Rilling, Brinton, present disparate views of Norwalk in League debate

Republican-endorsed Mayoral candidate Lisa Brinton, left; Democratic incumbent Mayor Harry Rilling, right.
The election is Nov. 5.

NORWALK, Conn. – Mayor Harry Rilling and challenger Lisa Brinton duked it out Monday in a debate-like forum before a standing-room-only crowd in the City Hall community room.

Brinton often looked amused as she delivered many jabs about what she described as errors, bad policies and/or declining conditions, presenting many statistics to support her claims. Rilling was relaxed, confident and poised as she repeatedly slammed him, standing by his strategy to develop Norwalk’s urban core, touting progress in Norwalk Public Schools and smiling only occasionally, at one point cracking a grin when Brinton claimed that he is scared of Citibank.

Video of entire event, by Harold Cobin, at end of story

The crowd was civil, respectful and quiet throughout the hour-long discussion hosted by the League of Women Voters of Norwalk.

Rilling is a three-term Democrat first elected in 2013, seeking reelection. Brinton is an unaffiliated voter endorsed by the Republican Party, who challenged Rilling two years ago as part of a four-candidate field. Brinton described herself as the “David” in a David and Goliath battle and painted herself as a capable businesswoman who can handle the challenges; Rilling depicted himself as an experienced statesman, in his closing statement saying, “Decisions at the mayor’s level or not easy. There’s a lot of layers in city government. It’s not easy to say, ‘you run your city like a business.’”




The first question from moderator Jean Rabinow touched upon a hot button issue: “Considering the development that’s going on in Norwalk over the past 10 years, what is your vision for the future?

“It’s interesting because there was a team that came in today to Norwalk to look at some potential investments that they were willing to make. And the comment that they made was Norwalk is the hottest city on the east coast,” Rilling said, going on to describe the city as a desirable community but cautioning that neighborhood integrity needs to be maintained.

The way to grow the Grand List and keep the character of the city is to develop the urban core with a focus on transportation hubs, he said.

“Despite the news claims of being a hot city. We do not need to turn into a Westchester County where $400,000 house here is a $15,000 tax bill,” Brinton said. “I want to focus on stronger leadership to protect our quality of life. I want to focus on the financial management chosen who was profiting off of your city Norwalk, and I want to defend us against special interests and the state.”

She asked how Norwalk will pay for growth when it’s heavily reliant on property taxes, with a Grand List that grew 12% while expenses grew by 24%.

“Despite all this hot growth, we use the Rainy Day Fund to fund the operating budget,” she said. “What’s the healthy balance between home ownership and multi-unit apartments? And my concern, quite frankly is the amount of money that we may have wasted over the last year 10 years…. I want to talk about the various decisions that have been made over the last six years that have cost Norwalkers dearly.

Rilling replied that he is proud of Norwalk’s fiscal management.

“During this fiscal year, in five out of six districts, the median priced home, the taxes went down,” he said. “Not only that, we were able to reduce our mill rate by 10%. We have the lowest mill rate of any city our size of the state of Connecticut.”

Rilling didn’t mention the city’s Triple A bond rating; Brinton said that’s what’s usually referred to.

“No, I disagree. The taxpayers of Norwalk have a Triple A bond rating,” she said, slamming the recent property revaluation as resulting in 1,800 appeals and 400 lawsuits.


Growing the Grand List?

Rabinow asked the candidates how they’d grow the tax base.

The Republican Party’s candidate, Lisa Brinton, Monday in City Hall.

“It’s a combination of what I call prosperity and reform,” Brinton said, advocating to “restore” Manresa Island to a marina and support Robert Kunkel’s plan for a catamaran shipping service to Long Island. She charged that there are no jobs here, and, “The business we’ve been in lately has been the apartment business. Meanwhile, we have let small businesses escape.”

A potato chip maker got no interest from the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency, a restaurant went to Black Rock and a new location could have been found for the Brew House, she said.

“Growing the Grand List was the question and it is by developing the urban core,” Rilling said.

Young people want to move here, and you need retail and residential in the same space, he asserted. “As they come in the businesses will follow.”

