The four-person race for the Democratic nomination in for Norwalk mayor will come to an end after the votes from the Sept. 10 primary are counted.
Before you cast your votes Tuesday, get to know the candidates -- former Town Clerk Andy Garfunkel, Democratic Party District D Chairman Vinny Mangiacopra, Common Council member Matt Miklave and former Police Chief Harry Rilling -- a little better with the following question-and-answer exchange, prepared with assistance from the Norwalk League of Women Voters.
Q: What professional qualifications and experience do you have that will equip you to perform the job of mayor of a city of 86,000 people?
Andy Garfunkel: My service as town clerk and my experience as a small-business owner running my own contracting business makes me uniquely qualified to be mayor. I've seen the operations of City Hall from the inside -- the good, the bad and the ugly -- and successfully brought my department into the 21st century through the effective use of technology. As a small-business owner I've dealt with the issues that all small-business owners do, and have managed projects and seen them through to conclusion. There's something to be said for building something with your hands; seeing a tangible result of your efforts. We need a mayor who understands cause and effect. If we invest wisely in our schools and student performance improves, that's tangible. If we implement an effective economic development plan and businesses move to Norwalk and grow our tax base, that's tangible. That's the kind of focus I'll bring to the mayor's office.
Vinny Mangiacopra: Over a decade ago, I decided to dedicate my career to public service. Working in a mayor's office, leading a department of economic development, holding a master's degree in city management and starting my own business give me a great foundation for success. But it is the intangible value of team building, leading by example and the willingness to take on the tough battles that equip me to lead. I am eager to represent all residents of Norwalk and build the best team to make the promise of Norwalk's future a reality that much quicker
Matt Miklave: I have served for eight years on the Common Council, held the chair of the Planning Committee, and was elected by my peers to be Council president. As chairman of the Planning Committee, I played a leading role in the successful construction of Maritime Yards and the Maritime Garage, complete with a substantial on-site workforce housing component. I led the effort to reform the performance appraisal system for Senior City staff. I led the effort to adopt targeted tax breaks for the disabled.
And as Council president and Committee Chair, I made sure that every decision made under my watch was done in the open and citizens had ample opportunity for input and feedback. I am also a nationally recognized labor and employment attorney, a leader in my field, and have worked with employers and businesses for almost 30 years. As one of the owners of a nationally-based law firm, which employs 1,000 employees in 10 cities across the United States, I have had to learn the hard way how to build and manage a business, and what it takes to succeed in difficult economic times.
Q: Please describe what you feel is your main strength and what you feel is a weakness?
Garfunkel: I've been told that my main strength is that I'm genuine. I also believe that I'm approachable and well-organized, which are essential attributes for a good mayor. As for a weakness, some say that I accept too much input from others. I accept that, but I do believe that it's important to gather and evaluate all available information in order to make a good decision.
Mangiacopra: I come from a place where making it in the middle class was not only a dream -- but the only way out. As a small businessman, the husband of a teacher and a homeowner, there is an urgency that I bring to the seat of mayor that is unparalleled. My generation has recognized long ago that we need to be prepared to do more with less and therefore we must constantly look for ways to improve in a smarter, more efficient way. My generation is looking to get the job done, concerning less with the business of the past but geared towards tirelessly looking for the solutions of the future
Miklave: One of my biggest limitations -- especially in politics -- is that I do not lie. I tell people what I believe to be true whether they like it or not. When I appear before groups who want the city to spend more money to help them address very legitimate needs, I cannot simply say "sure-- I'll do that." I have to honestly tell them that we do not have an unlimited ability to tax our citizens to fund every program or provide every support. Many people do not like it when I tell them the hard truth, as I see it.
One of my strengths is my ability to think "outside of the box" and to develop complex ideas to tackle the issues we face. One example is my views on Performance Based Budgeting. I have made PBB a central theme of my campaign -- not because it is a good campaign theme. I talk about PBB because it works. Sixteen other cities across the United States, numerous counties, the State of Washington and even Canada have embraced PBB as a way of doing more with the resources we already have without raising taxes.
Q: Name two distinct ways that you will seek public participation throughout the year beyond items that require a public hearing.
Garfunkel: As mayor, I will organize neighborhood and community Town Hall meetings and community blogs on the city's webpage. I will also establish the Mayor's Civic Leadership Academy, which will run for eight weeks three times a year. The Academy will foster the development of a new generation of civic activists by promoting an understanding of the operation of municipal government, the political process and community awareness. The role if the citizen in Norwalk is invaluable, but we have to engage our citizens in a way that will dispel their cynicism and encourage them to get involved in a productive way.
