Rilling: Mosque settlement discussions being done under judge’s order

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.

Norwalk 022014 070
Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling talks to residents of West Norwalk last week.

“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.


16 responses to “Rilling: Mosque settlement discussions being done under judge’s order”

  1. EveT

    It seems that many residents who don’t have legal expertise are engaging in wishful thinking — they wish the mayor had the power to say yes or no, the mosque will or won’t be built. It is much more complicated than that, as this article makes clear.

  2. LWitherspoon

    I believe that Mayor Rilling’s character is such that a $250 contribution from the Al-Madany spokesman would not sway the Mayor one way or the other. That said, when Mayor Rilling stated that Ms. Hargrove’s mention of the Al-Madany spokesman’s campaign contribution was “unworthy of a response”, was that respectful and civil?
    Potential attempts by Mosque proponents to influence the political process should be scrutinized the same as contributions from major developers and others with business before the City. Thank you NoN for reporting Ms. Hargrove’s statement and Mayor Rilling’s response.
    Let’s also think about Rilling’s comment that the Al-Madany spokesman’s contribution wasn’t meaningful because developers and others contribute much larger amounts to campaigns. Are we really comfortable with any of those parties influencing politics with their money?
    Lastly, Mayor Rilling attempted to suggest that he has little influence over the process. I find that hard to believe. Consider the chain of command. The settlement negotiations are being handled by Corporation Counsel Coppola, who was appointed by Mayor Rilling, serves at the Mayor’s pleasure, and reports directly to him. Yes, the outside law firm representing the City was hired during the previous administration, but that outside law firm now takes its marching orders from Mayor Rilling’s appointee. Perhaps Mayor Rilling’s desire to avoid taking a position on this hot button issue has caused him to inadvertently misrepresent his level of influence over the process.

  3. anonymous

    Mayor Rilling was evasive and Witherspoon is right, Rilling appointed the corporate council and calls shots. Rilling statement ‘I have a say as to what happens’ sums it up.

  4. John Frank

    I have known Mayor Rilling a long time and the suggestion that he could be compromised by a $250 campaign contribution is ridiculous & insulting. The lawyers, always tell people to avoid commenting on a matter that is being litigated, and he is following that advice. Let’s see what comes out of the court-ordered negotiations. Nobody, except the lawyers, will gain from going to trial.

  5. Mike Rafone

    The $250 is irrelevant. However:
    We are entitled to know EXACTLY what’s going on in this ugly situation.
    What a joke for the mayor to say that he doesn’t know what’s up, refusing to state his opinion about an issue that is of vital importance to every Norwalk homeowner.
    A Google search turns up numerous municipalities that have successfully opposed similar onslaughts from Muslim groups who sought to overbuild on cheaply-acquired residential plots. Why should Norwalk bend over for the bullies? The permit denial is valid and justified. Doesn’t the loser of the case pay all court costs?

  6. RU4REAL

    The zoning issues Mushak has been jumping up and down alone about getting changed, if changed we wouldn’t be talking about the mosque now.
    That would be the Moccia era and Mr. Greene, who has been here 30 years! I still cant figure out why they resisted change, oh yea, they didn’t like the messenger.
    Snap out of it folks, embrace the messenger, and his message, put some preventative measures in place, so this cant happen again.
    Question is how is it that Santo and Wilson are still in charge?

