NORWALK, Conn. – There are a lot of people who would be involved in a final settlement between Norwalk and the Al Madany Islamic Center, Mayor Harry Rilling said, emphasizing that he does not get a vote in the matter.
Rilling faced tough questioning on the topic at last week’s Mayor’s Night Out in West Norwalk and repeated the same phrase over and over: the settlement conferences now under way are mandated by the court.
Let’s recap: An application to put a mosque at 127 Fillow St. was denied by the Zoning Commission. The Al Madany Islamic Center subsequently sued in federal court, claiming religious discrimination.
Norwalk lawyers were in court on Feb. 10 for a settlement conference. Rilling did not attend; he said that night that he had gone to Hartford with Norwalk Public Schools Superintendent Manny Rivera to seek more money for Norwalk schools. As he got into his car after a Board of Education meeting he mentioned that he was going to call Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola to see what had happened.
A telephone settlement conference is planned for Feb. 28, he was told.
A range of topics were covered at Thursday’s West Norwalk event before, after 50 minutes, the mosque-issue arose: A resident asked Rilling what pledge he would make to the West Norwalk community.
“Most residents of West Norwalk still view the building of a major mosque and community center as a big threat to our standard of living in West Norwalk, our property values as well as the preservation of the residential character in the neighborhood,” Isabelle Hargrove said. “… I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but it appears that for those negotiations to be taking place so close after the last election, and quite frankly and especially since you did take a campaign contribution from the plaintiff, it just raises a lot of questions in our mind as to whether you are truly dedicated to preserving the quality of our neighborhood.”
“The settlement discussions that are taking place probably haven’t been represented totally accurately in the newspaper,” Rilling said. “The settlement negotiations are mandated by the court. The parties are meeting and talking about potential options that exist. I really can’t go into too many details obviously because it’s in litigation right now and anything I say perhaps could compromise either position.”
Al Madany Islamic Center spokesman Farhan Memon, who was at the event, contributed $250 to Rilling’s campaign.
“I’m not going to address any contributions to my campaign,” Rilling said. “I have one contribution. Candidates get contributions from developers and from different people, a far more significant amount of money than I received. So I’m not even going to address that because it’s not worth responding to because it doesn’t change anything in me, it doesn’t change anything in the situation.”
“He continued,” The judge in this case has ordered the people in this case to sit down and negotiate. I can’t go beyond that because quite frankly I don’t even know. My Corporation Counsel is handling it. There is a city attorney hired by the previous mayor, Shipman and Goodwin, who is working with Corporation Counsel; the plantiff’s side has attorneys. They’re sitting down and they’re talking. What the discussions are, what they aren’t, I have no idea.”
John Bazzano brought it up again.
“The way you responded… it sounded as if you don’t have a seat at the table when it comes to this negotiation of a settlement,” he said. “You defer it all to a committee, your appointees or the city council?”
“They are the ones involved in the settlement discussions,” Rilling said. “They haven’t brought anything back and when they do it’s not only my decision there’s other people that have to be involved in the decision.”
“So you do have a say?” Bazzano asked.
“I am not a voting person,” Rilling said. “I don’t vote on the council. I don’t vote on the Zoning Commission. So it has to follow certain processes. … I don’t have a vote. I have an opinion and I have a say as to what happens but I don’t have the final decision. I don’t have the final say as to what happens.”
“I thought I heard you say it was court mandated,” Bazzano said. “If I ask you to check your facts, I am not sure -”
“The court said to the counsel I want you to engage in settlement discussions to see if you can settle this without taking it to the full litigation,” Rilling said.
“That’s different from a mandate,” Bazzano said.
“If the judge tells you to do something you should do it,” Rilling said.
“Can I have your opinion as to where do you stand on the plans for the mosque as they stand today?” Bazzano asked.
“No. I can’t discuss it,” Rilling said. “If I did say anything that could be used either against us or against the mosque. I cannot render an opinion, I don’t know how many times I have to say that.”
Zoning Commissioner Emily Wilson had gone up to negotiate a settlement more than a year ago when she was chairwoman, he said. She came back with a plan and presented it to the board.
“I can’t go into the details of what that plan was, so there are a lot of things that have to happen, a lot of people that have to be involved in any final settlement,” he said.
The terms of that plan were leaked to this reporter more than a year ago, before then-Mayor Richard Moccia announced that he had hired a new lawyer to defend the city, in effect a rejection of the settlement Wilson had worked out.
The Zoning Commission on Nov. 29, 2012, approved the following resolution: “Subject to an agreement on the terms and conditions of the final settlement agreement, we consent to allow for zoning approval for the mosque and accessory use building.”
Common Councilman David McCarthy (R-District E) said Saturday that this was just a consent for discussions to take place.
As reported earlier by NoN, “Lawyers for the city and the Al Madany mosque were in court Feb. 10″ for a settlement conference that apparently went nowhere (no one can talk about it). What did happen was an order was issued by Judge Donna F. Martinez for the parties to take part in a settlement conference by phone at 10:45 a.m. Feb. 28.”
Subsequently, further paperwork including a joint motion and timeline wwas filed by the court, ordering the Feb. 28 conference and laying out timelines for information exchange. It also sets a schedule for what happens should the conference fail. You can read it here: Mosque time extension 021914 Al Madany
Council President Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said the council does not get involved in a legal settlement until there is a certain amount of money involved. The council has to approve the outlay of that money, he said.