NORWALK, Conn. – A recent story here at NancyOnNorwalk is a good metaphor for what is taking place in City Hall.
Steve Green, the Recreation and Parks carpenter chosen to rebuild the house at Fodor Farm, detailed his task and expressed some frustration as having to strip away layer upon layer and remove decaying materials just to get to the starting point to do things, in his opinion and experience, the right way.
Mayor Harry Rilling inherited a mayor’s office inhabited by Richard Moccia for eight years. He is now in the process of making the office his own.
We’ve spoken with the mayor and with others in City Hall and of volunteer boards, and we have heard mixed reports from volunteers and residents and NoN commenters, much of it colored by partisanship on both sides.
It is after all that input that we believe that no one should expect to see anything substantial or tangible from this mayor until at least mid to late fall.
This is not to say he is not doing his job. Rilling has been holding regular meetings with department heads, developers, business leaders and key volunteers. He was in regular contact with NEON as it circled the drain, monitoring a situation he had no legal standing to control, but the consequences of which would affect so many Norwalk citizens.
He has also, to the consternation of some, been forming task forces to study various situations in the city and report back with recommendations. While this seems to be standard practice in many places, including the federal and state governments under presidents and governors Red and Blue, this has annoyed some people. It shouldn’t. There is a certain lack of arrogance about a governmental leader who realizes she or he does not know best in all matters. To enlist educated and enthusiastic volunteers – no cost to the taxpayers – to help solve vexing issues makes sense.
Task forces are among the few really visible things we expect the public to see for a while. The public in general does not see the attitude change at city hall, or in public meetings. That is not to say everything is beautiful. There are still serious divisions among some factions. There are rifts in the Democratic Party – no surprise – but there are also problems within the Republican Party. There are former board members with seriously bruised egos after not being reappointed, and City Hall employees who might have found life easier in the previous administration. These are all things under the surface.
Then there are the department heads, board appointees and city workers.
We have mentioned department heads in the past. Two direct-reports to the mayor –James Haselkamp and Tad Diesel – resigned shortly after Rilling was elected, knowing their contracts would not be renewed. Corporation Counsel Bob Maslan, whose term expired, was not reappointed. All were hired by the previous mayor and were loyalists. There are contractual and, yes, political considerations involving other department heads, some of who would not be described as Rilling fans. While we have no direct knowledge, we expect more changes by this time next year.
We wrote some months ago, before the election, that perhaps the most important thing a mayor does is make appointments to boards and get them confirmed by Common Council. Over Moccia’s last two terms, he was able to stack city commissions with his people. Among the most memorable was the non-reappointment of Attorney Adam Blank, who had expertise in land use issues, from the Zoning Commission, and the appointment of inexperienced Linda Kruk in his place. Blank had bucked Moccia on zoning changes that would grease the skids for Lowes and BJ’s Wholesale Club. Blank paid the price, and Moccia said he just felt it was important to have “new blood” on the board. That did not apply to Joe Santo and his 20 years on the board that he chairs. Kruk, for her part, went on record during the BJ’s hearings questioning whether the city had the right to decide what property owners could build on their land.
Right now, with major development issues before the city, the Zoning Commission and Planning Commission are dominated by Moccia’s appointees. Oak Hills Park Authority is dominated by Moccia’s people. When appointments are up and Rilling wants changes, he will have to negotiate them through a Republican-held Common Council that includes a few Democrats that treat him like the Tea Party treats John Boehner.
All of this points to why it will take time for this mayor to show serious, tangible results to the taxpayers. Rilling had little to do with the current budget, which was pretty much in place when he assumed office. He had not control over the property revaluation that sent some tax bills through the roof. He will be blamed by some for the increase as we will be praised for fully funding the schools and increasing safety.
“I know I will get credit for things that Moccia did, and I will be blamed for things he did, too. I accept that,” Rilling said in a candid moment last week. He admitted it will take time to be able to put his stamp on the city.
Rilling is likely to reap the benefits of the increase in city tax revenue generated from SoNo Ironworks, Waypointe and other developments that were under way before he took office. He will be the mayor under whom the Washington Village remake got its $30 million grant. But he will also be the mayor who will get credit or blame for whatever happens with the current mall proposal, what happens with the long-stalled Wall Street Place and Head of the Harbor projects and what groups winds up as the new CAP agency to replace NEON (Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now). This, even though the mayor has no final say in the projects.
When it comes to development, it’s all about the appointed boards, the Council – and leadership.
It does take time to put a team together – not just department heads, but the commissioners, boards, authorities and, yes task forces, he said. You have to have people who are on board with your vision to get things done, Rilling said.
That’s why two-year mayoral terms make little sense, something we have seen for ourselves and something people on both sides of the aisle have told us. Rilling says he wants to address the situation next year, to try to get a change passed to make the mayor a four-year term with a two-term limit, he said. “I think eight years is enough for anyone.”