“I’d like to know what our occupancy rate is with all of the apartments in the urban core,” Brinton said. “I know one of them that probably is the most occupied is the Waypointe. But I also know that that’s up for sale, probably as a result of the reevaluation has just happened. Build it and flip it.”

She shifted the conversation to the city’s most visible problem: the stalled Wall Street Place development referred to as “POKO.”

“If we’re trying develop our urban core, then why are we trying to give 15 years of tax credits to the POKO building that will saddle this city for 15 years, and produce a $6 million development fee for the builder?” Brinton asked. “If we’re so hot, why are we having to give away our money as taxpayers?”

“There have been no tax credits,” Rilling said, explaining that POKO’s Land Disposition Agreement was drafted years before he became Mayor.

“We are working diligently to try to come up with a plan for the Wall Street Place that will be in the best interest of our community, making sure that we get it right,” Rilling said. “And right now, it’s, as I say, it’s in litigation right now. So I’m not at a real liberty to discuss it.”



Speaking of which

Rabinow asked the candidates if they support the plan to restart Wall Street Place.

Rilling said there’s no plan in front of the Common Council now, that in discussions City leaders learned that the public wants the Garden Cinemas saved and for the proposed design to reflect the neighborhood’s character.

“We listen to the people. We went back to the drawing board. We’re waiting for some further information relative to how those things are going to move forward. … That’s what responsible government is all about,” Rilling said.

Brinton charged, “The deal was going forward up until I got a cross endorsement by the Republican Party and the mayor knew that this would be a one on one race, and it’s been tabled. It’s been tabled until after the election.”

The Council tabled the plan in July. Rilling said it was being tabled until early September, but the Council has not taken up the topic in public. Mediation talks are underway with real estate broker Jason Milligan, who owns key property in the area and has talked publicly about proposing a deal to build a parking garage directly behind Wall Street Place.

Brinton continued to say that she does not support the proposal as explained to the Council in July, decrying to $800,000 an apartment pricetag spelled out by proposed redevelopers John and Todd McClutchy, and their plan to qualify for additional Low Income Housing Tax Credits.

Rilling replied, “You can rest assured that the city is working very diligently to try to make this the best project that we possibly can have. The problem right now is that we’re dealing with one of the largest lending institutions in the entire world…. So we have to sit down at the table, as responsible people, and talk about what we can do to make this the best project that can fit in Norwalk.”

The plan is to invest $4.5 million in the Wall Street area to make it vibrant again, Rilling said.

“Did you say that this was the largest institution in the world? Did I hear a hint of fear that you’re afraid of Citibank?” Brinton asked, describing her experience as “25 years in the corporate world, 20 years with AT&T and 15 years as a management consultant.”

“I would have absolutely no problem walking into Citibank and saying are you sure you want to hold Norwalk hostage over a project, a bad project,” she said. “They messed up, they gave a loan, it was defaulted. It’s their problem. It is not Norwalk’s.”


English Language Learners

Rabinow asked how they’d address the challenges of Norwalk schools, such as an influx of English Language Learners.

Brinton described her history as an education activist and said, “I’ve been working to close the achievement gap in this city for 15 years. That’s why we are the number one urban school district in the state.”

She recounted various school issues, including the challenge of Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) funding.

“We are now in a crisis situation in the number of children coming in, but bear in mind, Norwalk is the best district to be able to educate these children,” she said. “But we need help. So I would be promoting it with foundations, I would be going to corporations, I would be putting pressure back on the state.”

Democratic incumbent Mayor Harry Rilling, Monday in City Hall.

Rilling reminded everyone that not many years ago – during the Moccia administration – Concert Hall was routinely filled with angry parents during budget season. When he became Mayor, he established a good working relationship between the City and the Board of Education, and the Board’s strategic operating plan has been supported with budget increases, as well as the Board’s plan to build new schools and improve its existing buildings.

“Our Norwalk Public Schools is the most successful public school system right now in the state of Connecticut,” he said. “We have achievement gap index higher than any of those in our district representative group. And we have made some tremendous strides in reducing the achievement gap. And that’s because we work together with Board of Education.”

