Opinion: Civility at the root of Rilling choices; transparency, accountability need work

NORWALK, Conn. – When Mayor Harry Rilling was candidate Harry Rilling, the No. 1 issue – the one that stuck with the voters, for better or worse – was civility.

The message was clear. After eight years of the previous administration, it was time for a new attitude in City Hall – and not just in the mayor’s office. Department heads needed to be more responsive to the public, he said. City workers needed to be treated better, and they needed to be more sensitive in their dealings with the public.

And everyone needed to be held accountable.

So, a third of the way through the new mayor’s first year, how is that civility/accountability thing working out?

For civility, give the mayor an “A.” For accountability? Make it “I” for “incomplete.” And transparency? A “B,” maybe. Or a “C.”

Civility has taken a bit of a toll on transparency. His negotiations with council leaders over appointments and other decisions seem to take place under the radar, a function of his commitment to civility, he says. Sausage-making, it seems, is best done out of sight.

On the surface, though, those who work in City Hall have found a new atmosphere. Involved citizens have found a more receptive attitude. For the most part, they are given time to make their points in public meetings. They have their say without being interrupted, derided or cut off.

Civility and respect have been mocked by the vocal minority, especially when it comes to dealing with city employees. Respect, they say, means giving the unions – the 21st century bogeymen to some – whatever they want. But maybe respect is just that. Somewhere along the line, it seems, a lot of people have forgotten that whole “do unto others” thing.

This past week, Rilling and his staff went through a stack of employee grievances against the city. There were many, he said, dating back to 2005, 2006. In the past, he said, grievances were routinely rejected, but it is his intention to take a closer look. This week, that meant one city employee got a couple days’ pay restored.

“There was a dispute between two employees,” he said, “and one wound up getting suspended and docked for two days’ pay, the other for four days. “ Rilling looked at the grievance and found in favor of the person who lost two days’ pay.

“It was four to six years ago,” he said. “The person hasn’t had any trouble since, and so I approved it.”

Rilling said “There was a bunch” of grievances, “and that was the only one I signed off on.” He said that, in the past, the response to the grievances – and there are many – was arbitrarily “nope, nope, nope.”

“It hurts morale,” he said, indicating he will continue the practice of paying attention.

Paying attention should get easier with the impending arrival of a new personnel director. Emmet Hibson got the blessing of the Common Council’s bipartisan Personnel Committee this week and is expected to be approved by the full council Tuesday night.

Hibson was chosen by Rilling after a committee he appointed – two labor lawyers, a former personnel director, a college professor who specializes in personnel, City Clerk Donna King and Corporation Council Mario Coppola – winnowed the applicant list from 67 down to five, he said. Rilling interviewed those five and settled on Hibson.

Hibson is also an attorney who specialized in labor issues, and has, in private practice, represented both municipalities and unions, Rilling said. In New Haven and in Stamford, he took stances on some issues that did not sit well, to say the least, with the unions. In New Haven he won some contract give-backs. In Stamford, there were serious issues between the firefighters union and Republican Mayor Michael Pavia’s administration, with Hibson carrying the ball for Pavia.

According to published reports, new Democratic Mayor David Martin chose to replace Hibson because of Hibson’s dealings with the unions.

So Rilling set up a lunch meeting with the president of the Norwalk firefighters union, which apparently went well. He was also told Hibson is acceptable to the police unions, Council 4 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and Local 2405.

Norwalk’s naysayers seized on the union approval as a negative, ignoring Hibson’s record. But Rilling pointed out that Hibson has done his job in accordance with what his bosses have wanted.

“It’s my philosophy that matters here,” he said. “He has to work for me.”

That philosophy is civility. Respect. It does not mean giving away the store, Rilling has said. The mayor says he is well aware of the city’s budgetary restrictions, many of which were brought on by past agreements with unions. But it is important to keep a civil discourse going so as not to destroy morale, he says, which would be counterproductive.

And then there’s accountability. While Rilling has gotten high marks so far for carrying through on campaign promises, there have been some in his own party who have been irritated by his inaction when it comes to putting together a management team that looks different from the one that has been in place for years.

Rilling bristles at the notion that he has dragged his feet on the accountability issue.

“They are being held accountable,” he said Friday. “We have regular meetings, and they are asked about their projects. We monitor their expenditures.”

But what about performance reviews?

“Certain individuals have contracts that do not include the ability for us to do performance reviews,” he said. Rilling has been close-mouthed about his intentions when it comes to his management team.