  7. Mike Mushak

    Thanks RU4Real. The truth is the same zoning code that allowed the mosque in the first place (it followed the code) is still in place and has not been changed by either Santo or Wilson who trade places back and forth between chair and co-chair in a game of annual musical chairs. They have shown no interest in fixing our broken zoning code, or implementing our Master Plan or expert studies to protect public health and safety and protect neighborhoods.
    What is really strange is that Wilson ran in the last election for Council on a platform of “protecting neighborhoods,” but she has had 3 years to change the broken code that allowed the mosque at this scale and has done nothing about it, as either chair or co-chair depending on what year you choose. A former zoning commissioner started that conversation but was not reappointed by Moccia last summer, and the GOP chairs who control the commission have dropped the issue off the agenda.
    Like a regressive magic trick, the religious institution text amendment just went ‘poof’ and disappeared, like all of the other much needed initiatives we need to fix our code including the Master Plan’s Main Avenue retail size limit, TOD zoning and South Main rezoning in SoNo, tweaking of workforce housing regulation, reducing our obsolete parking requirements to match all other cities, contractor yard reform to encourage small businesses on underutilized or empty properties, etc, etc.
    Wilson even voted to kill the Main Avenue retail limit which was recommended in a major study and our 2008 Master Plan, and which would have protected hundreds of existing small locally owned businesses, as well as the neighborhoods of Silvermine and Cranbury from an onslaught of speeding regional traffic the same as the poorly planned big box explosion on CT Ave. affected West Norwalk quality of life and property values, with a huge increase in speeding traffic from New Canaan and Westchester taking back road shortcuts. How can Wilson claim she is protecting neighborhoods with votes like this?
    Any neighborhood in Norwalk is still subject to any religious institution, church, temple, mosque, etc., with inadequate control over the size of the accessory buildings or it’s parking. Imagine going through this all over again, which is likely until we fix our code. Where is the outrage?

  8. Al Bore

    We need to vote out these people who do nothing to protect our neighborhoods. This issue is about protecting the character of the neighborhood, traffic, and a dangerous corner near an already high traffic school area. It has nothing to do with it being a mosque it has everything to do with the character of the neighborhood. I hope the city officials grow some and don’t allow this build. I know anything goes in Norwalk but it is time to change. As for Harry taking the money it was wrong because the city that he was hoping to lead at the time was in litigation and for that reason he should not have done it. Change the zoning laws to protect the quality and character of the neighborhoods from the developers who come in wanting to make a lot of money over building Norwalk and then go home to one of their beautiful surrounding towns where this kind of over building is not allowed.

  9. Joe Espo

    @Mushak: The zoning changes that you’ve jumped up and down about and your pet Master Plan projects have NOTHING to do with the mosque. Converting the zoning code to a Mushak zoning code would have done squat to prevent the mosque controversy. There was never any prior similar issue that arose that would have caused you or anyone else to propose new and heroic prohibitions against houses of worship, and you know, but are not admitting, that any such prohibitions would have been not only ineffective against this issue; they indeed would have also been per se evidence of discrimination under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Go ahead and name one proposal that you’ve officially brought before the zoning commission that would have averted this big-box mosque on a postage stamp-sized lot.
    You continue to mislead everyone on the process to enact zoning changes and adopting master plan recommendations and studies. It’s not up to Wilson or Santo; it’s up to the commission as a whole. You want to change the zoning code or effectuate master plan studies; get it on the agenda. The changes don’t happen by themselves; there’s a process. The fact that you haven’t succeeded in jump starting the process toward having your proposals seriously considered means one thing: you have zero credibility; no ability to persuade; and you garner no respect. No one wants to listen to you and, in fact, as happened at the last meeting, they walk out! Instead of credible persuasion and team work, you rely on bullying, brow beating, insulting, and denigrating and – as in this case- making misleading claims about the procedure. You’ve generated tons of belittling diatribes against Santo, Wilson, McCarthy, Kruk, Greene, Wrinn, the entire P&Z staff, Astrom, Cavallo, Alvord, Moccia and a dozen others. That’ll get your proposals considered seriously, no?
    The outrage is that Moccia reappointed you last time because of some political deal that you struck with him, to which you admitted here on this blog. The greater outrage would be if you get reappointed this time around.

  10. Mike Mushak

    JoeEspo, you are wrong on every count, except that Moccia did reappoint me, but he made the deal, not me. He said he would reappoint me if I didn’t throw a fundraiser at my house for his opponent that year, Andy Garfunkel. What was I to do, not get reappointed over such a silly thing? I agreed, and I still supported Andy financially but stayed true to my word and didn’t have a party at my house, and I told Andy about it immediately, who thought the whole thing was bizarre like I did.

    So, to contradict your claims, I did manage to get the recent Main Avenue zone change on the agenda over much objection and nasty comments from Santo, and Wilson killed it in committee before it even had a chance to get to a public hearing, depriving the public a chance to even comment on it! You call that cooperation from Santo and Wilson? I call that bullying and depriving the public of a voice, typical behavior from this crowd as many have witnessed and commented on for years.
    I beg to differ on all of your other comments as well, which indicates a frightening ignorance of our zoning code if you are who I think you are. You seem very defensive for some reason, and out of touch with the issues at hand. Here’s the truth of the matter.

