Opinion: Its been 3 months, so why isn’t it all different?

NORWALK, Conn. – What’s up with Harry Rilling?

The man has been mayor for nearly three months and he hasn’t cleaned out City Hall, put NEON into bankruptcy, fixed the roads, installed bike lanes, brought the minority board-and-committee ratio in line with city population OR cut the budget.

See? Can’t trust anyone.

The naiveté, disingenuousness, hypocrisy or just plain toxic partisanship of those sentiments would be astounding if we hadn’t seen it all before on the national level. (Remember? Obama’s been president for a month and he needs to take ownership of the economy).

Some things to remember while sharpening the dagger:

Rilling has inherited a large number of settled union contracts. Holdover Finance Director Tom Hamilton pointed this out as one of the main drivers of the budget increase. He also inherited a revaluation, and a school system committed to Common Core Standards.

While some wonder why he has not cleaned house of Moccia’s City Hall leadership team, he inherited a set of department heads with various deals and restrictions that must be observed. Some changes have been made. Others may be on the way — time will tell.

We said it before, we will say it again: One of the most important things the mayor does is make appointments and hire staff. After eight years, the previous mayor owned all the boards and the department heads. They all come – well, most come – with expiration dates. Until those dates arrive and Rilling is able to swing the boards and commissions to his philosophy, Norwalk will have a distinctly Moccia flavor. While there is a Democrat in the mayor’s office, there is a Republican majority on the Common Council, the Planning Commission, the Zoning Commission, the Parking Authority, the Oak Hills Authority…

One thing the mayor seems to have accomplished so far – besides upping the count of minority appointments – is to begin a culture change in City Hall. He’s had help from several Republicans and a few Democrats who have worked with him to keep the sausage-making out of the spotlight and create a more civil and respectful atmosphere. Ironically, it is members of his own caucus who have created stumbling blocks and public disruptions that could threaten the Kum-bah-ya atmosphere.

So far, the former Norwalk cop has seemed more like a firefighter, trying to control brush fires that have been smoldering and still could erupt into a full-fledged forest fire in the coming months as ambitious local pols take off the gloves and battle for seats in Hartford.

While some claim Rilling was quite the politician while he worked his way up the ranks in the NPD, some observers now are commenting on his lack of political DNA as he throws himself into long days and nights on the job. Some have expressed concern about burnout and wish the mayor would pace himself.

Change does not often happen overnight. Next year’s budget – 2015-16 – will be Rilling’s budget, and, re-elected or not, 2016-17 will bear a significant amount of his imprint. Contracts will be negotiated on his watch. Budgets will be parsed. Internal decisions will be made. And it will then be up to the voters to judge on his body of work, not what was or wasn’t accomplished in three months.


19 responses to “Opinion: Its been 3 months, so why isn’t it all different?”

  1. anonymous

    There does appear to be more civility and 3 months is not enough time to judge anyone.

    The settled union contracts that you refer to were settled by Haslekemp. Hamilton mentioned in the Hour “Employee health insurance costs are projected to increase by 1.2 percent, in part due to the implementation of a high deductible health plan in January.” Haslekemp was canned by Rilling because the Unions thought he did his job too well. Unless you expect Rilling to ask every bargaining group in Norwalk to take a zero wage increase this year and next, you will continue to see budget pressures relating to salary increases to Norwalk’s public employees.

    Revaluation happens by State statute. The fact that Rilling has inherited a diminished property tax base and over-taxed homeowners is his problem now.

    Many of Rillings appointments to the BET were highly questionable.

    Yes, it is more civil. Now let’s see what happens.


  2. YankeeClipper

    The tone at City Hall is definitely different and much, although not all, is thanks to Rilling.

  3. Oldtimer

    “Hasselkamp was fired because the unions thought he did his job too well” ? That assumption is wrong on so many levels. You don’t think it had anything to do with sexual harassment complaints or a nasty temper displayed in negotiations, or knowing and willful violations of existing contracts when he was sure the people (retirees) affected did not have the resources to take the city to court ? His history of never lasting very long in any job should tell you something.

  4. Norwalk Guy

    It just seems to me that no matter who is in charge, there’s some people you can’t make happy. Now in a year or so if we see nothing changes then the Moccia mudslinging will need to stop and people will need to realize he’s not the man they thought he was… Such like Mr Obamacare…

  5. anonymous

    A lot of those complaints against Haselkamp were trumped up by the Unions and people who didn’t like him to give him bad press. He was hired away immediately, obviously there wasn’t much to those ‘complaints’.

    The unions wouldn’t have cared if Haselkamp wore a bag over his head in negotiations if he gave them what they wanted. Follow the money OldTimer.

