Rilling’s role on Norwalk Zoning Commission provides opportunities, pitfalls

Norwalk zoning commissioner Harry Rilling051513 019
Norwalk Zoning Commissioner and Democratic candidate for mayor Harry Rilling, left, and Planning and Zoning Assistant Director Michael Wrinn look at a model of Brightview at Norwalk, a senior congregate housing and assisted living center proposed for New Canaan Avenue, before the Zoning Commission hearing on May 15.

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.”


15 responses to “Rilling’s role on Norwalk Zoning Commission provides opportunities, pitfalls”

  1. LWitherspoon

    Former Mayor Knopp makes a good point. For Art Scialabba to criticize Harry Rilling for accepting pay and benefits that were given to him by Mayor Moccia shows major hypocrisy. Is it really Mr. Scialabba’s position that it was not wrong of Mayor Moccia to award Rilling his pay and benefits, but it was wrong of Rilling to accept them? I’m sure Mr. Scialabba won’t be the only one with selective memory as we get further into the silly season.

  2. NorwalkLifer

    Why is Harry refusing to comment? What kind of leadership is it when Knopp and Collins are speaking for your every move?

  3. Suzanne

    What kind of leadership, NorwalkLifer, is it when Art Scialabba is speaking for Mayor Moccia’s every word and move?

  4. ScopeonNorwalk

    I wonder if Rilling accepted the Zoning position before or after the RTC told him he couldn’t run for Mayor as a Republican…At the time of his appointment I believe Rilling was still a U. Interesting because the RTC is the committee that requires the candidates to be on a commission before running.

  5. NorwalkLifer

    I agree with @ScopeonNorwalk. Are all the reporters covering this race just going to give Harry the benefit of the doubt that he is a Democrat? Since when? He registered as a Democrat just a couple months before he announced his run!! Harry attended the GOP convention in 2011 and supported Moccia over Garfunkel. But now Rilling is running against Moccia? Now he’s a Democrat? PLEASE! Will someone ask him about that? Or will we just get another story with no comment from Harry and more defense from Collins and Knopp?

  6. LWitherspoon

    Those who question whether or not Harry Rilling is really a Democrat wouldn’t be satisfied by any answer.
    I know Harry Rilling is really a Democrat because oldtimer supports him for Mayor, and oldtimer doesn’t care about anything other than Democrats being in power. Therefore, Harry Rilling is clearly a Democrat.

  7. I asked Harry Rilling last fall about his “becoming” a Democrat. He said he had always been a Democrat but felt that, as police chief, he needed to be unaffiliated. I know I wrote about it but frankly I can’t find the story at the moment. (Updated 11:28 P.M.: Here is a link to the story I wrote about Rilling’s announcement: https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2013/02/rilling-going-to-enter-norwalk-mayoral-race-email-says/. And here is an earlier account from The Hour: http://m.thehour.com/mobile/news/norwalk/former-police-chief-may-challenge-garfunkel-for-nomination-as-norwalk/article_1960b387-e977-5de6-8fea-07840a7c9bba.html)
    I asked former Mayor Knopp this week about Rilling’s party affiliation, but I did not include it in this story as I didn’t think it fit.
    He said, “When I was first elected to the council in 1983, I knew him to be a registered Democrat. As a mayor I think it was entirely appropriate for him to register as unaffiliated (while in that high profile position.) He absolutely did the right thing, that’s how everybody should act.”

  8. NorwalkLifer

    Thank you Nancy. So how does Harry’s quote in the Hour article here about being: “promoted to a position in the Police Department, where I felt that I should not have any affiliation with any political party” square with the fact that he went to the Republican convention in 2011 while police chief and supported Moccia over Garfunkel? It doesn’t. It’s inconsistent and he needs to explain himself on his attendance and support for Dick. Keep in my that was only two years ago, and now he is seeking the Democratic nomination at the Democratic convention.

  9. LWitherspoon

    I think you are stretching the bounds of the truth with your characterization of what happened in 2011. Does showing up and congratulating your boss on his nomination constitute an endorsement? Did Rilling ever specifically endorse Moccia? I don’t think so. But for the sake of your argument, let’s say he did. Do we now live in a world where Democrats are not Democrats unless they endorse and vote for Democrats 100% of the time? Are Democrats not free to vote for the person who they think is the best qualified candidate, regardless of party? Where did this orthodoxy come from?
    Colin Powell, a Republican, endorsed Obama in 2008. In my view that was the right move. Was it wrong of Powell to do so?

  10. LongTimeDem

    I remember Harry being an active and constructive member of the District A Democratic Committee in the mid-1980’s. He participated in the normal nuts-and-bolts of district committee operations at that time, and did his share of unglamorous grunt work. I believe he even caught one of the tuna that was used in the Committee’s annual “tuna barbecue” that was its main fundraiser at the time.

    In fact, during the waning days of the (Democratic) Collins administration, there were some who went so far as to criticize Harry’s advancement within the police department as being “political” (i.e., because of his affiliation as a Democrat), citing his volunteer work on Collins’s campaign. I’m attaching a link to recap story from when he became Chief in 1995, that gives a bit of the flavor of those days:


    The matter of Harry changing his affiliation from “D” to “U” when he became Chief is a matter for legitimate discussion within the Democratic party, as is past support (if any) for Dick Moccia, and reasonable people can differ about the meaning or importance of those items.

