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Rilling, Riddle, trade thoughts for Norwalk in League forum

Democratic incumbent Mayor Harry Rilling, left, and Republican challenger Jonathan Riddle, as shown in Monday’s League of Women Voters forum on Zoom.

The 2021 Election is Nov. 2.

NORWALK, Conn. – Mayor Harry Rilling and challenger Jonathan Riddle exchanged views Monday in an online League of Women Voters of Norwalk, described by both candidates as “civil.”

Riddle charged that both City Hall and Norwalk Public Schools are top-heavy with an “explosion” of administrative positions, funded by money that would be better spent on education, and emphasized a feeling that Norwalk is overdeveloped. Rilling said he’s proud of his record, keeping tax increases low while supporting the school system, and touted “smart development” as Norwalk moves “in the right direction.”

Video of forum at end of story

Rilling is a four-term Democrat first elected in 2013, seeking reelection. Riddle is a Republican newcomer who has never held elected office. Rilling is a lifer and a former Norwalk Police Chief. Riddle touts a finance background and has lived in South Norwalk since 2015. He spoke of starting a family; Rilling has grandchildren.

Rilling mentioned “realigning city government,” investing in school infrastructure and creating a a community services division as achievements of his administration. His team “followed the science” to make “challenging” decisions regarding the pandemic, he said. And, “For the past eight years, we have had lower tax increases than any previous administration, including the one preceding this administration.”

Riddle said his children will inherit the outcome of whatever happens over the next five to 10 years, that’s why he’s running for Mayor. Under the eight years of Rilling, a “lack of balance in our city government” has developed and there’s a “minefield of zoning issues.”

“Thank God we’re going through a complete overhaul of all those zoning and regulations right now,” Riddle said. “For homeowners, that’s been a big issue, but it seems to be a breeze for developers that want to come into the city and build large apartment buildings, and the explosion of the administrative staff both within city hall as well as Board of Education has been a huge issue. So our city government has gotten too comfortable on the backs of taxpayers.”

His top two priorities would be to balance the government and improve Norwalk’s educational standards, he said, charging that comparing Norwalk to similar Connecticut cities is inadequate and, “we need to provide a world class education system that is on par with our surrounding towns.”

Rilling said, “We’ve invested more in the city of Norwalk Board of Education and Norwalk Public Schools than any previous administration.” Norwalk students are not underachieving, “we have made more progress than any other city school district in the state of Connecticut, in the achievement index.”

“It’s not a question about how much money is being spent,” Riddle replied. “It’s more about what’s happening in the actual classroom, and the failures of what’s going on in the classroom is cannot be ignored.”

Riddle pointed to a report issued recently by the Board of Education, showing “that the education scores of our kids have decreased exponentially.” He said, “It’s a scary picture that is being painted right now.”

“That report came out right after the pandemic,” Rilling replied, calling it a “temporary” phenomenon.

“That’s the experience statewide, nationwide, where young people could not be in the classroom and have that socialization, that interaction with each other,” Rilling said. “And there was obviously a backslide, and we need to fix that.”

“It was actually an in-person remote and overall number that that is referenced. So it’s not just distance learning,” Riddle said.

Neither candidate directly answered a question asking what can be done to create a master plan to reduce the increased velocity and volume of the Five Mile River.

“Well, certainly we need to address our infrastructure issue,” Riddle said. “Someone told me one time, water is the most powerful and destructive force of nature that we encounter as humans. It’s greater than wind, it’s greater than the sun or fire.”
He segued to the Rowayton Avenue closure with, “We need to thoughtfully look at our rivers” to make sure that water doesn’t cause destruction “like that bridge that’s still out of out of service right now.”

Rilling began his reply with, “We have a program, we work closely with the state where there’s a schedule for looking at all the bridges in the city of Norwalk.” He said, “Climate change is real” and, “We’re currently in the process of a city-wide study on flooding, and how we can mitigate flooding throughout the city.”

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The Rowayton Avenue Bridge didn’t wash out overnight, Riddle charged. “That bridge was suffering from previous erosion. And it’s funny, the mayor says that there’s a proactive plan in place to review all of these things. Well, it seems to me that this has been reactive.”