Rilling said, “We know that at the end of this fiscal year, the Board of Education will most likely have a surplus and we’ll be able to use that to offset any costs that we’re experiencing this year with the influx of the English Language Learners students.”

Rilling later said that U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D-Greenwich) has indicated he may find federal money to help fund the immigrants’ education. Brinton charged that Rilling hasn’t talked to the State Department of Education about the influx. Rilling said he had.

“We have to educate them. It’s the right thing to do,” Rilling said. “We welcome them and we want to help them achieve to their fullest potential.”

As time ran out, out of turn, Brinton asked, “What are you going to do, Mayor Rilling? What are you going to do?”

Rilling smiled and turned to Rabinow, shaking his head.



Brinton charged that Wall Street business owners are very upset about the recent changes to parking in the area – not only has reverse angle parking been installed but it’s not possible to park free on the street anymore.

The Norwalk Parking Authority didn’t consult the businesses and, “If I was elected mayor, I would be auditing our third-party agencies,” she said. “They are separate wards. They’re not accountable necessarily to the public, they have been appointed by the mayor.”

She also mentioned the changes this summer at Calf Pasture Beach and said, “This city is obsessed with parking, absolutely obsessed with it. I think that hurts business. Parking is supposed to encourage turnover, but that’s not our problem right now in Norwalk. Our problem is getting people into that (Wall Street) area. So I think that the policy was instituted prematurely.”

“The plan on Wall Street was implemented at the request of the …Wall Street Neighborhood Association, because the businesses down there did want turnover,” Rilling replied. “We found that a lot of people that were residents of the area, people that were employees of the area would take the parking places out on the street, and people couldn’t find a parking place down on Wall Street.”

Norwalkers watch the forum.

There were “many public hearings,” it was advertised in the paper, and when it was implemented, “questions started to arise.”

“So I support working through that issue and trying to tweak it a little bit to make the parking a little bit more effective,” Rilling said. “Having a 30-minute free parking area where people can run into a store rather than have to pay. I spoke with a merchant who said he’d rather have the parking meters rather than the chaos.”

“Clearly there was communication gap between the Parking Authority and the Wall Street businesses when they instituted this plan,” Brinton said. “…We need to reexamine the practices of the party authority and make sure that it serves the businesses and the people.”



Closing statements

“Every day that I walk into this building, I’m proud of what we’ve done in the city of Norwalk and how we helped Norwalk grow and develop over the past six years,” Rilling said. “We have … achieved a tremendous amount by reorganizing city government, by funding our schools… by creating a city, a downtown area that people can be proud of.”

He continued, “You know, I don’t sit here tonight, expect or feeling entitled to your vote. I know every day that I walk into this building I have to earn your trust, your respect, and your confidence, knowing that I’m going to do the right thing, regardless of whether it’s the popular thing. Decisions at the mayor’s level are not easy. There’s a lot of layers in city government. It’s not easy to say you run your city like a business. There’s a lot of different things, a lot of different things have been taken into account….But I proven that I’m able to make those tough decisions.”

“This election is a referendum on the mayor’s policies and his definition of growth, and whether we’re moving in the right direction, or as I suggest, have been cherry picked by developers with tax credits, and oversized structures, bringing traffic congestion and impacting our quality of life, forcing longtime residents out due to rising costs,” Brinton said.

She touted her credentials as an independent on the Republican line.

“I hate political parties, but I hate single party rule even more,” she said. “Our democracy is built on sharing of ideas, and we’ve lost that with this mayor. We need checks and balances on all the growth that’s going on. Without funding to get more of our money back or looking for alternative resources for our schools, we risk cannibalizing other parts of the city budget, or increasing taxes….When 15 years of tax credits are on the table for a failed project or landlords get away with illegal apartments and cheating the roles we need to have change.”

Norwalkers pack the City Hall community room Monday. The League of Women Voters held its event in Concert Hall two years ago, when there were four candidates, but the audio was poor as the audio personnel go home, League organizer Mary Oster said. The community room venue is free and doesn’t have that issue. She was one of about six people out in the hallway, she said.


