandora’s box is now open come what may. Its not about race its about poverty and economic and educational inequality and those that promote that its about race are promoting falsehoods and propaganda. Something this editor should seriously contemplate when he loads his bow, as the censor list of words, terms and conversations grows longer and longer on this publication. He would be well advised to take his own advise on adjusting the thermostat.

anonymous April 20, 2014 at 7:20 am

@Chapman, you say NEON is not the mayor’s problem and then blame Moccia and let Rilling slide. Partisan spin, it’s you site. No supporter of Moccia here by a long shot, but not giving NEON taxpayer money when years of ineptitude was obvious even to the Feds was a good move, Rilling didn’t give dollars back either. NEON is a Democratic problem, Himes, Duff, Morris came to help Rilling, and NEON is still going bankrupt and the services are still questionable and it was Duff, not Rilling, who explained what was happening.

Casey Smith April 20, 2014 at 8:00 am

NON –
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I respectfully disagree with your statement “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.” on a few issues.
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First of all, I believe the funding was a grant for NEON, not an obligation. So, I don’t think the money “was put” back in the general fund, it never was allocated to them in the first place and therefore remained in account it would have been drawn from IF the grant had been approved.”
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Secondly, I seem to remember that when an application for work in the the bathrooms at Ben Franklin came through as a CDBG request, the various Council Committees approve the money even though the request came late in the process because they were concerned about the children using the building. Although NEON was clearly in turmoil at the time, the money was approved.
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Yes, it’s a terrible thing that the vulnerable people who needed the services NEON was supposed to be providing were the ones who felt the brunt of the implosion, but the City rushing in to save the day would not have helped matters at all and possibly made them worse. We have a family member who was on fuel assistance and fortunately for us, the living situation changed just in the nick of time, so that person wasn’t out in the cold like so many others were. I am disappointed in the fact that the State and the Feds have pretty much brushed off this situation like crumbs off a dinner table, but that’s their choice.
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NEON knew the City wasn’t going to give them any money, but kept the myth about the City holding the 2.6 million or whatever the final figure was alive. Even so, not having the funding for two or more years still did not change their actions, or their attitude. The Housing Authority was quick to ask for help with budgetary matters when it became clear that no financial records would be forthcoming. And the City responded.
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So, I really truly don’t think Moccia’s actions were “bad”. I think he was just trying to keep the City from being dragged into the debacle more than it already was.

tired of negativity April 20, 2014 at 9:46 am

Why is everyone still saying tax payers money? CDBG money which was given to NEON is federal money which is alloted to every state and trickled down to the city to be used to help agencies like NEON.
Our last Mayor should have never been allowed to use that money as bait to get something else.
HVAC, the entire story will never be revealed.

Mark Chapman April 20, 2014 at 9:55 am

@anonymous and Casey Smith

I think Casey framed it better than I. Technically, there was no further appropriation, so there was no $1.3 million a year to put back into the general fund. However, there was nothing placed into contingency, either, and, had NEON gotten that grant again in the next budget, either taxes would have gone up more or other budget cuts would have been made.

Anonymous, we have said on several occasions we — I — agreed with the former mayor’s shutting off the cash flow to NEON when irregularities arose. I have not blamed him for the problem. And I am loathe to ascribe motives or thought processes to anyone, but it is possible that the former mayor was figuring that, with state and federal scrutiny and a new board coming in, NEON’s accounting processes and financial reporting would be brought into line and the agency would be able to continue and reapply for funds. After all, the entire state delegation expressed regret that their former colleague, Joe Mann, was resigning as NEON’s CEO, when perhaps they should have been calling for a thorough investigation. They made it sound like Mann was taking the fall for an accounting problem that a new peron would come in and fix. And, as for comments that NEON is a Democratic Party problem, I would say there is a serious partisan spin there. NEON is a state problem, and NEON is the CAP agency for seven Fairfield County municipalities. It was not just former Mayor Moccia’s problem, and it is not just Rilling’s problem. But while we see Sen. Bob Duff and Rilling at the press conferences and read their words, we hear less from Dems Bruce Morris and Chris Perone and almost nothing from Republicans Gail Lavielle and Norwalk’s most powerful and respected voice in Hartford, Larry Cafero. NEON is overseen by the state Department of Social Services, and NEON’s problems predate the Malloy administration. There is more than enough blame to go around for both parties. Norwalk city officials can only protect Norwalk taxpayer money and Norwalk’s citizens in need of services. The agency’s failings are the state’s responsibility.

Oldtimer April 20, 2014 at 11:55 am

Anonymous
There are plenty of us who believe Moccia could have handled his legitimate concerns differently and helped fix the problems at NEON instead of simply withdrawing the substantial City grant. It is too late now to undo that and probably too late to save NEON from bankruptcy. Any
successor organization will need more professional money management and accounting to avoid repeating NEONs mistakes and considerable support from the City and others. If the building at 98 South Main was deeded to NEON and Sonocc as tenants in common, will NEON’s interest in that building be a listed asset in a bankruptcy ?

Piberman April 20, 2014 at 2:21 pm

Good to know Mr Chapman has the legal background and managerial expertise to comment on Dept. Head contracts. Pretty good for a newsman. Most of us “non legal eagles” just wonder why Dept Heads routinely receive annual raises/bonuses ever year for superior service defined as doing less with more resources.