    But to characterize Harry as someone who had never been a Democrat (or was never involved in Democratic party activities) until recently is simply incorrect historically.

  11. NorwalkLifer

    @LongTimeDem, thanks for this great research.
    @LWitherspoon, So we agree that Harry supported Dick in 2011? And we also agree that he didn’t stay “neutral” as his talking point goes now? The quote from Harry was, “Congratulations on your anticipated nomination. Thanks for being a great boss.” If you don’t want to call that an endorsement, then fine. But it was a glowing quote from the Police Chief in the biggest newspaper in the city – far fromm neutral. Moreover, if Rilling thinks Dick was doing a good job as he said he was, what changed in the past two years for him to no longer think that? He hasn’t answered that yet.

  12. LWitherspoon

    I don’t have enough information to say whether or not Rilling endorsed Mayor Moccia in 2011, and you don’t either, if all you know is what you’ve posted here. Where were the comments made? Was it at a podium or in conversation?
    The statement you quote speaks for itself and while many anti-Rilling people would like to make it into a full blown endorsement, I still think that stretches the bounds of truth. Congratulating your boss on a happy event and telling him thank you for being a good boss is not the same thing as saying “I endorse Mayor Moccia.” It’s entirely possible that Rilling feels Mayor Moccia is a good boss but a lousy Mayor – the two opinions can co-exist.
    Now that I’ve addressed your questions, perhaps you’ll address mine. Do we now live in a world where Democrats are not Democrats unless they endorse and vote for Democrats 100% of the time? Are Democrats not free to vote for the person who they think is the best qualified candidate, regardless of party? Where did this orthodoxy come from?
    Colin Powell, a Republican, endorsed Obama in 2008. In my view that was the right move. Was it wrong of Powell to do so?

  13. rburnett

    Long Time Dem says it all. You should click on the link and read several articles written the day Rilling was sworn in. Praise and accolades from officers and public alike. And you can see….he was registered as a democrat. It should put that question to rest but Norwalk Lifer (I truly doubt it) will never be satisfied. He/she is probably a wolf in sheeps clothing if ya get my drift.

    Let’s not forget others who have switched affiliations for a variety of reasons including U.S. Senators, Representatives and others..

  14. NorwalkLifer

    @LWitherspoon If you read my post again, it might help. As I said, even if we don’t call it an “endorsement”, Harry’s comment is still a strong comment of support for Moccia. He didn’t say a single word about Andy that election. That’s not neutral. Period. So Harry’s talking point that he was registered as unaffiliated to stay “netural” is categorically false. He needs to explain that. Moreover, if Harry voted for Dick in 2011 (which he must have considering his comment), he should explain why he has had a change of heart about Dick so much so that feels the need to run against him.

    Second, you defend Harry saying that it’s okay for Democrats to endorse Republicans. Yet Harry didn’t support Moccia? You can’t say he didn’t do something and simultaneously defend the action you said he didn’t do.

    And finally, this is nothing like Colin Powell endorsing Obama. Colin Powell is on record saying he regrets much of his participation in the Bush Administration. Has Harry said that about being with the Moccia administration? No. This is actually more like when Joe Lieberman screwed the Democrats and endorsed McCain over Obama. Joe Lieberman didn’t get another endorsement from the Dems did he?

  15. LWitherspoon

    @Norwalk Lifer
    I think we will have to agree to disagree. Our fundamental disagreement is that you think that Harry Rilling’s “strong comment of support” for his then-boss Mayor Moccia is some scandalous affair that makes Rilling unfit to receive the Democratic nomination for Mayor.
    We seem to agree that there’s not enough evidence to make those comments into the full-blown endorsement, but in your eyes I suppose the loss of total neutrality has become an unpardonable sin. As I said before, let’s assume for the sake of argument that Rilling’s comments did rise well beyond a “strong comment of support” to the level of an endorsement, even though we agree that they didn’t. So what? What bars a Democrat from endorsing a Republican? When did it become more about party than about who was best qualified to serve the people of Norwalk? As an Independent, I like to see elected officials who are principled enough to put the common good above the needs of their party. It’s a refreshing contrast from the polarizing politics of recent years.
    That said, if you set aside the question of who’s best for Norwalk and just think about what’s best for the Democratic party, the Democrats are lucky to have Harry Rilling running. He’s a well-respected former Police Chief with strong community ties spanning a long career of public service. He’s the sort of law-and-order Democrat who can draw votes from Independents and Republicans, which is what Democrats need to reclaim the Mayor’s office.
    It seems that the only objection raised by serious people who oppose Rilling is that he’s somehow not a real Democrat. The trouble with that theory is that the evidence isn’t there, there is evidence to the contrary, and in any event Rilling has been well-known in the community as a straight shooter, probably since you were knee-high to a grasshopper. Serious and respected Democrats take Rilling’s word for it that he is a Democrat. So do you really think a campaign of anonymous unsupported accusations can overcome that?

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