And this is where Hibson’s arrival may come into play. From past published reports, some city charter research and various conversations, it seems Norwalk has developed a bizarre system by which various managers cannot be formally reviewed, and, in some cases, there are questions about who they report to – if anyone. How the city got to this point is a good question, but we do know that the last-minute attempt by the previous administration to make it next to impossible for the city to remove an assistant corporation counsel is being challenged. Having a fulltime personnel director on board should go a long way toward sorting out the situation and, just maybe, finding a route back to keeping everyone accountable to the mayor and Common Council, who are ultimately accountable to the voters.

Speaking of accountability and transparency…

When Common Councilman Travis Simms (D-District B) replaced John Igneri (D-District E) as council minority leader, Simms said the vote was unanimous among the seven-member Democratic caucus.

Two people we have spoken with dispute that, including Igneri, who said the vote was 4-3. He would not reveal who voted in his favor, but we assume he voted for himself, which would belie Simms’ assertion right out of the box.

There is no question the Democratic caucus has been on different pages. Those differences quickly became apparent when Igneri, in his role as minority leader, signed off with Rilling and the Republican leadership on the reappointment of Recreation and Park Director Mike Mocciae. When the reappointment came up for a vote in front of the whole council, though, five Democrats voted against Mocciae without discussion. The five were Simms, Faye Bowman, Eloisa Melendez, David Watts and Sharon Stewart. The vote stunned Rilling, who was unaware of the rift in the ranks.

Simms said when he replaced Igneri that there had been concern over some of the decisions being made by Igneri.

It also is no secret that some members of the caucus who did not support Rilling’s run for the nomination do not support him as mayor, creating a Democratic faction that is causing the same kind of disruptions locally as the Tea Party is creating for the Republicans on the national (and some states) level.

Conflict of interest?

When Ed Camacho was elected to lead the Democratic Town Committee, it not only angered supporters of former vice chairwoman Brenda Penn-Williams, who was thought by many in the party to be the natural successor to Amanda Brown, but it raised the hackles of others outside the party who screamed “conflict of interest.”

Some are outraged that a member of the city’s Board of Estimate and Taxation would also be a political party leader, but it’s a hypocritical outrage borne of a political partisanship – and maybe worse – that blinds one to the facts. Republican Fred Wilms has held office in the Republican Town Committee for years, and he was chairman of the BET. It has been called to our attention that Jim Feiganbaum was District E Republican chairman and a BET member.

There is little that the BET authorizes that has anything to do with the political parties – just matters of the party registrars. For there to be a conflict of interest, there has to be something actionable that can directly benefit someone or an organization. There isn’t. The city charter even addresses the political makeup of its boards, preventing a mayor or council from stacking the panels with members of a single party.

On the other hand, those who see a potential conflict in Camacho’s BET role and his association with the South Norwalk Community Center might have a point. While rumors that Camacho is a member of SoNoCC’s Board of Directors are false, he is the organization’s attorney. Taking part in discussions and votes on funding for SoNoCC matters, in our opinion, creates the perceptions, at the very least, of a conflict. We would recommend he recuse himself from those discussions and votes.


4 responses to “Opinion: Civility at the root of Rilling choices; transparency, accountability need work”

  1. Jack R

    Thank you non for looking into the agreement signed by the mayor. It’s a slippery slope when the mayor signs off on grievances meant for arbitration. There is a process set up and it should be followed. In this situation the employee who got 4 days did so because he was the aggressor and there were 4 eyewitness written statements saying so. We are all big boys and girls, let’s call this for what it really is……….a union payback. Did anyone mention the employee is on the union board??

    There are no provisions in the contract which states a suspension goes away if an employee behaves.

  2. Anonymous

    Secret lunch meetings? Any chance we can see the minutes of this meeting? About as transparent as a piece of wood.

  3. piberman

    Accountability to the public has never been a strong point with Norwalk’s recent Mayors. For example, the BET by City Charter involves City budget matters. To most people a solid background in finance and accounting are obvious requirements. Not so for Norwalk’spoliticos. Inference is that the BET will continue to function as an embarrassing “amen chorus”. The Mayor’s BET appointments would be questionable in our neighboriing high income communities where government runs to a higher standard to be charitable. By advocating “cronyism” over “obvious competence and qualifications” the Mayor removes the possibility of gaining control of the City’s finances. For a City whose budgets have grown better than 50% over the past 2 decades (per capita) while incomes have barely nudged (up only 10%) amidst stagnant property values and the inflow of renters who now make up one third the voters this means the Mayor has abdicated any serious serious prospect of fiscal reform. Barely 100 days into office the Mayor has signaled both his institutional failure to gain control of City finances. That augurs business as usual and a failed mayorality.