Mr Chapman would do a public service by printing the actual Dept Head contracts. So readers with legal backgrounds and managerial expertise could comment on whether they have de facto tenure. Surprise. Removing Dept Heads with much better ones is Norwalk’s only path to becoming a much better governed City. Mr Chapman, a newcomer and “legal authority” would have us believe otherwise. Let’s look at the legal facts Mr Chapman before asserting without foundation that new Mayors can’t choose their own team.

Mark Chapman April 20, 2014 at 3:43 pm

@PiBerman

Why Peter, did someone get hold of a bad chocolate bunny? Such sarcasm coming from such an esteemed scholar and intellectual. Here’s a thought — What if a journalist with 37 years of experience actually understood the concept of researching a topic before writing about it? What if the journalist knew he was not able, like constant critics of all things… well, of all things, to shoot from the hip and make assertions based on their worldy experience and deep understanding of how all things work in all places all the time? What if that happened, professor?

So here’s the thing. We have a lot of readers, and we write about a lot of things. I can’t respond to every reader’s desire to show all the documents behind every piece of research done for every article. You, I am assuming, have a little time on your hands. So why don’t you do the research. Read the charters of the various cities and see how they differ. Request copies of the contracts and use your own legal expertise to parse them (since I have no legal degree, I rely on the opinions of corporation counsel as reported to me). Then get back to us and debunk my research into the matter.

Piberman April 20, 2014 at 3:55 pm

Mark

If you delve into Norwalk’s history then you’ll find past mayors who did “make their own team”. And if your “source” was the City’s corporation counsel then why not report it as such. It’s just one opinion. City corporate counsels are just that. Not legal authorities. An incoming mayor with significant senior level managerial experience would have no trouble in Norwalk or any other City or State in the US putting in his/her “own team”. Of course, the odds of a Norwalk mayor having those credentials are to be charitable, modest at best. But when a new mayor fails to make any significant change well that sends a clear message about leaving a “small footprint”. Especially for a mayor promising a “A New Norwalk”. Wouldn’t you agree ? Or is going after “low hanging fruit” real progress.

Casey Smith April 20, 2014 at 5:55 pm

@Tired – As you stated, the CDBG funding is Federal funding, which I believe comes from HUD. I didn’t mean to imply local taxpayer dollars were used for the bathroom repairs at Ben Franklin. However, the administration and allocation of the CDBG funding is done on a local level through the Redevelopment Agency, who vets the final allocations with the Planning Committee and then finally approved by the full Council. There are certain local Redevelopment Agency requirements that I don’t believe that NEON met when they put in their late application for the Franklin bathrooms, but they were given a pass anyway because it involved the children and secondly, Franklin is a City owned building with other tenants. Even so, I believe there continued to be difficulties with getting the checks out to the contractors after the work was done.
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And when NEON folds as it is becoming increasingly likely, guess who will be left holding the bag? It ain’t gonna be the State stepping in to pay that delinquent light bill, and I surely don’t see the Feds beating down the door to help with the Fuel Assistance program.

Mark Chapman April 20, 2014 at 6:45 pm

@ Casey

Good explanation. And I might add for those who seem to forget, whether it comes from the local, state or federal level, it is, indeed, taxpayer money. And you are spot on about who gets left holding the bag.

Casey Smith April 20, 2014 at 7:04 pm

@HVAC – It’s been a while since I’ve read a 700 page book and maybe in a few months, I’ll take a look at it. However, might I recommend an author I’ve found particularly enlightening in the area of economics? That would be Dr. Thomas Sowell. He’s authored over 60 books but I would focus on his title “Race And Culture: A World View”. While checking the exact name of the title, I noticed he also has out two works that I was previously unaware of: “Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study” and “Trickle Down Theory and Tax Cuts for the Rich “. Since I just found out about them, I haven’t read either work, but will be soon. And based on his previous work, I can recommend them anyway.
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Regarding race in Norwalk, uh, I believe that in 1951, Mayor Irving Freese welcomed the Harvey Clark, Jr. family to Norwalk. Mr. Clark was a black bus driver in Chicago and attempted to purchase a house in Cicero, Ill. He was denied because of his race. Apparently as part of the 300th anniversary of Norwalk’s incorporation as a town, Mayor Freese invited to Clarks to purchase a house in Norwalk, which they did. So, it’s sad to see that some think Norwalk has lost ground.

HVAC April 20, 2014 at 8:06 pm

Casey, thanks for the suggestions, haven’t read Pikkety’s entire book but the the research and facts he has assembled is prima facie of the complexity of the challenges we all face, together, which you will be hearing and reading much more about. And thank you for mentioning the Clark family, being a relative of Mayor Freese we have often heard the story. The History of Norwalk is a history of working class folks, regardless of what race or even religion, unlike Norwalk’s neighbors which were and remain enclaves of exclusion. Norwalk never had a sit in at Wooolworths on Wall because race is not an issue here. Impoverishment and opportunity are the issues. Can we stay focused on real issues at hand and not invent non issues in no win personal attacks under some testosterone fueled strut of peacock feathers or midlife challenges. We are supposed to be the adults, right? Solve problems and resolve issues, right? Editor comments that everyone should stop slinging mud and grow up, than immediately lowers the bar and slings sand back out from the sand box. Geesh,(face palm).

anonymous April 21, 2014 at 6:03 am

@Chapman, correction NEON is a Democratic problem in Norwalk since District B Dems held and hold the power. To think otherwise is ignoring the obvious. As mayor it is now Rillings problem and he’s in hiding. My objection to this article is the bias in your reporting, which is your right, I am merely calling it out.

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