15 responses to “Rilling, Brinton, present disparate views of Norwalk in League debate”

  1. David McCarthy

    What a joke. Using the mil rate to excuse high taxes? The mil rate changes because of the reval and is a plug number used to raise a certain amount of money….it’s in no way comparable to other cities. The former police chief knows he’s going down.

    He’s disrespectful to Ms. Brinton, with his head shakes and dismissive comments. Address the issues and stop being a misogynist! Rudderless Rilling will be trying to move into my neighborhood in 6 months.

  2. Scott Vetare

    Grand slam for Lisa!

  3. Milly

    Now it is clear Mayor Rilling wants to turn Norwalk into Stamford. I have heard enough of his “vision” for Norwalk. Norwalk needs a change before it is too late. I’m voting for Lisa.

  4. Residente

    Doesn’t sound like there was much opposition to the mall, developers wanted to spend, who was the City to say no. I’m sure the team who came in yesterday will have a similar experience. Just build and flip it like Waypoint. It’s interesting, regardless of age, everyone seems to have the same skepticism about what the mall will be in 5-10 years. Would still like to see a list of tax credits given to developers over the past few years.

  5. Residente

    Its nice to see the Garden Cinemas saved, for now.

  6. Residente

    Yesterday’s Fairfield county Business Journal front page headed, “Mall Misery – Failure to Launch completely in Norwalk while Stamford Town Center is up for Sale”. Stamford cites high turnover and the new competitor in Norwalk as reasons for sale… Might this be an indication of what may come of the SoNo collection? In Stamford, they are listing the Mall for sale as an “opportunity zone” where new developments can qualify for a range of tax subsidies, which could be new apartments.. While the Stamford mall is experiencing a lot of closures, Perfume World is opening, as well as temporary tenants for the holidays and a gallery for the Genesis luxury car brand. Unfortunately the article did not compare the price to park at the Malls.

  7. Bobby Lamb

    Lisa came off snarky and bitter last night. She is so negative and has no solutions. She says she’s for smart growth – but can’t define it any differently than what’s currently happening. Claims financial problems? Not only is there no evidence of that – the facts are resoundingly the opposite. And on the schools? How disingenuous and self centered can a person be??? Taking credit for the improvement in the schools thanks to her tutoring program??? Yea – had nothing to do with the fact that for the first time ever the city has actually funded the boe budget. Unbelievable.

  8. Scott

    As parents with young children in the Norwalk school system, we recognize and praise the hard work of the BOE, the teachers and paraprofessionals. However, when Mayor Rilling told the audience he met a couple that recently moved to Norwalk from Westport because the school system was so good, I had to laugh. There is a clear distinction between Norwalk’s school district and those of the more affluent towns surrounding us. Seriously mayor?! I guess you also have a walk bridge you want to sell us as well. Oh wait, maybe you do.

  9. John ONeill

    Thanks for the summary Nancy. I have one question for current elected officials: What have you done funding wise for ELL programs over the past 10 years? ELL program has cost $ 225+ Million over that period. Next 10 years will cost $ 350+MILLION. Again, I ask the question: Other than hope what is the plan to pay for this? Hope is not a plan. I’d like to know where NAACP stands on this. Those reallocated dollars are effecting low income kids. What has Bob Duff done over the past 10 years?? Has everyone been oblivious to costs? What happens if Norwalk experiences three more years of growth like this year? Is there a plan, other than hope? We need to support these kids, but we shouldn’t do it alone. We’ve obviously been doing it alone for 10+ years, as our elected officials have had their heads in the sand. AND that’s being polite.

  10. Niz

    regarding education: I think… based on my inquiries and understanding. the mayor hasn’t asked the State BOE yet, he didn’t explain how that $ is fulfilled. look at SpEd. & ELL. look at the physical conditions at NHS.
    Senate majority leader will not work at getting money . And he knows we need it… and that is based on my understanding , after making inquires, and engaging throughout the city since 2015.