    Second, the Mayor fails to understand the among the most elemental components of organizational management, viz. the “chief” is only as good as the managers hired. Failing to use the standard practice of hiring professional search firms to get the best and brightest available knowledgeable in latest techniques hamstrings the Mayor’s managerial effectiveness. Successful “chiefs” work hardest to obtain the very best personal manager available. The Mayor failed to do this. His “selection committee” were not employment professionals and lacked the obvious requisite backgrounds. Even if the Mayor sought political considerations overwhelming here why not obvious knowledgeable professional judgments and serious vetting before selection. Old fashioned back door politics overpowered the selection process here. The last thing the community needs is a conventional “I’m ok you’re ok” Personal Director. That’s how we came to have the 5th highest teacher salaries in the state – a clear aberation if not trajedey for our middle income City. The available evidence suggests the City unions are happy with the selection. Most work outside the City. Why should “happy unions” be a “victory” for taxpayers staggers the mind. We have long had “happy teacher unions” here in Norwalk and the results to prove it – punitive taxes and billions and billions of foregone property values. (Read the Arbitration Reports and submitted briefs by both the BOE and NFT attorneys).

    So for starters the Mayor has violated two standard prescriptions for any successful minded CEO or public official – appoint obviously well qualified officials and hire appropriatedly best practices senior managers. Maybe we ought to revise our City Charter to require Mayors to have MBA’s. Even an on-line program would be helpful. An associated issue is that early in his term the Mayor has lost the potential credibility for “budget reform”. It’s business as usual. Critics may well argue that the Mayor’s early personnel and appointees remove any real prospects for serious reform in Norwalk. See anyone building homes in Norwalk in recent years ?

    Third, anyone examining the “requirments” for an economic development department head can only be appalled and chagrined at the lack of both professionalism and understanding the potential capabilities. Anyone following the dramatic demographic changes underway over the past two decades understands the overwhelming need for encouraging both more and more successful divesity citizen business startups if our ever increasing diversity population coming often from diverse cultures is ever to have a chance at securing the American Dream. Not having a business background is an obvious handicap for the Mayor. But why not use all the available resources so that citizens wanting real assistance in start ups and learning about new business formation can find it at the front doors at City Hall.

    Our diversity population doesn’t need political appointments or elected officials. It really needs a City where its possible to realistically puruse the American Dream. If you really “love your neighbor” then move heaven and earth to help him or her succeed at pursuing that Dream.

    Within recent memory Norwalk was acclaimed for its “small business entrepreneurial” community. Big Box literally destroyed this community. That was easy to predict as I did at considerable detail at the initial Home Depot hearings decades ago. We literally broke the backs and livelihoods of those businessmen of all stripes who make this a well functioning City. By not doing everything in our power to encourage a reinvigorating and encouraging a really viable small business community the Mayor condems our City to future failure. That’s a harsh criticism but I do speak from some considerable knowledge and experience here. Bridgeport was once our brightest star in CT. For doubters visit Stamford whose success as an inernational City astonishes even its harshesh critics.

    Mayor Rilling has long had obvious kindship with our diversity communities and its that quality among many others that have gained him considerable admiration. But why the economic development office is not directed at encouraging that community to better succeed is simply disappointing. City officials have long have it backwards. Our failed redevelopment developments in attracting major new development with good jobs reflect the obvious – a failing City, not failing attracts to cut deals. Business people are far smarter than poliicans ever take them to be. Norwalk doesn’t need to give out “deals” to encouage development. It just needs much better management. Improving diversity appointments doesn’t reach that goal. Better people does.

    Having said all the above what is unfolding in the first 100 days is a real trajedy and may well may it impossible for future generations to prevent spending our way to Bridgeport. Mayor Rilling is a smart, capable and understandiing public servant able to achieve both the support of fellow police officers and perhaps even more important, train a well qualified successor – no mean accomplishments. Nowalk’s PD is widely admired as one of the best in the state. No knowledgeable person familiar with the state’s detailed crime statistics can come away other than impressed that Norwalk’s PD’s is among the very best. Would the NFT take notice. Our PD isn’t the 5th highest paid in state. Just among the very best. Not even the NFT would claim its members are among the “very best”. Ask them.

    Many of us had high expectations that both freed of a long political career and the enormous advantage of well functioning BOE under the superb leadership of BOE Chairman Mike Lyons – arguably the City’s most capable elected official of our generation – Mayor Rilling would reach out to the best and brightest in our community and transform our City with the best modern and up to date management. One that would attract other Cities hiring away our best people. Norwalk has no shortage of top notch business executives, some of whom have national and international footprints. Sadly they remain invisible in the new administration. Stubbornly City officials and its political parties resist attracting the best and brightest citizens available. After all as Doug Hempstead, City Council President, proudly proclaims anyone can serve in any capacity in Norwalk, there are no requirements for public service in Norwalk. No other City official anywhere in CT makes such a disparaging comment about public service. Its clear inference is that knowledge and experience doesn’t count. Stu Leonard’s doesn’t run that way. So why should the City ? That attitude widely shared among Norwalk’s politicos is the source of our continuing failure. It ought to stop at Mayor Rilling’s desk.

