By Nancy Guenther Chapman
Both candidates for the Nov. 5 election were engaging in their first structured debate at the South Norwalk Community Center, where the questions focused on Latino issues. Each answered five questions submitted to them in advance, plus two questions from the audience. The lively exchange featured both of the men using up all of the time allotted by rebutting each other's comments.
Moccia replied to several of Rilling's charges by saying he is already doing the things the former chief has suggested in his campaign. Rilling said that some of the questions themselves show there are problems, in spite of the mayor's assertions.
Latinos account for roughly 25 percent of Norwalk's population and 47 percent of the students in Norwalk public schools, according to a question written by El Sol News and La Voz Hispana.
"Yet," the question read by Lourdes Montalva said, "of the 223 municipal board and community positions in Norwalk, less than 7 percent are Latino. This under-representation may be the reason Latinos feel disenfranchised ... What will you do to address this under-representation, not only on the boards and commissions, but also in all the city departments, including the Fire and Police departments?"
Rilling, who retired last year, said he had aggressively recruited people from all ethnic backgrounds to the Police Department during his 17 years as chief. Moccia, who is nearing the end of his fourth two-year term, said that while he was mayor, Rilling had carried out that recruiting at his and the Police Commission's direction.
Moccia, who appoints people to 15 municipal boards and department heads without approval and nearly 30 more with Common Council approval, said that 10 percent of Norwalk departments have Hispanic employees, and listed two highly placed Latino volunteers -- Redevelopment Authority Chairman Felix Serrano and Norwalk Housing Authority Chairman Cesar Ramirez -- as well as Olga Arteaga, an April appointee to the Norwalk Parking Authority.
"Since this question had to be asked then it's a real problem," Rilling said of Latino under-representation. "We have to make sure that you feel welcome on these boards and commissions."
After the debate, Rilling said that he brought job candidates to the Police Commission. All the commissioners did was vote on them, he said.
Establishing a rapport with the audience went beyond the candidates' initial use of Spanish.
Moccia cited his attendance at Latino community events, which he said is the reason for his familiarity with Latino culture.
For his part, Rilling noted that his first daughter was born in Puerto Rico, while he was serving in the Navy, and said they lived off-base.
Moccia twice mentioned the Community Block Development Grant money the South Norwalk Community Center was awarded through the city of Norwalk, money from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"It all comes down to time and money," he said. "The entire budget in the state of Connecticut for the Latino commission is only about $340,000. You got $100,000, the rest of the state is only $340,000 and that's chopped up, kind of hard to get to the cities."
In two of his answers, Rilling made reference to the troubled anti-poverty agency, Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now, which shares the building at 98 South Main St. with SNCC.
"We cannot sit idly by and watch a social service agency fail, as recently has happened," Rilling said. "We have to make sure that we're actively engaged doing the things necessary to keep you viable and to give you the resources to do the job you need to do."
NEON leaders cite Moccia's withholding of $2.6 million in city funding as a principal reason for its financial problems. NEON recently laid off or furloughed employees, and has been declared an "agency at risk" by the state Department of Social Services.
Asked about a need to encourage the Latino entrepreneurial spirit, Moccia said, "The largest block of new businesses in town are the Hispanic businesses."
Rilling said Hispanic people do not feel welcome at City Hall.
"I've heard over and over again that Norwalk City Hall is one of the unfriendliest places to do business," he said. "I have heard it so many times I have to believe that it's true."
"Totally incorrect about City Hall," Moccia countered, citing employee training, mandated by law, in dealing with people with different languages and cultural heritage.
One woman, who declined to be identified, said the debate was productive. "I think they touched on a lot of specifics," she said of the candidates.
Another woman, who only gave her first name, Aleyea, said the debate "was good in a way," but that the audience "didn't get the answers we want."
What did she think of the answers she did get?
"Some of them I didn't agree with, with the current mayor," she said. "... I hear everything from the Spanish community that's going on. As much as they say we have the services, we really don't. Maybe we do, but they haven't found a way to communicate what kind services, you know, because people are afraid or they might not know."