Opinion: Looking back at 2013 – what a year

Many things have changed at Norwalk City Hall over the course of the year.

NORWALK, Conn. – That was the year that was.

Tom Lehrer recorded an album by that name based on songs used on the TV show, “That Was the Week That Was” – also called “TW3” – in 1964 and 1965. Yes, I am dating myself, but it is, at least, a cheap date. (Trivia points: Who sang the title song on the TV show?)

In Norwalk, 2013 was, indeed, The Year That Was. And what was it? It was the year that Norwalk said goodbye to its long-term mayor and turned to a career cop to lead the city.

And a cop might just be what Norwalk needs. The city experienced three instances of employees being accused of pilfering from the taxpayers, one from the town clerk’s office, the others from Norwalk Public Schools. IT specialist Robert Polselli resigned after being accused of making improper purchases on his school credit card,  and Facilities Director Mark Gorian was terminated after being investigated for alleged improprieties involving equipment.

In the third instance, Assistant Town Clerk Debbie Troy was arrested and charged with stealing money from the Town Clerk’s Office over a period of time. She is due in court Jan. 2.

The change in the mayor’s office brought a touch of irony. Richard Moccia, the career politician, was taking fire from several quarters for what was seen as his lack of respect for citizens and city employees alike, his conduct in public meetings being cited as rude and condescending. Harry Rilling, after 41 years on the Norwalk Police Department – 17 as chief – sold himself as the kinder and gentler option, with the words “civility” and “respect” becoming his mantras. After Rilling won by 9 percentage points, Moccia said he lost because he did not get his message out. Others said the problem was the voters had heard the message for eight years and wanted a change.

Nothing came easy in 2013. The school budget had been decimated by the discovery of a $4 million shortfall, prompting major cuts in staff and programs. Susan Marks had resigned two years into her contract as schools superintendent, and Norwalk went into 2013 in search of a replacement. That search was surrounded by controversy, conducted as it was away from the public eye.

While the taxpayers were allowed input into what it wanted in a superintendent, the search itself was done behind closed doors until the Board of Education settled on a candidate. Manny Rivera, a former U.S. Superintendent of the Year while in Rochester, N.Y., brought with him a glittery resume and reputation, along with a local connection – his kids had gone to school here. The choice, if not the process, was hailed by the majority of Norwalkers.

Summer in the city brought a hot new superintendent, but it also brought an ugly incident in the parking lot of City Hall. A verbal disagreement between Regina Krummel and Democratic Town Committee Chairwoman Amanda Brown turned physical, bringing Regina’s husband, Bill, into the fray. Krummel, the DTC District E chairman, slapped Brown, and Brown slugged the octogenarian, cutting Krummel’s eye and igniting a firestorm of criticism and demands for her arrest.

Stories differed as to how the altercation began, but the incident threatened to become politicized as citizens called for the candidates to demand Brown’s resignation as party chair. Rilling, in particular, was chided when the former cop refused to call for her resignation or arrest unless an investigation showed who was at fault. Mayoral candidate Andy Garfunkel called for Brown to step down, followed later by candidate Matt Miklave. NancyOnNorwalk called for Brown and the Krummels to step down from their leadership roles in the party lest they become distractions in the mayor’s race.

No one resigned or was arrested, and life went on.

Things did not get much better for the Democrats when it came time to endorse a mayor candidate. Rilling, Garfunkel, Miklave and Vinny Mangiacopra went into the DTC convention with plans to force a primary election no matter who the party decided to back. But the party could not make up its mind after eight ballots, and the quartet headed for a fall primary without an endorsement. When the voters got a chance to decide they made their feelings known in no uncertain terms, giving Rilling more than 51 percent of the vote, more than all the others combined.

There were other battles.

  • Golfers squared off against nature lovers at Oak Hills Park, with the Oak Hills Park Authority leading the charge to build a golf driving range that would necessitate tearing down a large portion of woods prized by nature-lovers. An alternative site was proposed and tentatively chosen, although that battle continues into 2014.
  • The Zoning Commission was sued in its bid to deny permission for a mosque with an accessory building to be built off Fillow Street in West Norwalk. The mosque backers took the city to court claiming religious discrimination in a suit that, should the city lose, could cost Norwalk taxpayers millions, as they would be on the hook for the mosque’s legal fees. Arguments are scheduled to be heard in June.
  • The Zoning Commission was involved in another flap, this one involving an attempt by BJ’s Wholesale Club to locate a store on a Superfund site on Main Avenue. The plan was questioned by some members of the Zoning Commission and was opposed by members of the community who feared the effect on traffic in the already-congested area. After plenty of back-and-forth, BJ’s withdrew its application.
  • Perhaps the most acrimonious battle of 2013 involved the disintegration of the social service agency Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON). With the agency already fighting to recover from accusations of financial improprieties and nepotism under former President and CEO Joe Mann, things only got worse as federal and state audits found a dysfunctional management staff with little or no proper financial controls or reporting. A new Board of Directors took office in March, and, by early October, half the members had resigned in frustration. As interim CEO Pat Pheanious Wilson’s tenure wound down, the internal drumbeat rose to appoint Chiquita Stephenson in her place. Despite questions about her past connections to Mann and Wilson, under whom the agency continued its downward spiral, and about her professed educational credentials, Stephenson was given a six-month appointment. Less than three months later, after handing out paychecks with no money to back them up, she was gone. New interim CEO the Rev. Tommie Jackson took over, cut staff and programs and said the agency might wind up declaring bankruptcy.

But for every cloud, there is a silver lining.

  • NEON lost the Head Start program, which shut down for weeks, but, going into 2014, the early education program has been awarded for five years to the Norwalk Housing Authority.
  • While there will be no BJ’s on Main Avenue – and while Wall Street languishes and the 95/7 development remains up in the air with new landowners – Waypointe on West Avenue is well on its way to completion of Phase 1, and 20 North Water is taking shape.
  • And, while the current property revaluation has shown a drop in property values and has some homeowners upset about what they see as unfairness in the valuation system, the process has shifted a small amount of the tax burden from private property to commercial.

Indeed, that was the year that was. It’s over, let it go. We start fresh – sort of – at midnight.

Happy New Year!


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