NORWALK, Conn. – There are times when trying to nail down the position of someone running for office is like trying to herd cats. They duck, equivocate and sidestep issues with the finesse of a champion boxer slipping a jab.
Some issues, though, bring a quick and definite response
So how does Norwalk Democratic mayoral candidate Harry Rilling feel about siting a BJ’s Wholesale Club on North Main Avenue?
“I am against having a BJ’s on Main Avenue,” he said in a recent email interview. “Big box stores create low-paying jobs (many part time in order to avoid paying benefits or overtime), they do not pay much in taxes to the city, and they create congestion on our roads. Main Avenue is particularly problematic as it is a very narrow road that is already congested and dangerous.”
But what of the developer’s traffic study that claims the store will actually improve traffic flow?
“The assertion by the developer’s traffic expert that opening a BJ’s will actually ‘improve’ traffic flow on Main Avenue is ridiculous,” the former police chief said. “Traffic will be diverted to side streets causing problems in the surrounding neighborhoods. As an alternative, we need to aggressively pursue developers interested in mixed use development or add more Class A office space in the Merritt 7 / Diageo complex.”
The inquiry about BJ’s and big box development was included in a list of questions submitted to all four Democrats running for mayor in the Sept. 10 primary. The primary’s winner gets to take on four-term Republican incumbent Richard Moccia in the Nov. 5 general election.
Answers from candidates Andy Garfunkel and Vinny Mangiacopra appear elsewhere on this site. Matt Miklave’s responses will appear later this week.
Another issue that recently cropped up revolves around board and committee appointments. NanccyOnNorwalk asked the candidates, “When you are mayor, will you actively seek out people with relevant expertise for board openings, or do you believe it is a good idea to appoint the average citizen?”
Rilling responded, as did Garfunkel and Mangiacopra, that a mix of volunteers is needed.
“I will seek people from all walks of life. It is important to have people with various degrees of expertise sitting on boards and commissions, but it is also important to encourage our citizen stakeholders to be involved as well.”
Rilling took it a step further, pointing out the need to make the boards and committees look more like the city population.
“It is also my intention to have our boards and commissions represent the demographic makeup of our city,” he said. “I will seek out board and commission members from all ethnic groups in order to accomplish that. For example, there is no African-American resident currently sitting on the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency even though the decisions of that agency have a major impact on the SoNo area. I will also seek to increase the number of Latinos and women on boards and commissions. All citizens need to have a voice in the running of our government as they are the community stakeholders.”
One question that has come up regularly in our comments section is “What would the candidates have cut from this year’s city budget, and why won’t they be specific?” We asked the candidates to name three things they would have cut, but got no specific answers. Rilling said there is a good reason for that.
“The budget process in Norwalk and other cities is very convoluted. The key to innovative budget decisions that actually reduce costs and improved services is to begin work at the start of the budget process rather than just addressing a few dangling items at the end of the process,” he said.
Having spent 17 years as Norwalk’s police chief, Rilling has an insider’s view of that process, but retired before this year’s budget was crafted.
“Not being involved in the process from beginning to end makes it a bit difficult to analyze,” he said. “Department heads present their requests to the finance director and his staff. Without hearing the department head justifications for any requests, it is difficult to say what should or could be cut.”
Rilling did make a few observations about areas that might have been target for reduction.
“In reviewing the 2013-2014 approved budget, I notice there are several significant increases in wages for various employees,” he said. “… The vast majority of any budget is dedicated to salary and benefits. Some exempt (non-union) employees received pay increases of 4.2 to 9.5 percent and higher, while bargaining unit employees received 0 and 1.5 percent increases in some cases. While this was attributed to ‘multi-year settlements,’ those numbers are still very high. I would have therefore negotiated lower increases for some employees and no increases for others.”
And he wouldn’t stop there, he said.
“There are also positions that are earning salaries far in excess of their worth. Some of those positions could possibly be eliminated or consolidated,” he said.