    At days end Mayor Rilling has disappointed those of us with business and financial backgrounds who had hoped that he could be the transformative Mayor long term residents have yearned for. By failing to appoint and select well qualified citizens and managers the Mayor has sent out the signal – “its still the back room boys”. Both parties have long complained why capable citizens who have achieved notable success in the private market refrain from volunteeering
    at Norwalk governance. It’s because as Doug Hempstead notes – anyone can do any service in Norwalk. We chace away competence.

    Norwalk has long been derided by knowledge analysts and others as the City that doesn’t have a quality governance. Especially its public school system. Rather than stand up and celebrate the accomplishments of our revitalized BOE lead by an unsuually well qualified if not truly “gifted” Chair and use that as a standard for City governance Mayor Rilling has followed the well trodden path of following Doug Hempstead’s maximum – anyone can do any public service. That’s the path of continued failure.

    Having carefully followed municipal developments across CT for several decades including writing voluminously on the subject and serving on the state’s Business Opportunity Commission decades ago that among its many responsibilities looked into Bridgeport’s failures in almost exhausting detail the lost opportunity here is simply awesome. Successful Mayors are elected not because they have exhaustive professional managerial backgrounds. But because they understand the key to success is appointing the best and hiring the best. Mayor Rilling has failed this test.

    It’s early in the game but if he can’t change gears and hire and appoint the best available then he might as well be one of our traditional “political” Mayors – admirable citizens who followed the past and left small footprints. Mayor Rilling could be a real “change agent” for Norwalk. But that requires hiring and appointing much better well qualified individuals. It’s not a partisan statement. Just basic business management.

    Just imagine in Mayor Rilling had inherited the horrendously mismanaged NPSS and embarrassing BOE’s of recent decades. No one would hope for much. Now’s the time to take the great gift of a well functioning BOE and top notch Supt. and do something big the rest of the City. It’s not rocket science. Just hire and appoint the best citizens that are obviously well qualified for their posts. Not because of their political connections. Follow the clues from the BOE Mr. Mayor. Supt. Rivera is a first rate choice in any community. Nice that he’s Hispanic role model. But that’s just icing on the cake. As anyone who follows BOE activities closely he’s very good at his job. And then some.

    Have you appointed or hired anyone whose as good as Dr. Rivera ? Show us an we’ll sing praises. Mike Lyons understands through his long corporate success that success starts at the top – appoint and find the best possible individuals and everyone then rallies round. In Norwalk we’ve long started at another point. And we have the mismanaged government, high taxes, stagnant property values and Grand List, flight of older residents, lack of business development and discouragement to show for our utter indifference to governance. We are a failing City. Mayor Rilling can help change that. But he has to appoint and hire the best available. It’s heart breaking that he has failed to do so. Not because us old timers are unhappy. Because we know that our new citizens wil have it ever so much harder to secure the American Dream. That’s really what’s at issue here. Creating a City so our newer divesity residents can have the best chance at securing that dream. Not hoping IBM or GE will call for an interview.

    Politicians love to point to success in diversity outreach. But the real test is whether the City can be governed so those starting real “low down” can make their dream come true here in our failing City. That’s what we expect from Mayor Rilling. No one would ever make that expectation from previous “political” Mayors. But Mayor Rilling walks to a different drummer. Now lets hear the music. Just hire and appoint the best and we’ll sing your praises. Just ask us.

    No one likes to criticize public officials. But when misteps are taken so early in the game its important for the community to speak out again and again. Mayor Rilling has the ability to be a change agent unlike his recent predecessors. That’s why we must keep up the pressure to not let him fail. Its just that simple. Spring is here and soon Calf Pasture Beach will be awash with the lyrics of dozens of unfamiliar tongues. That’s our City’s future – newcomers seeking the American Dream. They live here seeking a real future. Not as City employees living elsewhere. Why not fight to make their Dream possible. Mike Lyons gave us a tutorial on how create a viable BOE and superb Supt. Now its time for Mayor Rilling to follow suit. Not just because he’s our new Mayor. But because of his record and not just an upward seeking politico. His success is our success and we as a City really do need a successful Mayor. We waited decades for a BOE that we respect. Now its City Hall’s time. Make it happen Mayor Rilling.

  4. the donut hole

    Chairman of a political party sets the agenda. Feigenbaum and wilms are each 1/100th of the RTC. Huge, huge difference. Camacho needs to resign one or the other. I would demand the same of Scialabà and Torrano

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