“I would say that the Rowayton Avenue Bridge was not crumbling, that the storm that hit that bridge was so powerful, Mr. Riddle admitted himself, there’s nothing more powerful than water,” Rilling replied. “It’s more powerful than fire, more powerful than wind. And when you have that intense rainfall and flowing down the river for such an extended period of time, with water flowing over the roadway, it’s going to have an effect on that bridge.”

Both men agreed that the City should find the right place for a cannabis outlet, though Rilling called it a “struggle” given his background as police chief.

Riddle called it potential revenue and spoke of the opioid crisis. Rilling said a dispensary should offer educational materials for young people “so that we can educate them to the challenges or the problems that go along with drug use.”

In closing statements, Rilling said, “I stand on my record, the past eight years, we have done so much for the city of Norwalk… I believe we have moved Norwalk in the right direction. We are prepared to continue that progress to make sure that Norwalk continues to be the most vibrant city in the state of Connecticut.”

Riddle said, “The challenges we were trying to overcome as a city today are due to the current administration’s failures and flawed vision for the future of Norwalk. It is clear to me Harry Rilling does not serve in the best interest of Norwalk residents…. Norwalk is a beautiful place with amazing potential, and we need a renewed focus on identity, not our density.”

10 comments

John O'Neill October 19, 2021 at 9:56 am

Whenever I read about Harry discussing Norwalk Schools I twitch for some reason. We need fresh perspectives on the Board and when Harry talks about progress he’s “misinforming” the electorate. On the one hand he’s telling us how great things are (That’s his job as a politician by the way) On the other hand the Board is telling us about the basic needs that haven’t been addressed (I also think they are “misinforming” Norwalkers as well – For goodness sakes we only have 2 High Schools and can’t fill the principal slot for one of them!)
Again, I like Harry — BUT let’s not forget that emergency call 2 years ago to Jim Himes for funding of ELL explosion (Harry, it had been building for 10 years) Apparently, Jim Himes doesn’t give a damn or never got the message Harry called. Why hasn’t the Board of Ed called out our Hartford officials for the crappy funding of our schools? (Again, Bob Duff will tell you the money is just flowing to Norwalk. I’m not calling Bob a liar, let’s just say I think he majored in nuance in college. It certainly wasn’t economics)

I think Harry handled the Covid situation well. In fact, I credit him and Chief K for keeping a lid on things when tensions rose Post-George Floyd. No thanks to the pandering Bob Duff who’s despicable false accusations about NPD were a potential powder keg. Pathetic.
Net/Net — Close call in my mind for Mayor, but Harry is doing just enough to stay. ON the other hand, the Dems have made shambles of our Common Council. Our Board of Ed is a laughing stock to anyone who knows anything. Of course there are those who will disagree. I only hope voters actually vet the candidates (unlike our Dem Town Committee) before voting.
The day of reckoning is coming budget-wise in 2 years — We need intelligent voices and pragmatic leaders locally when the funny money from Washington runs out, and Property Revaluation hits property owners AND renters. If I was a betting man I’m betting this is Harry’s last campaign. He knows what lurks around the corner in a couple of years. He’ll leave the heavy lifting and major headaches to the next Mayor.
So Harry, enjoy your swan song. Don’t screw anything up in the next two years and enjoy your retirement.
Note to Voters: Educate yourselves on candidates. All hell is breaking loose below the surface in our school system. You just don’t know it yet. Take a good look at alternatives on the ballot. Lastly, as Richard Blumenthal eloquently said “Falsus in Uno, Falsus in Omnibus” – When listening to endorsements from some of our more senior elected officials keep that statement in mind.

