Rilling, Norwalk leaders, take on tough questions at Mayor’s Night Out

Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling, left, leads his first Mayor’s Night Out Monday in City Hall. At right are Common Council members and department heads.

NORWALK, Conn. – Alleged racism in the Norwalk Fire Department, speeders on a Norwalk street and taxes that are allegedly causing people to flee Norwalk were among the topics Monday at Mayor Harry Rilling’s first Mayor’s Night Out.

About 30 people, 13 Common Council members and one Board of Education member took Rilling up on his offer of a nightime community meeting to discuss local issues, where Department of Public Works Director Hal Alvord and Fire Chief Denis McCarthy found themselves taking turns on the hot seat.

NAACP Vice President Andre Williams, a firefighter, asked McCarthy to justify the renewal of his contract, given that there were 15 black firefighters when McCarthy became chief and only six now.

That was the only question Rilling objected to. “I don’t want to put anybody on the spot as to why they should keep their job,” he said. But he allowed McCarthy to explain the situation.

Minority hiring has been a “significant challenge,” the chief said. This time around, for the first time in fire department history, a recruitment officer was assigned the job of getting minorities to take the test, he said. But people from Guam and California took the test. Even though the department held classes for local people, it’s difficult to compete with professional test takers, many of whom are college graduates, he said.

One of the department’s recent hires is a Burlington, Vt., man who has taken tests all over, and came in first on the Norwalk test, he said.

Norwalk Fire Chief Denis McCarthy fields a tough question Monday in City Hall at the Mayor’s Night Out.

“It is very difficult to compete if you are an inner city kid without any exposure to the fire service, to take one test in the hopes that you have finished high enough to compete against candidates that are coming from across the country,” he said.

About 20 percent of test takers were African-American, but none finished in the top 1 percent, he said.

It’s a self perpetuating problem, he said, as white firefighters spread the word about the job, he said.

Martha Dumas asked Rilling what could be done for the young adults in the community, to give them something to do other than walk the streets.

Rilling said he had talked to someone who would like to start a youth boxing program. He reminded her that Democratic District D Chairman Vinny Mangiacopra talked of bringing a Boys and Girls Club to Norwalk, and said he hoped that could be done.

Police Chief Thomas Kulhawik said he is thinking about assigning school resource 0fficers to supervise youth programs in the summer, rather than send them back out on patrol. But there isn’t any more they can do while school is in session, he said.

Brenda Penn Williams complained about the new traffic lights on Strawberry Hill Road, causing two people to clap.

Alvord said they had been put in to make it safer for children walking to school. The road is like a racetrack, especially at night, he said. The new lights are computerized – when a speeder goes through the first one, the rest of them are retimed to slow that person down, he said.

“Well, there’s more traffic now,” Williams said. “I don’t know about anyone else — I hate it. Did you do a study?”

Alvord said they had.

Kevin Dailey said Yankee Gas had just done work in the area of Parkhill Avenue, turning it into a “minefield.” He wanted to know when it would be repaved.

Alvord said Yankee Gas is replacing cast iron pipes, which are about 40 years old, because there have been gas leaks. He said they were trying to prevent things like a house that caught fire about a year ago, on New Year’s Day.

The work needs to settle through the winter before it can be repaved, he said.

Rilling let Port Draper talk for 10 minutes.

“If there is a single item that affects us, there is nothing comparable to the high level of our taxes,” began Draper, who said he was representing Wilson Point and Harbor Shores. “… It used to be families could come in buy a house, fix it up and make it attractive. That’s not true anymore. They are leaving, house after house in our neighborhood.”

The mill rate in the communities surrounding Norwalk is about half of what it is here, and it’s cheaper to live in Stamford, Draper said. Real estate values have plummeted, and the grown children are leaving, he said. Norwalk Police cost city residents more per capita than residents of Los Angeles, he said, aand pensions for city employees are bleeding Norwalk dry.

He said officials should sit down with the budget director and cut employees to cut the taxes.

“Let’s save money here,” he said. “We have a wonderful opportunity to make a wonderful city here. But all we are doing is running it for the benefit of the employees. If you own a house in this city you’re a fool, but unfortunately, if you bought one you can’t sell it.”

Council Minority Leader John Igneri (D-District E) took on the task of answering Draper, who he said he had known for years.

