Opinion: Tangible evidence of mayor’s efforts still months away

Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling is making moves to put his agenda into action.
Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling is making moves to put his agenda into action.

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.”



12 responses to “Opinion: Tangible evidence of mayor’s efforts still months away”

  1. piberman

    Norwalk’s no 1 issue is finance and taxation and their effects on stagnant property values as the City undergoes unprecedented demographic change. Raising spending 55% ovef 2 decades amidst almost flat incomes of our residents (up only 10%) requires attention. In no other area can the new Mayor have such rapid change ad in City finances snd budgets. Yet appointing the former Chair of NEON to the BET sent a clear signal that finance and taxation isn’t on the front burner. So property values continue to stagnate amidst a housing boom nationally and regionally. And will likely continue to do so.

  2. Taxpayer Fatigue

    Unless there is a change in how our schools are funded, or the BOE actually reduces its budget and at least holds the line with the teacher’s union, there are very few options to reduce property taxes. Rilling is smart to focus on trying to move the development projects forward as that will increase the grand list and hopefully, either slow the increase in property taxes and even better, but more unlikely, reduce them. The city departmental budgets are actually pretty slim, especially when compared to ten years ago, except for the police department, which is always fully funded. You can argue over whether the other city departments are effective or not, but in terms of employees, they are doing more with less.
    It’s always funny to me how the only time republicans “demand” fiscal responsibility, is when they are not in charge!

  3. Tim D

    Perhaps Mayor Rilling could make a play for Bridgewater Capital now that they have officially opted out of a move to Stamford as a real alternative for the ill fated mall location. A call to Gov Malloy might be a way to at least kick start the idea of what it would take to land that sort of anchor for Sono.

  4. One and Done.

    Sitting there with a blank stare shouldn’t be equated with listening. It’s summer time and that means vacation. Actually, looking at the last few agenda it would seem vacation started in May. And when fall starts, mission one is re-electing Dannel. Once the dust settles on that its getting 2 more years closer to another pension. This is all it is about and that’s not a partisan slant.

  5. piberman

    “Very few options to reduce City budgets” ? Have you had any experience managing large enterprises ? The vast majority of municipalities across America reduced their budgets. To the extent that it extended the Recession. Even the Federal Gov’t managed to reduce employment. But not Norwalk where we only have managers who only are capable of increasing budgets providing same services and apparently incapable of major innovation in the computer age. By using the same team he inherited our Mayor ensures the same results. Its not a matter of parties but managerial competence. Norwalk is not known for managerial excellence. Go ask around.

  6. Taxpayer Fatigue

    I have not managed any municipal budgets but I have managed corporate budgets larger than the city’s with much more complex organizations with more employees. If the Council, which has the final say in setting the budget cap, wanted to reduce the budget on the city side, it would have to be a very large cut to have any noticeable effect on property taxes, as it is the BOE where the majority of funding goes. If you look at the staffing on the city side, with the exception of the police, all of the departments have seen pretty big reductions over the last decade. Unfortunately insurance costs and yes, all of the union contracts that Moccia and the republican councils (and the BOE until Fred Bondi finally said “enough”) have rubber stamped, eliminated much of the cost savings, along with the ever increasing insurance costs.
    The doing “more with less” cuts have already been made, the real issue is what city services would the taxpayers be willing to do without?

  7. Piberman

    Behold a new theory of management – we’re doing the best we can ! Always with the same team. Any manager can learn to do more with less. But not in Norwalk. Against the rules. Sigh. Nothing for the Mayor to do. Glory be. We’re so good we discourage new home owners.

  8. Taxpayer Fatigue

    Rilling has fulfilled some of his campaign promises by changing out the personnel director and the marketing director (assuming a replacement finally gets hired). He still has a couple of department heads that he promised many of his supporters that he would replace. Of course any organization has room for incremental improvements, but real change is driven by leadership and replacing department heads that are dysfunctional and/or continually making bad decisions. Let’s hope he acts on the other two that he promised to replace soon as he will quickly be half-way through his term. Given the structure of our city government, Rilling has extremely limited power unless he is able to win re-election and get control of all of the city commissions through appointments. And yes, Berman, I agree, some of his appointments have been disappointing.

