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Rilling looks back on first year as Norwalk’s mayor

NORWALK, Conn. – It’s been a “quick year,” Mayor Harry Rilling said, looking back on the first half of a first term that featured one of the most contentious Norwalk issues in the 21st Century, the settlement to the lawsuit with the Al Madany Islamic Center.

Other challenges faced by the long time-police chief turned elected official have included the dissolution of a 30-year old social services agency. On the horizon are the expected mall proposal for the long-vacant 95/7 property, a new Community Action Program (CAP) agency and a difficult budget – Rilling said keeping the tax increase to 2 percent is an ambitious goal that he hopes to meet.

Rilling was inaugurated one year ago today.

“It’s been a very interesting year,” he said. “The time has gone by very quickly. Hard to believe that it’s already been a year but a lot has happened in the last year. We’ve been working very, very hard in trying to accomplish a lot of different things that we spoke about during the campaign. I feel we have accomplished quite a bit. Obviously there’s still things we need to do, things we have on our plate that needs to be accomplished.”

That includes the need for a replacement for the now-defunct Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON). “Stamford is designated to have their CAP agency up by Jan. 1st. Norwalk is scheduled to be up by July 1st,” Rilling said.

“There’s different plans being moved forward,” Rilling said. “We don’t see at this point, or I have not heard at this point of anybody who’s in need of assistance not getting that assistance. It’s just a matter of right now we don’t have a one-stop shop.”

Rilling said he was not sure when he would be able to elaborate on the reasons city officials felt the lawsuit with the Al Madany Islamic Center was a lost cause.

“As I mentioned before there were lots and lots of information that created within us a concern that the city of Norwalk was going to be in a very delicate and very vulnerable position,” he said. “That whole situation was probably, and hopefully, the biggest challenge of my first year and hopefully we won’t see a challenge of that magnitude anytime soon because it took a lot of meetings, a lot of discussion, a lot of negotiation, a lot of sleepless nights for all of us to come up with a resolution that we felt was fair and took into consideration everybody’s concerns.”

Everybody worked very diligently and very hard to come up with a resolution that they felt was good for everyone concerned, he said. That included buying the center’s property at 127 Fillow St. for $585,000 and making payments totaling as much as $1,447,500 for Al Madany’s legal expenses and damages.

“A city has put a cap on the liability. We thought there was a potential for $15 to $20 million of liability if we decided to fight this in federal court. What we did was we capped our liability at really, dollar-wise, at 1.2 million because we can buy the property back,” he said. “The money will be coming out of the insurance fund so it won’t have any impact on the taxpayers whatsoever at this point.”

Ah, but something else may.

Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling.
Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling.

“One of biggest challenges we are going to face, unfortunately, is the budget,” Rilling said. “If you listen to the governor, with a $100 million deficit and not raising taxes, he has made it clear that aid to municipalities might have to be scaled back. That’s going to be difficult for us to handle. We have two choices: we can either raise taxes or scale back on services. Or we can do a combination of both. My goal, and my goal to the finance director, is to keep any tax increase at or below 2 percent. I think that’s an ambitious request, something I think we can do. But it’s going to take department heads, the mayor’s office, the city, the finance director, working to try to scale that down and making that 2 percent increase a reality.”

Rilling promised on the campaign trail to bring transparency to city government. He linked that promise to another one that he came up with, the mayor’s night outs. He cited the gatherings that have been held almost monthly as one of the things that has helped him the most.

“I’m really gratified by the fact that not only so many members of the public come out but department heads are there, members of the Common Council are there, members of the state legislature come, and it’s an opportunity for us to meet with members of the public and hear from them how we can serve them better. I think it brings a new transparency to government… no question is too tough. We field all the questions,” he said.

Attendance has dropped, which he said shows partly that there are now no contentious issues. The show may now go to neighborhood associations and to Norwalk Housing Authority properties, including Washington Village and Roodner Court, he said, describing smaller scale gatherings with people who share a common interest.

Some people say Rilling promised to replace certain department heads. While former Personnel Director James Haselkamp resigned quickly after the election, Department of Public Works Director Hal Alvord and Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene are still on the job.

“That’s a personnel issue,” Rilling said of Alvord. “That’s something I am not prepared to discuss at this point.”

But, “The planning and zoning department, I have not had a lot of difficulty working with them,” Rilling said. “I find that when I talk to Mike Greene, that’s the person who I deal with the most, generally things get done. They get done as quickly as they possibly can. I am not saying I don’t still have concerns. Again, talking personnel issues, I don’t get into personalities, I don’t get into where we may be going in any one area, what direction I might want to see something go. Until at a time when I come to terms with what I think needs to happen and then start moving that forward.”

While there have been some critical rumblings about his creation of task forces, Rilling lauded their success. The Mayor’s Energy and Environmental Task Force has already saved the city thousands of dollars by retrofitting City Hall lights, he said. The firewood program is also a success, he said. The Business Advisory Council is meeting to develop an economic action plan, he said. He has hopes that the Zoning Task Force will make headway on the complicated reform of zoning regulations, he said.

One of the biggest disappointments of his first year has been the inability to get charter reform off the ground, he said.