    The text amendment that would have prevented the possibility of another facility, religious or not, of having such a large size on a small lot was the parking requirement for accessory uses. Our parking requirement is only for the primary use, ignoring the accessory use. When the accessory use is double or triple the size of the primary use, for example, as it can be for religious institutions, the buildings can easily grow out of proportion as they are not limited by parking requirements.
    We attempted to fix that, but it wasn’t the leadership in Santo and Wilson that tried, but the commissioners who do not control the agenda. The item was just suddenly dropped by the leadership. One commissioner who wanted it fixed was not reappointed by Moccia last year, and since that time, Santo or Wilson who set the agenda did not see it as a priority.

    Fixing the accessory use parking requirement for any use would have been within the RLUIPA law. So would the inclusion of paving as lot coverage, just as other towns do, to limit size of development.

  11. Joe Espo

    A political deal is mutual and you agreed. “Oh, what was I to do”? Yea, you had no control over whether you should prostitute yourself for your re-appointment. “I’m a victim”, you say. And sum-bitch, you managed to deceive that devil, Moccia. You got talent. And all the while you compromised your ersatz principles just for the re-appointment. Where’s your credibility?
    Yes, your justification for your re-appointment is quite Clinton-esque. “Dear Dick Moccia: I did not have fundraiser relations with that candidate; Mr. Garfunkel.” Did you inhale?
    Give us evidence that your zoning proposal was killed in committee. I’m just a bit skeptical of your credibility after I just learned that you slept in Dick Moccia’s political bed.
    Give us more details as to who attempted to fix what for a modification of an accessory use? An accessory use? Like, are we talking about the mosque as an in-law apartment?
    So you say that you got the Main Avenue zone change over objection from Santo and Wilson? What of the other commissioners? You have failed to get any issue to a public hearing because you have no juice, and that’s because no one believes you.

  12. Mike Mushak

    Joe Espo, my service to the city as the ONLY licensed design professional (architect, engineer, urban planner, or landscape architect, which I am the latter)on the Zoning Commission is crucial, as it provides a background to understand planning and zoning issues, which is why Dick reappointed me. He forced the silly “deal” on me, and I was not going to give up 3 years of serving the city over such a silly agreement. I went transparent immediately with it, so it was not a “backroom deal”, and I stayed true to my word by not having a fundraiser at my house. Dick never said I couldn’t support his opponent as he knew better, and I didn’t break my word. Yes, I am ashamed of it, but it wasn’t my idea and it said much more about Moccia than it did about me. Plenty of others have made horse trading deals with Moccia to get things accomplished. That’s how he worked, with everyone, even with many of his own party. I was not unique, and if I hadn’t agreed to that condition imposed on me, the ZC would not have had a professionally qualified watchdog for public health and safety who analyzes every application carefully, and who insists our many plans and studies paid for by taxpayers be respected. They often are not, by both staff and some commissioners. Keep reading to the end for a classic example.
    The accessory use parking requirement is exactly what it sounds like. The large multi-purpose building with gym and classrooms was an accessory use, although much larger than the mosque building itself, called the “primary use” which is what the parking on site was designed for following our current regulations. We discussed amending our regulations after that application to include accessory use parking requirements beyond primary uses only, for all applications, not just religious institutions. The issue was suddenly dropped off the agenda two years ago and never put on again. I do not control the agenda as that is the Chair and Co-Chair’s responsibility, Santo and Wilson. Any request by me is usually met with nasty comments and bullying, as witnessed by the public and even taped here on NON. That is not my fault. They just don’t like anything I say as I challenge their bad decisions, and I challenge staff sometimes as it is in the ZC by-laws that the commission shall supervise the staff. Santo and Wilson never challenge the staff over anything. Read below.
    The Main Avenue zone change recommended in the 2006 Main Ave study and the 2008 Master Plan, which I insisted be put on the agenda over objections, would most likely have had huge public support, as it would have protected Cranbury and Silvermine and the existing 140 businesses on that one mile stretch of dangerous road from overdevelopment and regional traffic nightmares like we see on CT Ave now, costing taxpayers tens of millions to fix, long after the developers made their money and left town.
    The zone change was killed in committee on a 2-1 vote (the one vote against killing it was mine) without any public hearing, by Emily Wilson and Linda Kruk, both Republicans. The minutes are below. Notice it says “lengthy discussion” in the minutes, and in that discussion, Linda Kruk said that she believed that any property owner on Main Avenue should be able to build anything they want at any size. As if zoning doesn’t even matter! Also, the data produced by staff was flawed in my mind, as it totally ignored the differences between regional and local traffic that determine ITE (national engineering standards) discounts for traffic counts, which would have altered the totals being presented to the commission. I suspect this was intentional. We were even show the absurd layout of 10 convenience stores in a row, as if 10 7-11’s would just want to be next to each other, to come up with an outrageous traffic number to compare to a large big box store. I saw right through this nonsense and shared it immediately, but Santo and Wilson just tried to shut me up, as they always do when they don’t want the truth mentioned. Here is the excerpt describing the vote to kill the zone change:

    “II. MAIN AVENUE: Further discussion of possible new regulations for Main Av
    Service area from Linden St to New Canaan Av as recommended in the Westport-
    North-Main Corridor Study and Plan

    Dori Wilson began the presentation by orienting the commissioners on an aerial
    map as to the section of Main Avenue that was being discussed. She gave a brief
    overview of the proposed changes to the regulations referenced in the study. She
    distributed a chart to the commissioners which referenced the amount of traffic that
    different size and types of retail uses would generate. She noted that the BJ’s
    Warehouse Club would have a lower trip generation per thousand sq ft than smaller
    retail store sizes. Mr. Mushak compared different types of shoppers at these stores.
    He thought that a warehouse type store would attract regional shoppers from other
    towns where small, retail stores would attract local customers. He referenced the
    Master Plan which recommended that revised regulations be considered to allow for
    smaller retail in this area. Mr. Santo disagreed. The commissioners had a lengthy
    discussion as to whether there should be new regulations or not.
    Ms. Kruk made a motion to not go forward with the proposed regulations. Emily
    Wilson seconded the motion. The vote was 2-1.”

    So there you have it. The GOP “plan” for Norwalk, the CT Ave retail disaster revisited all over again on Main Ave., as if we learned no lessons at all. Santo was even around way back then, along with the same staff,planning out that overbuilt fiasco. In this case, our Master Plan was completely ignored, we had a shocking comment from a GOP commissioner that anyone should be able to build anything they want at any size (can you imagine?), and the neighborhoods of Cranbury and Silvermine including the Aiken Street complexes, as well as 140 existing businesses, were all thrown under the bus because of an ideological worship of “property rights” for one developer to build anything he wants no matter what the cost to the city in reduced safety, quality of life, and reduced property values of surrounding areas, just as our expensive taxpayer-funded expert studies predict will happen.

    And there are those like Joe Espo who say I am the crazy one!

  13. Oldtimer

    Did Joe Espo miss that part about playing nice ? It looks to me like he called Mike a, only slightly disguised, inappropriate name.

  14. Mike Rafone

    Finger-pointing blame game, meanwhile the overbuild will set a precedent that jeopardizes all Norwalk residential property. No wonder there’s an outbound exodus. The previous … mayor at least stood up against the Muslims’ slander; this new mayor withholds any comment, and denies that he’s even involved in the process.

    This comment has been edited to conform to our policy.

  15. Joe Espo

    @Mushak: The deal says a lot and more about you and your character, not just about your penchant for expedient back room political dealing but also about your inclination toward dishonesty and betrayal.
    At least Dick Moccia lived up to his end of the bargain and submitted you for re-appointment. You, on the other hand, stabbed him in the back.
    You are not the person you portray yourself to be.

  16. Mike Mushak

    Joe Espo, I generously answered your inquiry with plenty of facts about how Wilson killed the Main Avenue zone change without allowing the public a voice in the process, complete with minutes and comments made, after you said that possibly could not have happened. I also gave you all the facts that you asked for about why our regulations allowed such a huge accessory building for the mosque, regulations that have still not been changed by Wilson, Santo, or Greene. This after you made fun of my comment about accessory uses as if they had no bearing on that application.

    You lost both arguments, Joe. Oops! And I don’t even get any thanks for the lesson in regressive GOP zoning policy in Norwalk! I actually did this for other readers, so I don’t feel like I wasted my time.

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