    I disagree that the mayor’s term should be extended to four years – I think we should eliminate the mayor’s position altogether, or just have an unpaid, ceremonial position and use the money to hire a professional city manager who will ride herd over the department heads. The current setup obfuscates who has the real power in the city, which is largely the council, led by the majority leader, who sets the agenda for the council meeting and has to approve basically everything that happens in the city, including budgets, union contracts, employee raises and budget caps for both the city and the BOE.

  9. Scott

    Everyone thinks that Mayor Rilling bowed down to the unions. I can tell you that as far as AFSCME Local 2405 he never made any financial promises. Our only complaint was primarily with the director of personnel. Jim Haselkamp looked down his nose at labor and negotiating with him was like dealing with a dishonest used car salesman. Ask the Stamford PD what he thinks of police officers. He was a bitter man. If he was firm but honest we would have respected him.
    Local 2405 has not in my 17 years as an employee ever signed some ‘sweet’ deal. We have given back in every contract with small cost of living raises as consolation. The give backs have mostly out weighed the raises. What was once considered a great job with great benefits has gradually come back to the pack to be only slightly better than the private sector. I challenge anybody to read the past contracts and prove me wrong. And by the way i am born and bred in Norwalk and am a homeowner and tax payer

  10. piberman

    Gentle readers:

    Why is it that Norwalk’s mayors upon retirement are never snatched up for new opportunities using their managerial capabilities ? And leadership skills.

    Ditto for our Dept Heads ? Why isn’t their performance soliciting new more generous offers ?

    Why are Norwalk’s housing values stagnant now for several years running ? Why are would be home buyers going elsewhere ? Could our taxes and governance be to blame ?

    Why do our citizens generally fail to attend public meetings ? Too painful ?

    Why do other CT cities elevate their mayors as potential Gubinatorial candidates but mot Norwalk ?

    Why would a local paper write a long opinion defending the new mayor from criticism ? Can’t recall a similar episode anywhere else in CT !

    Why are readers so reluctant to utter praises about their City officials ?

    If City officials are really doing a stand up governance why isn’t it recognized elsewhere ?

    Why has City resident’s income virtually stagnated these past two decades ?

    Why is it rather uncommon for long time resident’s children to live in Norwalk ?

    Above is the short list. Of course when our wealthy neighbors come downtown braving the congestion and crime to get to the mall (especially at evening time) all will be well in our fair City.

  11. Taxpayer Fatigue

    So, shrink the government, layoff a bunch of people, cut a bunch of services and that will somehow make things better? What a great plan you are pushing. I agree we need better leadership and better ways of doing things. Any newly minted MBA knows you can’t cut your way to prosperity. We aren’t going to get the kind of change from anyone in Norwalk who will run for mayor, which is why we’d be better off with a city manager, who has financial, technology and human resource expertise and real experience running cities. Who did we have to choose from this last time? A worked in Norwalk only department head – the police chief who at least managed 50 or 60 people, an attorney (no experience managing organizations and people – we already did that under Knopp), the ex-town clerk, who managed five or six people, a 30 year old who managed somebody’s campaign and had some job in a municipality somewhere in connecticut for a year or two, or the incumbent mayor who was previously the dog catcher and a catering hall manager…

    I agree with your questions, I just don’t think your recommendation to just cut the city budget will solve any of the problems. Esposito disinvested in Norwalk for years and now we are paying the price as our infrastructure is crumbling around us.

  12. peter parker

    Mayor Rilling is an incompetent and is paralyzed by his inability, and fear of making a decision. He is not a leader or visionary. He is only a glamour puss opportunist (Oh I’m Harry the Dapper Dan photo op Mayor please love me aren’t I cool I not only ride the bull but I throw it too). This Mayor is a sideline sitter and fearful of getting in the game. Jump in Harry and take control of the reins! What are you afraid of, is it Hal Alvord? Be a man and lead from the front!

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