“I retired, and I decided not to go to Florida or South Carolina but to invest time in the city because I think it can become the dynamo you’re talking about,” he said. “We need to do things a little differently. We need to get people to think of doing things a little differently and we’re starting to do that. It took 40 years to get into this condition it’s going to take us 40 years to get out of it, a little at a time we will chip away. We’re doing it, we’re changing.”

Council President Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) told Draper that the pension programs he was complaining about were a thing of the past, that new hirees were coming in under self-directed plans.

He said he agreed with Igneri – it would take time.

“I think the city has done a good job over the last couple of years trying to take the situation that we are in long term and trying to make revisions that won’t continually strap the long-term pensions that have no roof on them versus the self-directed plans. It’s a slow rehab,” he said.

Rilling said it showed how much the council members, who are paid $50 a month, care about the city that only two, Michelle Maggio (R-District C) and Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large), did not make it to the meeting.

Councilman David McCarthy (R-District E) was there but did not face the crowd, choosing to sit in the back of the room away from the firing line. Sherelle Harris was the lone BOE member in attendance. Also on hand to answer questions was Chris Bradley of the Norwalk Public Library.

Rilling said he thought the night went well.

“Citizens came up to me after the meeting and said they were absolutely thrilled we did this,” he said. “They said they never had the opportunity to attend a meeting like that, and they hope we continue to do it.”

He is planning to do the next night out in West Norwalk, on the first or third Monday of January, he said.

One man who attended the event said he has learned recently that getting involved in government issues is rewarding.

“If you participate more you can more out of it. You can help shape a city.” Kevin Dailey said.

Rilling’s first meeting was good, with a nice turnout, he said.

“I liked that these guys were responding to the questions very well, tough questions,” he said. “I thought the fire chief handled it very well. To me it sounds like they’ve worked very hard to try to solve what could be a real issues, what is a big concern to everybody.”


24 responses to “Rilling, Norwalk leaders, take on tough questions at Mayor’s Night Out”

  1. anonymous

    Taxes on houses in Norwalk are killing this city. There is no value in them, they increase to pay employee salary and benefit increases, not things to benefit the town. Glad that Mrs. Draper talked about them.

  2. The Deal

    Wait a minute…… Fire Chief Denis McCarthy said the lack of black hires in his department was a “self perpetuating problem”? Does he really expect the public to believe it has nothing to do with what he has, or has not done? He also said the people that took the test were from Guam and California implying the blacks that took the test were from those places. WHAT? McCarthy’s reputation towards minorities is widely known throughout the LOCAL community, that’s why the numbers were minuscule. It’s believed McCarthy handed the recruitment job to someone else also because of his reputation. It gave him a distant hands off approach. It also allowed him to point his finger at someone else when the recruitment efforts failed. Never take what this man says at face value.

  3. M Allen

    Oh come on Deal. Are you saying minorities are avoiding joining the NFD because of the Chief? 20% who took the test were minority. They just failed to score high enough. Maybe we should change the test. As for Guam and Cali, I think he was making the point that in trying to reach out to get higher minority participation, it puts the word out farther and outsiders come to take the test. Thus putting more names in the hat, especially those who are good at taking tests. Perhaps some of these were minorities, who knows. Is it OK if minorities from Guam apply? Or do you just want local minorities? And by self perpetuating, he means that the more whites on the department, when a test comes up they tell friends or relatives in their circles. But tell us Deal, what exactly do you want the Department, not the chief, the Department to do to get more minorities to take the test and score high enough to be considered?

  4. M Allen

    This is just sad on so many levels “It took 40 years to get into this condition it’s going to take us 40 years to get out of it, a little at a time we will chip away. We’re doing it, we’re changing.”
    Who elected this guy and how to you feel about the fact that he’s willing to take his time with righting the ship over 40 years? The ship can be righted in a handful of years if you had priorities that were focused on the people actually paying taxes and not trying to support an ever growing underclass of people as though Norwalk was their personal safe haven.
    How about we begin by figuring out that the constant and never ending attmept at narrowing the achievement gap in our schools isn’t going to happen because of money. So stop throwing 60% of this city’s budget at a problem that isn’t going to be fixed with money. Then take that money and dump it back into the quality of life of this city, for the majority of the people, not just the one half of one percent who cry the loudest for their issue du jour. Anything left over you can keep to pay off the city’s debt that will never ever ever get paid off. But in the end, you want this city to right itself in something less than 40 years? Cap the taxes and tell the departments to get the job done with less. 40 years. You must be out of your mind.

