NORWALK, Conn. – The debate about South Norwalk parks, which started with a silent protest vote at last week’s Common Council meeting, continues this week as Democrats voice their concerns and a key Republican defends the amount of work that has been done to help inner-city youth.
Five Democrats voted against the reappointment of Parks and Recreation Director Mike Mocciae at last Tuesday’s Common Council meeting after sitting mute as Republican caucus members lauded him and the job he has been doing since 1998. After the meeting, Councilwoman Faye Bowman (D-District B) said that was because Mocciae “doesn’t do anything for the parks in South Norwalk.”
That surprised Majority Leader Jerry Petrini (R-District D).
Petrini, who is chairman of the council’s Parks and Recreation Committee, said Saturday that he heard before the meeting that Democrats were going to criticize Mocciae’s attention to South Norwalk, and he had prepared a list of things to show that much had been done.
“I never expected them to vote ‘no’ for his appointment. I just figured they were going to bring up some things and we’d debate. I was taken aback,” he said.
His list includes:
Woodward Avenue Park: About 30 new trees and a resurfaced tennis court, as well as a new playground put in a few years ago.
Ryan Park: A resurfaced basketball court and all new playground equipment.
Nathaniel Ely school: “We didn’t do anything to the basketball courts because they’re maintained by the Housing Authority, not Parks and Rec. But he did refurbish the tennis courts.”
Meadow Gardens: “He redid the sidewalks because they were all being pushed up by the roots that were overgrown. He repainted the basketball backboards because they were completely full of graffiti. He replaced the tabletops on the older tables.”
Bowman said last week that Bouton Park had a new playground gym, but that was paid for with a grant from GE.
Petrini said that was because a corporation approached Mocciae and offered to do something for the city. Mocciae chose Bouton Park. The new gym was worth $140,000, he said.
Some fact checking: There is, indeed, a newly resurfaced tennis court at Woodward Avenue Park, but there is no net. The basketball court has no lines on it, as Bowman described.
A woman who was talking to Bowman at last week’s council meeting complained that the San Vicenzo community garden is neglected. Bowman agreed with her as part of the complaint against Mocciae.
“I’d be surprised if we did (any work there) because we don’t even maintain that community garden,” Petrini said. “It’s supposed be maintained by NEON (Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now).”
Mocciae tries to fund Fodor Farm, but money is cut out of the capital budget request every year, Petrini said.
Fodor Farm is actually in District E1. Asked about that, Petrini said he thought many South Norwalk people probably have plots there.
It isn’t far from District B’s Flax Hill Park, where a recent Mocciae effort has gone awry, he said.
Five concrete tables, very much like the ones at Calf Pasture Beach, were installed in the park last week at a cost of $5,000, he said. They were completely destroyed within days, he said.
Flax Hill Park has a new pavilion that was paid for by a Lowe’s Corporation grant to Keep Norwalk Beautiful. Petrini said there will be new walking trails there in the spring.
Mocciae met August or September 2013 with 18 leaders of Norwalk’s organized sports programs, Petrini said. “Every time they go out of town, some of these other suburban schools say they have this and that,” he said.
But money is hard to come by – taxpayers cannot take anymore, he said. The sports league presidents have a plan.
“They understand that money was tight they really commend Mike on the job with what he has to work with,” he said. “All 18 of them are thinking of starting a 501(c)3 to try to get grants and funding and fundraise to try to help offset some of the lack of funding and upgrades some of the fields and things.”
It would have been nice if the Democrats came to him, he said.
“I’m probably one of the most moderate and accessible councilmen. I’m going to put Norwalk first regardless of my party affiliation,” he said. “In my two years as a council member I can’t remember one councilman coming to me to complain about what has been done in any of our parks. … Mike does a heck of a job for what he’s got, and if there are any concerns, come down and come and talk to me or talk to Mike, but I feel bad. I was kind of embarrassed when they voted no and I’m sure he was. He was surprised, too.”
A Monday email from Bowman suggests that maybe no one should have been surprised.
“Mayor (Harry) Rilling and Mr. Moccaie were aware of the disapproval prior to Council meeting,” she wrote. “I believe a meeting is being planned with several key individuals. However a couple of the Democratic Council members wanted to talk to Mr. Moccaie prior to the vote for reappointment to reach some understanding but that didn’t happen. I am not sure why.”
Rilling confirmed a meeting between Mocciae and Democratic caucus members is in the works.
Bowman agreed that Bouton Street has been improved and said the Flax Hill vandalism will be covered by the city’s insurance.
Her other points:
• “Jefferson Elementary is not in South Norwalk, which automatically means we’re talking about what, maybe $20,000 to $30,000 only spent on South Norwalk in the past 10 years according to Councilman Petrini. That needs to be stepped up. South Norwalk residents do pay taxes.”
• “I met with the Meadows Gardens tenant representative during the mayoral primary and she showed me how the cracks in the cement around the tables are so dangerous, you have to be careful not to trip and fall if you do sit at the tables, but is very dangerous for kids.”
• “What’s the point of resurfacing a court without putting lines down if you truly intend for it to be utilized? There are also plans to resurface Meadows Gardens basketball courts with no plan to replace lines. Which leaves rectangles of cement that will be used by people to hang out instead of playing basketball, and also in the end is a waste of the money used to resurface because now the court is essentially useless for basketball.”
• “Ryan Park and Woodward Avenue Park currently don’t have lines and if Meadows Gardens Park gets resurfaced without lines that will make three parks without lines.”
• “There are extra monies spent at some of the other parks for things that are unnecessary that could be redirected to South Norwalk parks.”
Bowman said she has discussed the issue with Petrini and Mocciae.
“We spoke about what has been done, what needs to be done, and the financial situation,” she wrote. “In the spirit of moving forward, I will offer that my take away from how improvement projects have been handled in South Norwalk is that we need to be more strategic about the Parks and Rec projects in South Norwalk. It’s better to have one or two functional parks than several semi-functional parks that are more appealing for hanging out then recreation. Also, if some sort of increased security at the parks needs to be a solution then we need to look into that. Then there is the issue of opening up a couple of the gyms for Open Recreation; that should definitely be a part of a strategic plan for Parks and Recreation. I suggested to Mayor Rilling a Parks and Rec staff person dedicated at least 1/2 time to planning, overseeing, and identifying funding for these improvements.”
Rilling said the no-voting Dems were “making a kind of statement that attention be paid to the parks.” You “need to bring this type of thing to the surface,” he said.
Rilling said he’s going to tour the parks with Mocciae and see what might be improved upon.
“(Mocciae) is willing to work with us to make sure that those kind kinds of things get the attention — I’m in contact with lot of the department heads; we need to make sure we are doing everything we can to make sure we make a city that’s good for all of our citizens.”