On Wednesday night, the Council Planning Committee and the Redevelopment Agency are having a joint meeting to hear about General Growth Properties (GGP)’s intentions for the 95/7 property in a presentation that is somewhat mysterious – Committee  Chairman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said he doesn’t know what is in store.

Rilling said his stance on the issue has not changed since the campaign.

“I want to see the highest and best use for that property but I also want to be reasonable,” he said.

“I am waiting to see exactly what GGP is proposing Wednesday night,” Rilling said. “Obviously I think my input would be well received or have some influence over the decision makers – the decision makers are the people in Redevelopment, Planning and so forth, determining whether or not they are going to allow them to move forward. I am open to hearing what they have to say. If I feel that what they are putting there is good for Norwalk then I’m saying lets’ move forward. If I feel it’s not good for Norwalk then I would say let’s not move forward.”

On a much smaller scale is the expected closing of Barnes and Noble in January. Rilling said his office had reached out but only gotten the same statement Barnes and Noble gave to the press, saying that an attempt had been made to renegotiate the lease but owners of the Shop Rite plaza wanted to go in another direction.

“It’s a very, very sad thing but most of the time when you see something like that happen there’s a couple of things at play,” Rilling said. “One is if they’re not going to renew the lease well there’s nothing that anybody can do about that unless there was some sort of a clause that would allow them to stay beyond a certain time. But you know the bookstores are seeing a decrease in the number of people going in because of e-books, Amazon and all of those things where people can get books electronically. They can buy books through Amazon.com. So it’s a challenge but when we approached them, Barnes and Noble, they made it pretty clear that there’s nothing that we could do to convince them to stay and they certainly couldn’t stay at that property location anyway.”

Despite the hot button issues and contentious debates, Rilling said, “I truly enjoyed my first year in office. It went by quickly, as I mentioned at the outset of this interview. Looking forward to the next year. This is an exciting challenging job that, I guess, keeps challenging you all the time.”

Comments

12 responses to “Rilling looks back on first year as Norwalk’s mayor”

  1. Kevin Di Mauro

    Great Job to NON

    You finally got Harry to say something!!

    My biggest concern is the tax increase.

  2. John Hamlin

    He has a limited period in which to make changes or many who supported him will be looking for an alternative from the other party — or maybe from his own.

  3. Kevin Di Mauro

    A 2 YEAR period is adequate for voters to evaluate the performance of their elected officials.

  4. Piberman

    The most meaningful challenges that have eluded our last several Mayors have been gaining control of the City’s budget, restraining our punitive property tax levels and lighting a fire under our redevelopment efforts. Hopefully Mayor Rilling will make some progress here in his second year. A Mayor who is courteous, accessible to all and soft spoken is a welcome change in Norwalk.

  5. Don’t Panic

    I am glad that these costly and labor-intensive Mayor’s Nights are going away. The more effective way to vet community complaints is to have a working customer service platform with full transparency and accountability. The fact that this city has given up on the one we have is just plain sad.

  6. One and Done

    A year marked by useless task forces. A winnable lawsuit against the mosque up until the minute Harry said to settle. Photo ops at every turn for projects initiated under past administrations. Calls for civility, then ignoring physical abuse of octogenarians by his party leadership. Kids shooting up the streets in broad daylight near the aquarium. No big ideas or vision for the city. Just another pension. Ask around at city hall, there is a serious leadership void right now. Moccia may have been a jerk, but people knew where they stood with him.

  7. EveT

    I don’t always agree with @piberman, but I do second this statement: “A Mayor who is courteous, accessible to all and soft spoken is a welcome change in Norwalk.”

  8. independent voice

    Here comes the defying moment for the Mayor – to raise or not to raise your taxes. With public sector compensation including benefits now rivaling some of Wall Street’s most handsomely paid, the choices is easy. Cut, cut, cut and stabilize the runaway property taxes here. It comes as no surprise that the top reason from detracting home ownership in Norwalk, outside the City’s low rated schools, is the runaway mill rate. Also, taxpayers should not be on the hook for providing free lunches to nearly half the students. . . the abuse in the system at the taxpayers’ expense is beyond comprehension.

  9. THE TRUTH

    Rilling has accomplished ZERO. Who would have ever thought we could get worse than Moccia. November 2015 can’t come quick enough for Norwalk.

  10. Hold your Horses

    No Harry, there is one contentious issue still remaining that no one will discuss, the fire department and it’s chief in regard to the lack of minority representation on the department and comments he has made in public regarding minorities. Oh sorry my bad, I forgot no one that can do something about it cares enough to.

  11. Piberman

    Now we have the capstone to the first year – loss of our best Supt in decades for reasons some suggest related to the improper behavior of 3 BOE Democratic members. Would the outcome have been different if the Mayor intervened in a timely fashion ? A good question.

  12. John Hamlin

    Except for the change in tone, which was most welcome, it’s hard to see any change that really matters that has been the result of the election of Mayor Rilling. There have been no personnel or department changes at city hall. He has a few more months to accomplish something of worth — some structural or significant personnel changes, for example, or the other party or perhaps someone in his own party will be in a strong position to oppose him in next year’s election. Many who supported him and have been hoping he would succeed are very disappointed. And then of course the many Norwalk perennial toxic political stalkers lie in wait. He may very well be a one term mayor. And if taxes increase, if there’s a hint of fiscal insanity, kiss him goodbye.

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