NORWALK, Conn. – A fully funded school system. Kick-starting stalled development projects. Attacking crime at its root.
Harry Rilling did not mention Richard Moccia by name, nor did he take the standard shots at the incumbent when he announced Sunday that he is running for mayor.
Still, by laying out what he said were his priorities, the former police chief and 41-year Norwalk Police Department veteran, the latest Democrat to enter the race, drew a clear distinction between himself and the man for whom he served for more than six years before his retirement last summer.
Former Mayor Bill Collins may have added some unintended color to the event when he introduced Rilling, a lifelong Norwalker.
“We have a fellow who has been apprenticing for this job for 41 years,” he said. “He’s been serving in what to my mind is the most important body in this city, the Zoning Commission and to my mind he’s probably ready. I still am undecided whether to say it’s time probably to bring him in to run our city – for one reason, he knows where the bodies are buried.”
That comment was presumably a reference to Rilling’s longtime service to Norwalk, rather than his numerous investigations as a police officer.
“I don’t know if that’s appropriate or not,” Collins said, “but he’s a guy who will not need any particular instruction, other than what he gets from a few of us.”
That last remark was a reference to former Mayor Alex Knopp, who was also in attendance.
Rilling’s 36-minute speech began with his “long and storied” history in Norwalk – he’s been told his grandfather delivered milk on Riverside Avenue with a horse-drawn carriage – and ended with a plea for support, as it is time to “get Norwalk moving again” with “new ideas, new energy and new vision.”
“The decisions made in the upcoming municipal election are are to be critical to the future of this Norwalk. We’re at a crossroads, folks,” he said. “Norwalk is poised to be a thriving, flourishing community once again. I ask you to join me in going down the road to that Norwalk.”
The former chief promised:
• A Board of Education that is “funded to an appropriate level,” with support for Common Core State Standards. Possible implementation of the life/social skills curriculum.
• Support for the Head Start program in Norwalk, and possible implementation of a universal pre-K program. “You can’t arrest your way out of a crime problem,” Rilling said. “Our penal system is not the most effective in rehabilitating people … it’s our job to get to the young people before the incarceration.”
• A government that is transparent, inclusive, accessible and civil. A “mayor’s night out,” attended by department heads “whether they want to be there or not,” where city officials will hear what the public wants, “not the other way around.”
• Jump starting development by giving developers the full cooperation and support of the mayor’s office. “Norwalk should be a friendly place to do business, not an obstacle,” he said.
• Workforce housing. “We want good, affordable workforce housing so the people who work in Norwalk can afford to live here,” he said.
While the former chief said he “wasn’t going to engage in finger pointing,” he did slip in a pointed, off-script remark when he was talking about development.
“In 2011, September or October – figure out the timing – there were several groundbreakings in Norwalk. Since that time, the only movement has been the demolition of buildings resulting in gaping holes on the West Avenue corridor,” he said, referring to numerous groundbreakings and ribbon cuttings that happened just before the last municipal election.
“I recognize that there is a tough economy,” he said. “But with creativity, bringing all the stakeholders to the table, including the financial institutions, we can find a way to jump-start those projects so we get moving.”
How would he get the money to fund the school system?
“That’s takes a team effort,” he said after his speech. “I certainly have my ideas where things can be cut. I don’t want to presuppose anything now, where I think cuts should be made.”
He referred to his experience with budgets as police chief. “When I put my budget together for the police department, I put together a responsible budget, no fluff, no wish list for things I would hope to get, ‘maybe if I ask for 10 they’d give me five,’” he said. “I put together a realistic budget which allowed me to run the department effectively and efficiently. I feel that all department heads should be held accountable to do the same things. Perhaps there are programs that are not as critical as Head Start, not as critical as the core curriculum, not as critical as life/social skills, that perhaps can wait so we can properly fund the things that are going to get the biggest bang for our buck.”
Rilling said that, after 41 years in public service, it wasn’t in his repertoire to walk away.
“I knew I wanted to serve at the greatest capacity to give,” he said. “The thing I bring to the table, I know the city of Norwalk inside out. I worked with all the department heads. I know what they represent. I know how they work, I know how everything works together. Each individual component works to make it the whole. I know where the problems are. I know what needs to be fixed and I’m not a person who says ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.’ I’m a person who says, ‘If it ain’t broke, take it apart, look at each individual component, make improvements where you can and put it back together and come out with a better product.’ That’s what I think I bring to Norwalk. Vision, energy and leadership that I hope will help carry the city of Norwalk into the future, make it the best it possibly can be, to make it a destination once again.”