NORWALK, Conn. – When Harry Rilling voted with the crowd last month, his action was viewed by some in the light of his candidacy to become Norwalk’s next mayor.
Rilling had his “tail between his legs” due to comments made by Republican Town Committee Chairman Art Scialabba, said Patricia Conlin of Rilling’s part in the unanimous Zoning Commission decision to allow a senior center to be built on the Sons of Italy property on New Canaan Avenue.
One NancyOnNorwalk reader has wondered if incumbent Mayor Richard Moccia appointed Rilling to the Zoning Commission to damage him as a mayoral candidate.
Rilling had no comment on that. He did say it wasn’t his idea to be on the commission.
“The mayor called me and offered me the position in August or September,” he said.
Rilling retired as Norwalk Police chief in June. He officially announced his intention to be mayor in February.
Former Mayor Bill Collins, a Rilling supporter, said he thought Rilling hadn’t decided to run for mayor when he joined the Zoning Commission, which he thinks is the most important body in the city.
“I think it’s a marvelous experience for Harry to be on that, to get deeply, fully exposed to the issues of the town — more than an average citizen, of course, and frankly much more than a councilman will. To me, this is the fundamental issues of where the city is going, and for him to have the opportunity to be immersed in that I think is terrific.”
Former Mayor Alex Knopp, also a Rilling supporter, said the former police chief is not the first person to run for elected office while serving on the Zoning Commission.
“It does impose on a candidate the need to explain his or her reasons on the record in some detail to overcome the suspicion that he or she has made a decision for political gain,” he said.
That has limits, he said. The Zoning Commission has two functions, acting as both a legislative body and a quasi-judicial body, he said. Discussing the reasons why a zoning regulation has been changed or an opinion on land use policy is entirely appropriate, but discussing a decision made in a commissioner’s capacity as a judge is not, he said.
A judge must view things in an impartial way separate from emotional reactions or opinions, he said.
“It would seem to me that Harry’s vote and the unanimous vote of the commission puts to rest the notion that his behavior is controlled by his political interests,” he said.
Rilling refused to comment on the vote regarding the senior center.
Knopp thought Scialabba’s attack was a much bigger issue.
The RTC chairman recently said Rilling should resign from the Zoning Commission because of an op-ed Rilling wrote denouncing development that favored big box stores.
Knopp said any candidate would have to answer questions about about complicated land use decisions.
Republicans are in a bind, Knopp said, as they supported Rilling and now must denounce him.
“It’s enough for the Republican leadership to get whiplash from hypocrisy,” he said.
People forget that in October 2001, when Republican Mayor Frank Esposito was expected to lose to Knopp, Rilling’s term as police chief was expiring two weeks before the election, he said.
“They made the unheard of and unprecedented move of awarding him a five-year contract,” he said. “… For them to make a five-year appointment before the election shows how much they were trying to protect his tenure in case they lost the election. For the very same people who gave Harry this very long contract extension and allowed his retirement and rehiring and who continued to take credit for it to now make some insinuation that there is some profiteering is just outrageous.”
The Police Commission is an extension of executive power in the city, he said, as the mayor sits on the three=member panel and appoints people without the approval of the Common Council. Giving Rilling a five-year extension two weeks before an election showed a disregard for the election process, he said.
“I have always had a very high regard for Harry Rilling’s managerial skills and competency and would have appointed him as chief even if they had not extended him a contract,” he said. “It just exposes the efforts of the current administration and Art Scialabba to use what they do to attack Harry Rilling. It should get them an Academy Award in hypocrisy.”