NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling joined about two dozen other new mayors and mayors-elect from around the country for a three-day seminar this week at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., and he checked in Thursday afternoon with Norwalk media members via conference call.
Attendance at the event was by invitation only, and program proceedings are off the record and closed to the press, according to the sponsoring Harvard University’s Institute of Politics website. All travel expenses, lodging and meals for new mayors and their spouses are paid for by the Institute of Politics, the website said.
Guest speakers included Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, former Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, and other current and former mayors and public safety officials from around the country. Rilling also met former Boston mayor and presidential candidate Michael Dukakis and his wife, Kitty. Also speaking was Edward Glaeser, economist, author and Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics at Harvard University.
Rilling said the topics were wide ranging, and the mayors – all from cities of at least 70,000 people – represented a diverse geographic range, from Alaska to California to Florida to Boston. Norwalk, he said, was among the smallest cities represented. Rilling also said he was one of the few mayors who had already been sworn in.
Among the things he has learned, he said, is that “Big or small, we all have the same priorities and the same kinds of problems.” He said there was a general agreement that the three things the public are most concerned with are education, safety and quality of life. He said those are the things that people care most about when choosing a community.
“These are things we talked about in the campaign,” he said, “fixing sidewalks, good streets, a good school system, availability of jobs.”
Rilling said much of the time was spent in panel discussions, with questions-and-answer sessions to follow. Among the other topics was development – apropos to Norwalk as POKO Partners requests yet another six-month extension as the group tries to finance its long-stalled Wall Street development.
“There are obstacles to development,” he said, citing a common thread for many of the attendees. “Permitting needs to be streamlined. If there are too many regulations, too many obstacles, businesses will go elsewhere. We see that now. Stamford is building, and things are stalled in Norwalk.”
Rilling said he learned about some sources of financing worth exploring involving the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) and public-private partnerships. There is money available to assist with development, he said, with loans guaranteed by FDIC.
He also said it was noted that, for smaller municipalities, economic development plans are more effective when they are regional. He gave, as an example, finding areas to work on with Stamford and Bridgeport.
While he was one of just three new mayors who had not had prior experience serving on the governing boards of cities or towns, he said his plan to form a mayor’s advisory committee was well-received by the group. The committee, he said, will involve stakeholders, citizens and members of the business community.
The mayor said he was pleased that the seminar ignored politics in favor of issues. He said there were mayors from both sides of the aisle, as well as non-partisans. There were no philosophical or ideological discussions, he said.
Rilling said he was struck by the words of former mayors, who said “You are in a wonderful job,” and that it was an experience they enjoyed tremendously.
“I’m enjoying it tremendously already,” he said.
The seminar ends Friday afternoon.