  5. Bruce Kimmel

    Sorry I could not make the meeting. I was in Manhattan attending a surprise retirement party for my wife.

  6. Oldtimer

    How does Westport do it ? Their school system is excellent, their taxes are lower, and comparable houses sell for more. They have excellent retirement plans for city employees, they have homeless, but they do not have anywhere near the same percentage of working poor or publicly funded housing. Would a good look at Westport government be helpful ?

  7. marjoriem

    Yes, the BoE is the main problem. Tonight the budget is being presented. Will you be there to see what it is going to be? We have a new superintendent who will likely get an increase in his budget simply because he is new. Will the BoE vote for his $50,000 bonus that is in his contract? That will be coming up shortly. What about the parent portal that is rumored to be a waste? How much did that cost us? What about all the new titles and hires that have been approved in central office? Is anyone watching the purse strings? Doesn’t sound like the BoE cares about tax dollars. No flaming, but correct me if I am wrong.

  8. EveT

    Hempstead has been a leader in city government for decades. Where was his concern during all the years when we were digging ourselves into the hole that he says we are now slowly digging ourselves out of?

  9. dawn

    I am glad the standard is so high. I hope they do not lower the education standard or the physical standard.
    i only want the best comming to my house to rescue me. Thjere should be no kid of affirmative action or exemptions for Women.
    ONLY THE BEST. Black white or purple.

  10. Sjur Soleng

    40 years!?!?! Oh god. So happy we just bought a home here… Rilling, it is time to start paying attention to the people who PAY to keep this city running. Everyone who grew up here knows tons of people that have moved because of the cost of living associated with owning a home in Norwalk. Take a look around the country. When you over tax the homeowners, they leave, and then what?

  11. Bill

    So far Rilling is doing a great job, but if he starts to give in to Unions at the tax payers’ expense, he will be a 1 term mayor. Lets hope he does what is right for the cities’ taxpayers.

  12. piberman

    Norwalk become the top paying municipal salary city in Connecticut over recent decades because both our poilitical parties and long term Councilmen cared more about City workers than City taxpayers. And every newly elected Mayor retains the same set of complacent Department Heads. We’ve yet to have any BET that puts taxpayer interests first. The end result is clear even for the tooth fairy – 3 years running of stagnant property values, migher taxes than surronding towns and increasing reluctance to either retire here or buy a home here in the first place.

    Nothing will change unless and until we have a Mayor and Common Council who publicly addresses this issue and commits to holding taxes unchanged. So far Mayor Rilling has kept his views on taxes and budgets close to the vest. His selection of a BET Chair will send a strong signal. And whether he changes key Department Heads to bring in new talent.

    The “smart money” is betting Norwalk will continue to be the highest paying city in Connecticut as far as we can see with the taxes to finance such largesse. And that residents familiar with Finance 101 will move before property values futher decline.
    Once our vaunted Independent Party folded there is no local political party representing taxpayers. The proof lies in your tax bills.

  13. The Deal

    Thanks Matt for interpreting what Denis meant as he was chewing on the soles of his shoes to those of us who aren’t as smart as the two of you. FYI, in the NFD the Chief IS the department. In years past Chief’s Yost,Verda, and Anderson knew the leaders and groups in the communities. They knew the community because they were from the community. They had “cred” and were respected. They didn’t have to assign the recruiting task to someone else. McCarthy didn’t go into the community even along side a “recruitment officer”, who had less experience in recruiting than the chief, to show people he was interested. He seemed more interested in building a monument to himself on Connecticut Avenue than getting to know the community. And Matt I’m sure you’re going to LOVE this part, the Chief has it in his plans to spend 1.5 million dollars more of taxpayer money on the Westport Ave fire station. The guy from Massachusetts who came to us from Westport and lives in Fairfield LOVES spending Norwalk money. To Dawn, I wholeheartedly agree with you, hire the best firefighters we can. Keep in mind the minorities on the job didn’t get there because of lowered standards or affirmative action. They got there because they were among the best. Matt Allen for Mayor 2015!