David T McCarthy October 19, 2021 at 12:10 pm

The Keeler’s brook issue was known about a decade ago. Hal Alvord had the city buy rights to the property on the river bank to allow for replacement/redirection of Row Avenue…which would happen when those folks moved. Hasn’t happened, even though I believe that property has sold…

Tartuffo October 19, 2021 at 1:48 pm

The mayor talks about comparisons with previous administrations? he has been in power long enough to have been the one making a larger impact on this city. Enough with excuses! He needs to admit to some mistakes, and look around. The city is becoming a mishmash of different types of buildings that make it lose its individual characteristics. The cute homes or townhouses are disappearing and are being replaced by these low quality -for the most- low-rise or high-rise apartments. It is a highly congested city, that has lost its charms. There is no effort in preserving its traditional look in some parts, or giving it a distinctive one in others. Administrations, Architects and developers work hand in hand throughout the country and manage to inject modernity and functionality within charming cities while respecting the aesthetics, the environment, and not straining the infrastructure. Let’s see what they do well and get inspired!
Why can’t we? Norwalk is spread out, with different little neighborhoods. They need to retain their identities. Building more is not the solution. Building better, and strategically is smarter. We don’t want an ugly city. We need to preserve some green space (maybe along the river?), allowing a better connection through town with public transportation, bike routes and pedestrian dedicated paths. How can we connect these little neighborhoods within downtown without using a car? This is not an overnight type of project. That is why this mayor is failing. He had all these years to develop a viable solution for the city, has he delivered? no. The pandemic might have slowed down some area projects, but it was an opportunity. It should have been a booster for new ideas and ways to rethink development and attractivity for our city. Is our mayor up to the task? He continues to let developers do as they please, neighborhoods are being destroyed, and higher density of low quality apartments are not the solution. Future issues rising from climate change will continue to affect us, and building near the water is not smart! Just look around SONO whenever there is a storm.
The candidates talk about our schools. We are in denial. Our schools are going down! If we do not allow elected board members to be completely independent from the mayor’s office, it will never change. We need a diversified board, with people of all sides (not only representing one view!). This is not politics! This is an investment into our future generations. We need the kids to be smarter, better prepared for a challenging and competitive world! Teachers need help, better pay, and involved parents. Teachers are not the only part of this equation: parents need to participate actively in their schools so they can motivate the students. Testing scores do not paint the complete picture, but tell us part of a story. We are putting a strain on the school communities with the impact of newly arrived immigrants. Why aren’t the candidates talking about that? What will they do about that? How are we absorbing these people? How are we creating opportunities in the city? What about all these companies that have closed down or left? What are we doing to attract new investments in town? And I am not talking tax packages, but long term strategies.
There are many issues that were not covered that I hope will be in the next forum. The list is long. And this is valid on all sides.

John C Miller Jr October 19, 2021 at 5:29 pm

@John O’Neill: During the debate, Jonathan Riddle pointed out that under the provisions of the City Charter, the Mayor is the Chairman of the Board of Education, and yet our current Mayor does not attend BOE meetings. Jonathan is a finance guy and said that he would attend every BOE meeting in accordance with the provisions of the City Charter. Given the size of our annual school budgets, it seems to me that it might be a good idea to have someone with expertise in finance at these meetings. I agree that Harry did a good job with COVID, however, do you really think that this administration is capable of handling the fiscal cliff that’s coming in the next two years when the Federal dollars run out or do you think that Duff will be working for us at that point?
In my view, the time for change is NOW.

John O'Neill October 19, 2021 at 8:05 pm

@John Miller – You make some really good points. It’s too bad we can’t have a combo of Riddle/Rilling…
That being said: The undercard needs to be completely voted out. We need major changes within the Common Council and Board of Ed…I hope I’m not alone in my thinking

JustaTaxpayer October 19, 2021 at 8:52 pm

Harry and all politicians should thank Donald Trump for Operation Warp Speed. Also, where does Rilling stand in the 13 deaths of our service members. Rewind the tape Nancy, when Trump was in office that was used by the Democrat party on local levels. It’s insane

Elsa Peterson Obuchowski October 20, 2021 at 1:56 am

I’d just like to point out how lucky we are to have Nancy on Norwalk covering vital local events like this debate. Many (most?) cities and towns have no resource comparable to NoN where residents can learn about issues that directly affect our daily lives. Thank you, Nancy and team!

John C Miller Jr October 20, 2021 at 6:49 pm

@John O’Neill: I am in complete agreement that the entire “undercard” needs to be voted out.

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