  6. Taxpayer Fatigue

    I agree with you Oldtimer. Hasselkamp was fired because he couldn’t control his temper – a basic requirement for anyone in a personnel job. And yes, the city finally got smart and was forced to hire good negotiating firms only after years of Hasselkamp bringing in lousy firms and sticking us with lousy deals. He is no hero for Norwalk.

    While the other department heads do have contracts, you can still fire people for cause, and people can be removed from commissions for ethics violations.

  7. Piberman

    Mayors, like CEO’s of firms and non-profits, primarily make a difference by the quality of the people they appoint and key replacements. Norwalk has never been known for high quality City management. Its Dept Heads and Administrators rarely get the call to serve in Hartford or in our major cities. Nor has its leading politicians been recognized as Gubinatorial material.

    Mayor Rilling surely knows how the City works, especially its old boy networks. So far he’s moved very cautiously in making replacements or assembling a team of experienced manager and financial advisors working behind the scenes as advisors. Not hiring professional search firms to guide in replacing Personnel and Marketing positions as well as appointing NEON’s former Bd Chairman to the BET were extremely disappointing.,

    Mayors don’t make the City. Their team does and it takes a new team. Gov. Malloy, when running for Stamford mayor understood this and assembled both a strong advisory team with a plan of change from day one with a large binder of what he planned to do upon taking office. It was an innovation in CT City politics and propelled him and his team to the Governor’s position.

    Mayor Rilling has taken the traditional path of focusing on getting elected with admirable old fashioned determination. He brings a well recognized ability as an admired police chief. If he is going to make a real difference he needs a new and much more capable team and must focus on Norwalk’s overspending that goes back decades and will be documented in subsequent letters. It will take several terms to be a truly “transformational mayor” with a new and much more capable team of City Dept Heads and Administrators to wrest a City budget affordable to our modest outcomes. Mayor Rilling has the enormous advantage denied previous mayors of a well functioning BOE and highly capable new Supt.

    Not even Mayor Rilling knows what he can accomplish. But without a new team in City Hall and a group of advisors well experienced in major league management and finance it’s truly “against the odds”. I watch our proverbial “amen chorus” – the BET. As long as the BET lacks major league financial management Mayor Rilling will not achieve what us old timers want – an affordable City. Not one with stagnant property values, punitive taxes attractive only to transient renters. Our changing demographics require a city attractive to small business – not just renters.

    The rise and decline of CT’s major cities is well documented not only by CPEC but by the Business Opportunity Commission which closely examined Bridgeport’s collapse. Only Stamford is thriving with Danbury coming up fast. To avoid the Bridgeport solution – stagnant property values were the early warning sign – Norwalk needs a substantially more capable management team. If Mayor Rilling can be put that new team in place he’ll be long remembered as a “true public servant”. It’s never easy to transform a large malfunctioning organization. But it always takes a new team. Large public firm CEO’s normally get “the deed” done in 30 days. In Government it takes longer. Our recent mayors gave change only “lip service”. City Hall has long been a very “comfortable” work environment.

    The best way we encourage Mayor Rilling to be our most effective mayor in recent times is by bringing in a new team using professional search firms. BOE Chair Mike Lyons, a corporate attorney, showed us the results from this approach. Using “old boy” networks always yields inferior results.

    The new budget provides an opportunity for Mayor Rilling to pressure his inherited team to lower costs. He can put pressure on the City’s de facto manager – our Finance Head – and he can ask the BET to be other than an “amen chorus”. An initial positive result would be holding an unchanged City budget. There’s no shortage of skilled executives that could advise him how to do it as an “advisory team”. Just inquire how our surrounding towns, among the wealthiest in America, conduct their financial affairs. They watch their pennies very carefully. It’s not rocket science. It’s all about assembling a first rate team and holding their feet to the fire.

    Our primary goal ought to be to encourage Mayor Rilling to be the best possible mayor he can become. Expressing positive views in NON can contribute modestly to that success.

  8. the donut hole

    stirring up controversies where none exist is how newspapers are sold. this is a non story right now. short of someone having pictures of Rilling with farm animals he will be re-elected. That’s how we roll. He is planting seeds now and if the fruits don’t show in term two, then he’ll be tossed out.

  9. Suzanne

    You mean if we see Rilling with a Holstein, Nubian or Floppy-eared we are in trouble? The implications of farm yard animals is enormous. Let’s worry about this one too. Get serious.

  10. LongTimeDem

    Piberman. Always good to hear from the representative of the apartheid-era South African Chamber of Mines.

  11. piberman

    LongTime Dem

    Please get your “facts” right. “Civility” encourages useful public discourse. If you object to comments then let us hear your thoughts.
    We’re all hear to learn. And, it helps not to hide ones identify. Its the American way.

  12. LongTimeDem

    Mr. Berman, you are absolutely right. While I disagree with most everything you write here, that does not give me license to act like a jerk. You have my apologies for my rude, uncivil and inconsiderate comment.