Mangiacopra: I intend to: 1. Hold monthly community, Town Hall style meetings, rotated throughout the city. This will allow us to have a continued dialogue as a community and not just in tough decisions. 2. Broadcast all city meetings live online. By broadcasting all of our meetings we will be able to hold those that serve more accountable, ensure they participate and give more people an opportunity to see how Norwalk is working for them. 3. Hold weekly community update/podcast highlighting business of the week, what we are working on and things to come. This direct form of communication will also allow for interviews and updates with other elected officials, community stakeholders and department heads so we can begin to start having local government connect better.
Miklave: As part of my effort to implement performance based budgeting, I am going to engage in an extensive community outreach to give all stakeholders a voice in setting budget priorities for Norwalk. I will invite appointed and elected officials to participate in that priority setting process. But I will also invite private citizens, community organizations, neighborhood associations and community advocates to do so as well. We will use town hall meetings, internet-based surveys, public opinion research, social media and other techniques to give a voice to each of our 86,000 neighbors who wants to play a role.
I also plan to meet regularly with citizens to hear their views. I spent four months this spring and summer going door-to-door. We knocked on over 1,500 doors and communicated with more than 2,300 voters. I plan to continue that effort after I am elected. Imagine what people will say when the mayor of the city knocks on their door just to ask, "How are we doing? How can we help?"
Harry Rilling: Just like my "Meet the Chief" nights out in the community, you'll have an opportunity every month to "Meet the Mayor" at different locations and times to ensure that each citizen has an opportunity to be heard. I will bring his department heads too, so your concerns and questions can be addressed on the spot by those responsible for managing the city.
I know that Norwalkers are tired of being disrespected by their own government for simply disagreeing. Under my administration, incivility will not be tolerated and only candidates who listen to and respect the opinions of others will be appointed to Boards and Commissions. The city's government must work to serve the citizens of Norwalk.
Q: Specifically, what will you do to improve our schools if elected?
Garfunkel: I will improve our schools by maintaining a singular focus on the education our students are receiving, but within our means. That must be our focus. We must give the school administration the space to do the jobs for which they are responsible, but at the same time we must hold our administrators accountable for tangible results. As mayor, I will encourage the hiring of additional grant writers to obtain grants to supplement our school budget and will work with our local businesses to encourage partnerships that enrich the educational experience for our students. I will also work with our legislative delegation and directly with Hartford to make sure that Norwalk receives its fair share of educational funding from the state.
Mangiacopra: Here is my 10-point plan on education:
1. Have the mayor be the chief advocate for our schools in Hartford.
2. Prioritize focus on Early Childhood Education so that all Norwalk kids are prepared to go to kindergarten.
3. Bring a Boys and Girls Club to Norwalk that offers additional after school programs and tutoring.
4. Fully implement Common Core Standards.
5. Revamp the Summer Youth Employment Program
6. Reinstate intramural sports for our middle school kids, take care of our recreation fields, and support the Norwalk High School marching bands.
7. Use the mayor's office to promote the proud achievements of our schools and students.
8. Work in concert with Norwalk ACTS to promote the collaboration of all of our education stakeholders.
9. Work with Norwalk Community College to offer more opportunities and facilitate Norwalk's high school graduates' transition to higher education.
10. Ensure our schools' libraries are considered and treated as fundamental to our children's education.
Miklave: I have bold plans to help Norwalk schools get our kids ready for the 21st Century economy by focusing on STEM literacy (science, technology, engineering and math) and recognizing that STEM will impact every single job in America in the new economy. But clearly any bold initiatives will have to wait for a time while we get our fiscal house in order. The debacle of the Board of Education budget last year still haunts us. And, in my opinion, the focused operational review which showed that the BOE underpaid the City Insurance Fund between $1 and $2 million dollars a year for four consecutive years raised more questions than it answered. I want to focus on bringing integrity back to the budget process -- implementing performance based budgeting and making sure the numbers we are getting are solid numbers. Only when we achieve a basic level of confidence that the "books are right" can we access what additional funds will be needed to meet our kids' educational needs.
Rilling: I think that our children are entitled to an education that will prepare them for life's challenges, and I take it as a personal responsibility to make sure that teachers, parents and kids have the resources they need to be successful. The new superintendent of schools faces many challenges and needs the full support of the mayor. I will work closely with Dr. Rivera to ensure that our kids get the education and support they deserve. I am committed to fully implementing the Common Core Curriculum on schedule, and fully funding the Board of Education: that doesn't mean just dolling out money because it is asked for, but reasonable budgets designed to bring the latest technology to our schools and to improve our overall infrastructure.