  14. Ma

    First of all, thank you Mayor Rilling for holding these meetings with the commuity. And thank you to all that attended both elected/appointed officials and citizens alike.
    This reassures we are headed in the right direction. Now, as to the issues raised; The concerns about taxes should all but evaporate once the tax base is balanced properly. Right now private ownership of residences is carrying much of the burden. That will change, too slowly for most of us but it will change and value will increase for property owners and as value increase the burden will decrease as the grand list expands, and it will grow. One of the keys to unlock this bright future is an excellent school system. Ask any realtor. The district has crashed and burned and is rebuilding itself with a solid management team and leader. We set the bar high for the district leaders and they endeavouring to not just meet that expectation but exceed all excpectations. The arguement about the district consuming more than half of the budget again may moot itself as the district recovers and transforms and we see value for the buck and Norwalk becomes attractive for families seeking great schools where their children, all children, will excell and corporate executives realize the infrastucture is in place and the workforce is here and han there is that tiny fact of location, location, location and the glaring fact, its bottomed out and its time to jump in. Accusing familes trapped in poverty as draining resources and not contributing is unfair, biased uninformed perjudice duck doo, that is not tolerated by folks with a heart and eyes to see the big picture. Everyone pays sales tax even people that can ill afford to. What we get back from the state is open for debate. Many folks are trapped and hurting and its through no fault of their own in most circumstances. People want to work, want to be responsible, want to take part. No one wants to be suffering impoverishment. That attitude of its all the minorites, the immigrants, the poor, the jews, the gays, its all THEIR fault is a declaration of an embarsing past. Most logical,educated,caring,responsible folks would like to leave it where it belongs in history. Unfortunately, due to a very myopic Supreme Court Rulling in the case known as the Citzens United vs Federal Election, see battle history here – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizens_United_v._Federal_Election_Commission
    due to this ruling large fat cats and corporations have stirred the pot to get laws changed in their favor, of course and to make their stacks of cash even larger with ever increasing power and leverage over elections and legislators and Joe and Jane Doe’s stackes ever decreasing. Today there was a significant win for Joe and Jane with the passage of what is know as the “Volker” rule, (limiting big banks ability to bet the house with taxpayer insured deposits). But alas K street has been busy and profitable. Why Jim Himes co-sponosred a bill that favors big banks H.R. 992, (a bill that allows big banks to roll the dice in commodities and certain hedge funds) will be judged in history and is sure to be hotly debated for sometime to come and may be a big issue come election time but Himes reluctance to support and apparent attempts to distance himself from HR 1579, sponsored by Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota and coponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders. HR 1579 (proposes to put a tiny tax on stock transactions), Himes positions and votes appear to be leaning in favor of the big crooks that are robbing us all and its not going unnoticed. Of course the lobbyist for JP Morgan and others are working hard to prevent the law from taking effect but the movement to pay your fair share is global and inevitable. So those that take pot shot drive by attacks on folks unfortunate to be trapped in penuary, that are not afforded even a chance to respond, ( as many do not have internet newtorking capabilities in their monthly budgets), is really a atatement of not understanding what is wrong and who is jamming the whole gears up and why. But blaming the defenseless or easy public targets is easier than paying attention and understanding what the heck is going on and why rather than just absorbing all the propaganda that is everywhere for the pissed off and gullible, to absorb as truth, courtesy your Supreme Court Justices. Its just complicated and time consuming. Easier to just blame the other guy and not accept any persoal responsibility as a citizen to get informed and stay informed of the workings or more likely not workings for your interests. But thats another thread. The bottom line of this thread, is you get what you pay for. There is a process and it works, to resolve union issues and concerns. You want a cop to show up when you need one, you want a top notch fire rescue crew that will save your property and/or your life, if ever needed, you want your street plowed so you can get your starbucks and and read whats going on in your local goverment on Nancy on Nowrwalk? You get what you pay for. You dont pay, you dont get and that, dear readers, is a real perpetuating cycle, downwards. And if you want to take pot shots, take em at the guys you elected to represent (your) interests, but in reality only represent the oligarchy we actually live under and control most legislators. But what kinda parent teaches a child to kick another when another is already on the ground and doesnt need more kicks, needs a compassionate understanding hand back up? Something we all should ponder deeper. Guess its really hard for many to understand if you have never been hungry and homeless and/or hopeless. Like being in a war, if you havent experienced it, there are no words that convey the experience, none. But rest assure, those that have experienced war and/or impoverishment have earned and derserve respect for the suffering and sacrifices endured.
    think about that next time one begins to berate the oimpoverihed or unions fighting for fair living wages in your community. You dint want to be a par of the community, you dont want to pay taxes than do what the really wealthy do, buy an island and declare your own country and collect your own taxes for yourself. Otherwise if your like the rest of us and cant buy our own island and wouldnt want to live alone on an island by oursleves anyway, reach out and help someone and make a difference in their lives and in so doing make a difference in your own life. Karma or no Karma, it’s what your parents taught you to do, right?