  11. Helen Demeris

    It’s a great sign for our city that so many people showed up to last night’s event. The candidates’ performance reinforced my decision to vote for Rilling. He was thoughtful, responsive to the questions, and clearly communicated a vision for Norwalk that’s forward-looking and inclusive. Ms. Brinton couldn’t get past her talking points and evaded many questions. She also demonstrated unbelievable hubris by claiming sole credit for Norwalk students’ academic progress several times. She also repeatedly chose to present issues as us/them, winners and losers. Divisive language that pits students against senior citizens, long-time residents vs. new ones, drivers vs. bicyclists, etc. is not constructive. We need to work together on Norwalk’s prosperity and future and that won’t happen with a mayor that focuses on what they think is wrong instead of building on what’s right. Rilling has my vote.

  12. Ron Morris

    Grand slam for Rilling!

  13. TRS

    As my son and daughter would say Lisa OWNED Harry last night. She is so much more qualified than he is. She GETS it.

  14. Jo

    Was puzzled by Mr.Rillings’ assertion that a family from Westport moved to Norwalk for “the schools.” Norwalk residents are concerned about the impact that the enormous increase in ELL students will have on our city – both fiscally and educationally. Interested in the outcomes here!

  15. Debora Goldstein

    Fun facts:
    POKO may not have had direct PROPERTY tax credits, but there were tax credits $25-30mm in LIHTC https://www.nhlp.org/resource-center/low-income-housing-tax-credits/, and other tax subsidies $3.5mm in HUD loans and some amount of private activity bonds, which are tax exempt.

    Under Mason’s rules, which this Council adopted, you can’t table beyond the end of a legislative session. The last council meeting is usually held about a week after election day in muni election years. This was tabled to September 10th by a vote of council. That is a motion to table “definitely”. Failing to take it up on that date had the effect of making it “unfinished business”, which is automatically terminated upon adjournment of the legislative session.

    Even if treated as a postpone “indefinitely”, it may not be done so with the intent of putting the matter beyond consideration by putting it past the end of the session. Doing so has the effect of rejecting a motion without debate.

    While it has become fashionable to talk about Citibank’s losses in connection with POKO, we do not seem to be as concerned about the City’s losses. The loss of value and control over a parking lot. The $150,000 preconstruction loan extended to Mr Olson back in 2007, never paid and converted to a $198,000 promissory note, of which, if records supplied in reponse to an FOI request are correct, only a little under $12,000 has been repaid.

    It’s easy to develop a friendly relationship with a department that is being well funded. Under Moccia, there were shortages of $4-$10mm during the contentious public hearings.

    But with all of those funds, who is setting the priorities. For example, in July 2017, $350,000 of school construction funds were diverted to costs associated with the parks construction costs for renovating the tennis courts in Springwood Ely park and used by Grassroots Tennis, as a result of the proposal to put the new school in South Norwalk. The non-profit organization that operates out of City owned facilities was made whole as to the increase in construction costs resulting from the alteration of the original construction plan. Bear in mind that the school had not been approved yet, and those “school construction funds” would not be recoverable if the school was not, in fact, approved.

    By my count, just the loss on the loan and the diversion of school construction funds would have more than covered the first year cost of buses in connection with the later High School start times or contributed to mitigating the ELL costs that year.

    And not to minimize the successes in closing the achievement gap, especially at the middle school level, but “most successful public school system in the state of Connecticut” is an opinion, not an objective measurement. While we may be number one in our DRG (a race with nine contenders in it), we are also an alliance district school (as are the other 8 schools in our DRG), which means the state has identified NPS as one of Connecticut’s 33 LOWEST-performing districts (a race with around 170 contenders in it).

    Being first out of nine in our DRG comes with a considerable cost, as Danbury, with a comparable school enrollment, spent $156.8mm on its 11,531 students in 2017, while Norwalk spent $213,831,291 on 11,501 students in 2017, but our improvements still do not seem to be accelerated enough to move out of the bottom fifth of the rankings.

    Speaking of auditing authorities, and the efforts of the Parking Authority in particular. NPA has been subsidizing the marketing of Norwalk commercial businesses using Parking trust funds, which may NOT be used for this purpose under state statute. NorwalkNow received startup funds, tens of thousands of dollars each year from NPA, and support from the City’s legal department in filing their non-profit business license, and reported into the Parking Authority board even though it was an economic development effort (again, activity that is not specified in state statute as permitted by a parking authority).

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