Being more specific is problematical for anyone not in on the budget sessions, he said, because the city website does not detail a line-by-line analysis of the budget.
“In any event, we must focus on growing the grand list to increase our tax base and remove the undue burden now being faced by our homeowners,” he said.
Rilling offered some other cost-cutting ideas he said he would investigate if he is elected.
“One of the fiscal areas where many improvements could be made is the approach known as ‘shared services’ with other municipalities,” he said. “We already do joint purchasing of items like gasoline and heating oil with other municipalities through the South Western Regional Planning Agency. We purchase prescription drugs for our employees’ health benefits as part of a purchasing cooperative Norwalk helped establish in 2004-05 with other municipal health plans to gain the benefit of economies of scale. There are many similar types of items we should be exploring as part of this shared service budget-wise approach, and there are new state grants available to Norwalk for such initiatives.”
Rilling has indicated in the past that he views Norwalk Economic Opportunities Now (NEON) as a valuable resource for the city that must be helped to right its foundering ship. The agency has been involved in scandals big and small regarding leadership and allegations of financial improprieties, and is currently undergoing a Department of Social Services audit. The agency is already under orders to pay back the federal government for misused grants.
A story broke recently that the Norwalk Housing Authority is making a bid to take over the Head Start program that has been run by NEON. NoN asked Rilling about that.
“Norwalk is in desperate need of both a Head Start program and a universal pre-K program, as both provide opportunities for early intervention in the lives of our children,” he said. “I have not reviewed the competing applications, but generally I would favor trying to repair and upgrade the quality of NEON’s Head Start before awarding a contract to a new coalition. While competition and change are valuable, Norwalk’s low-income families are not necessarily served by this kind of competition.”
Rilling suggested that the entire NEON situation could have been handled better. Moccia cut city funding for the agency when the financial problems were uncovered while Joe Mann was still the president and CEO. Mann has since been removed and a new Board of Directors put in place.
“If I had been mayor, I would have used my appointments and other influence with the NEON board much earlier than the current administration,” Rilling said. “I would have tried to integrate into Head Start the positive education expertise of the Housing Authority, Stepping Stones and the Child Development at Norwalk Community College to enrich and improve the Head Start program.”
Last winter, as candidates were coming forward to pursue the Democratic nomination to run for mayor, Democratic Town Committee Chairwoman Amanda Brown urged her party to be supportive and focus on unseating the incumbent instead of focusing on tearing each other down. Later, she acknowledged that it was obvious it would be a tough primary. And while the candidates have mostly confined their criticisms to more general points, their proxies and supporters have focused on attempting to knock down the opposition.
Nancy on Norwalk addressed the issue: “There’s always a danger when there’s a primary election of the candidates damaging each other in their bid for nomination. There have been reports of negative campaigning, like a robocall poll, and there have been a number of barbs between the candidates and their supporters. Are you concerned about winning the battle and losing the November war?”
Rilling said that, yes, that is a concern.
“This is a major concern of mine as it should be for every Democrat in Norwalk. The four-way primary for mayor is unprecedented, but all the candidates have the right to run and the voters should make the ultimate decision about which candidate deserves to represent and lead the Democratic ticket in the November election.
“But let’s not lose sight of the ultimate goal,” he said. “Our primary should educate voters about how we will govern differently and better than the current administration and avoid attacks on each other’s integrity. It is always unfortunate when candidates from the same party criticize others rather than staying on topic and explaining their respective platforms.”
He said he has heard “from many members of the public they are tired of and offended by negativism in the political arena.”
“I always say there are two ways to have the tallest building in town; you can tear everyone else’s building down, or you can build the tallest building,” Rilling said. “My campaign has opted to build the tallest building. I invite other candidates to join me in that regard.”
Asked if, should he not be the winner Sept. 10, he would support whoever is the party’s candidate, Rilling did not hesitate.
“Yes,” he said. “Based on their positions, platforms and statements, I feel comfortable making a commitment to support the Democratic candidate who wins the primary election, and invite the other candidates to make the same commitment.”