  13. Piberman

    Long Time Dem

    Thank you.

    Please do contribute your views. The Norwalk I knew 3 and 4 decades ago was abuzz with civic discourse with dozens if not hundreds of interested citizens spending time and energies on civic affairs. It was why I chose to live here. NON has provided a much needed forum to revitalize our civic discussions.

  14. LWitherspoon

    @Mark Chapman
    While there is certainly some “naiveté, disingenuousness, hypocrisy or just plain toxic partisanship” among Mayor Rilling’s detractors, there are also people who are simply calling for Mayor Rilling’s campaign promises to be compared to his actions as Mayor.
    Of course, certain boards and commissions and the Common Council are not under the Mayor’s influence. Nonetheless, Mayor Rilling still wields great power. I believe Finance Director Thomas Hamilton serves at the pleasure of Mayor Rilling. If that’s true, would you agree that the budget Mr. Hamilton has prepared reflects Mayor Rilling’s priorities?
    Candidate Rilling promised more bike lanes, better roads, and better sidewalks. I applaud those promises. He also unequivocally stated that Norwalk taxes are too high relative to the value of services received. I think it’s reasonable to ask where in the budget we can find Rilling’s plan to make good on his promises, and asking the question doesn’t constitute “naiveté, disingenuousness, hypocrisy or just plain toxic partisanship”. Asking those questions and reminding readers of promises and statements made during the campaign falls under the definition of watchdog journalism.
    With respect to department heads, I hope someone will shine a light on the “various deals and restrictions” constraining Mayor Rilling.

  15. LWitherspoon

    Since when do personnel directors get fired because of a harassment complaint and a discrimination complaint, neither of which led to any official finding of improper behavior? Is there a double standard where Union employees are innocent until proven guilty, while personnel directors are guilty the moment they are accused?
    I do not know or have any experience with Mr. Haselkamp, but I find it very odd that someone with 7+ years of experience who was deemed unsuitable to continue as the City’s personnel director immediately found a job performing the same exact job for another municipality. Thank you to NoN for reporting that news. If the criticisms of Mr. Haselkamp, largely made by Union employees or sympathizers, were in fact legitimate then what municipality in their right mind would hire him?

  16. Oldtimer

    Excellent question. Any bets on how long he will last in his new position ? How much due diligence do you think was done before he was hired this time ? He can be charming and is fairly bright, does pretty well in interviews, and can probably write up a pretty good looking resume. For some reason, he doesn’t seem to last long in any of the jobs he has landed. You are too logical and forget that a lot of municipal chief executives have way too much faith in their ability to judge people and don’t bother with the due diligence part of hiring. As time goes by, I think you will be impressed by the way Mayor Rilling operates. As Reagan once said “trust, but verify”.

  17. anonymous

    LWitherspoon makes valid points.

    Rilling’s dismissal of Haselkamp was a favor to the unions. It wasn’t Haselkamps temper that bothered the unions, it was his results. Which is why another municipality snapped him up so quickly. If Haselkamp had worn a bag over his head in negotiations, nasty as can be, but gave the unions whatever they wanted, the unions and their allies would not have lodged those unsubstantiated ‘complaints’. Follow the money.

  18. LWitherspoon

    According to published reports, Mr. Haselkamp worked at four municipalities in a thirty-year career prior to being hired by Trumbull. What’s your definition of “lasting long”? Since you are a retired Union officer, I suspect you may be prioritizing longevity above all else.
    Neither of us knows how much due diligence was done by Trumbull before hiring Mr. Haselkamp. I encourage you to research the question and prove the accuracy of your dubious theory that Mr. Haselkamp only gets hired because nobody ever does any due diligence. While you’re at it, ask how many applications Trumbull received. Norwalk received 59 or more.
    What we do know is that during the time Mr. Haselkamp worked as personnel director in Norwalk, the City successfully took steps to rein in the yearly growth in the cost of benefits. Retired union guys such as yourself complained mightily about Mr. Haselkamp during the last election cycle, but none of them ever came up with any official findings of improper behavior. Oh, and somebody called the police when he raised his voice during a negotiation session.
    The Union-endorsed candidate won, and Mr. Haselkamp was dismissed by the new mayor. He is immediately hired by the town of Trumbull, which incidentally is much closer to his home in Milford. Faced with this set of facts, any reasonable person would wonder whether or not it was really in Norwalk’s best interest to dismiss Mr. Haselkamp.

  19. loveforthecity

    You folks are so caught up on Haselkamp, who cares the guy is gone. Rilling is no different than Moccia. He plays musical chairs with appointments and has not cleaned up city hall. Promises, promises, promises, looks like we have another Moccia. We’ll have a 1 term Mayor.

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