  15. You may want to check your facts

    Piberman, where are you getting that Norwalk leads the state in municple salaries? We don’t, even though we sit in the middle of one of if not the most expensive county in the entire country.

  16. Oldtimer

    You may
    Save your breath, facts will only confuse him. If you look at total compensation, the number that counts, Norwalk is about 5th in the state, last time I looked. It is not easy to get accurate figures. I think he is heavily influenced by what the City told the arbitration panel when the BOE/TEACHER’S contract went to arbitration. Some of the erroneous numbers in their presentation were not properly refuted.

  17. The Deal

    Pib always spews that junk and when asked to back it up suddenly disappears.

  18. RU4REAL

    @The Deal,
    You hit the nail on the head!

  19. RU4REAL

    Here’s a news flash. You say 15 African Americans, including the fire chief’s former administrative assistant, who is now happily employed in another city department, worked under McCarthy. Those 15 people have to be asked what they think, IMMEDIATELY! If no one is willing to do that, the truth will never be told. Start there and quit sticking your heads in the sand. 15 people and you’ve only heard two, step up community leaders, don’t be chumps; be champs, ask the people who had DIRECT contact with the fire chief if there is a problem. Unless you share rose colored glasses with the fire chief, you will seek out and to speak to these people. Go ahead get started, you’ve taken too long already! Whether you like it or not it is black and white with this fire chief.

    Note to Harry, if a sitting council member shows up to these meetings don’t let them hide in the back next time, it’s like Councilman Dave McCarthy is mocking your idea to have officials greet the public in an open forum.

  20. M Allen

    Deal, in all seriousness, what is it exactly the Chief is really supposed to do? Even if he had cred? Beg higher quality candidates to step up. Look, I’m against racism, either openly or hidden behind the curtain. But you talk of 15 black firefighters when he came on as some sort of achievement that he squandered. 15 doesn’t sound like many then and 6 doesn’t sound like many now. It sounds to me like it’s more than just this chief that hasn’t been able to get a proportionate number of high quality candidates to apply. So what is it about the fire department? Is it just Norwalk? Do other fire departments have a bigger number and what was their method?

  21. The Deal

    ………..you couldn’t be any more REAL.

  22. Joe

    Why aren’t the school board meetings on TV like the City Council meetings?

    The school board spends most of the money! They got enough money to make a video. It makes me suspicious that they’re hiding something.

    And they should make videos where you can see their faces and eyes real good. So you can tell who’s telling the truth and who’s lyin’.

    You know what… in Mississippi and Alabama and Florida, they show all their meetings down there.
    They’re more open than we are.

  23. @Joe
    BOE meetings will be broadcast soon, I am told. I asked because I notice the last BOE meeting, held in the council chambers, being videotaped. Ralph Valensizi told me they would be releasing the schedule within a few weeks.
    Most BOE meetings are held in the council chambers, which has new videotaping equipment. I have seen Mr. Valensizi videotaping BOE meetings when they are in the room next to the council chambers, as well.
    So the quality you get from the BOE meetings will be the same quality you get from council meetings, when they are held in the council chambers. I don’t know what will happen when they are held next door.
    As for your last comment, you’re singing our song! We came here from Florida – it is much easier to get information down there. County commission meetings are broadcast live over the Internet.

  24. lael

    So 30 residents max out of 87,000 people show up at city hall and do nothing but complain. All those council people and city employees are spending another night out for THAT? Clearly not a lot of community interest. The cost of that night for the city employees including the mayor to be present just seems ridiculous. Better for the mayor to take email questions/complaints and respond online in a blog. Or have time before a council meeting as a citizen “open forum” for venting.

    If the mayor wants to have a monthly “mayor’s night” then let it be the mayor, one-on-one with the citizens himself, using his time and stop wasting taxpayer money when there’s more cost-efficient ways of addressing resident’s concerns.

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