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.
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