Q: Specifically, what will you do to reduce crime if elected?
Garfunkel: Number one, we need more neighborhood beat cops and community-based youth programs. However, we cannot combat the crime problem alone anymore, we must be willing to reach out to outside organizations and partner with other neighboring communities to tackle this issue. Recognizing the importance of this problem, I will create a Public Safety Task Force, which will meet once a month and be chaired by the mayor. The Task Force will include student representatives from our high schools, first responders, community and religious leaders, and representatives from our business community, non-profits and neighborhood groups. On a monthly basis, we will assess where there are problems and where we've collectively had successes, and work collaboratively on our public safety issue.
Mangiacopra: I want to use the platform of the mayor's office as a conduit between the community and our law enforcement. The trust needs to be strengthened which is why I have called for more community policing presence so we get back the basics of relationship building. To help keep our youth off of the streets I have championed bringing a Boys and Girls club to our city. With the YMCA closing last year, it created another void for our young people. I will work closely with our police department and work with them to ensure they have the resources they need to keep our community safe. The open and honest dialogue is important so that when people in our community see something, they say something. We have an obligation to take illegal guns off of the streets and I will institute a stronger, practical gun buyback program.
Miklave: I have long advocated community-based policing and the hiring of additional police officers. We need to get as many of our police as we can out of their cars and onto the street where we can stop crime from happening before it occurs. I am pleased to see the current police chief take steps to improve community-policing. I think those steps are long overdue.
Rilling: As the former Norwalk police chief for 17 years, I know what it takes to reduce crime and make the citizens of Norwalk feel safe. Throughout my tenure as a police chief I learned the importance of varied and innovative policing tactics -- in addition to more officers -- to keep up with our growing population.
But you can't arrest your way out of a crime problem. Research shows clearly that the most effective method of dealing with a crime problem is providing opportunities for young people. I will fight for continuation of Head Start, the expansion of mentoring programs and after-school programs, exploration of Universal Pre K, full support for Norwalk ACTS, and apprenticeship programs in partnership with local trades and unions to ensure that every young person in Norwalk realizes their full potential without the hopelessness and resignation that lead kids to turn to crime.
Q: Specifically, what will you do to encourage business growth if elected?
Garfunkel: Our top priority has to be to make sure our existing businesses stay and grow in Norwalk. I would actively pursue Community Block Grants for the areas of the city where we have existing but underperforming neighborhood businesses and show/entice developers that Norwalk is the next big development mecca in Connecticut
Mangiacopra: The first thing I want to do is begin monthly development service meetings with all departments involved in our process. We want to make sure that everyone is on the same page, which is a criticism of the current administration. As mayor, I plan on leading the charge on this. Our city also needs someone within city hall as a resource to business, which is why I have proposed establishing an economic development officer for Norwalk. It is a priority for the future vitality of Norwalk that we have a stern focus on cutting through red tape and giving developers/business owners the best opportunity to present strong applications to our land use boards. By doing this, we create a friendlier business environment that moves things along -- hyper focused on creating opportunity in Norwalk. For small business, I want to reconstitute a façade improvement program that will be geared towards enhancing continuity in various business zones. Stronger partnerships with small business and our Chamber of Commerce will allow us to leverage our collective assets to achieve greater community goals for the benefit of the future of Norwalk.
Miklave: I have outlined a comprehensive plan to build a series of economic accelerators to help local entrepreneurs and innovators grow jobs. I have repeatedly pointed out that historically 80 percent of all job growth in the United States comes from employers that employ fewer than 10 employees. Since 2008, 100 percent of all net new jobs have been created by employers that employ fewer than 10 employees. In Norwalk, our economic development efforts have focused exclusively on the kinds of buildings we are trying to build. I call this the "build it and they will come" mentality. It has not worked in over 25 years. We need to focus our efforts on helping small businesses grow the kinds of jobs we want to grow. If there are jobs in Norwalk, the private sector will build the buildings we need.
Rilling: The first action step lies in appointing visionary zoning commissioners. This is a complex business with various competing schools of thought which require serious analysis and an eagerness to keep up with the times. Norwalk has enjoyed only mixed success in the appointing process, a shortfall which I intend to cure. I intend to take a hands-on approach to working with zoning commissioners, zoning staff and the relevant stakeholders to ensure that the Zoning Commission sets, and meets, realistic benchmarks for revising the zoning code. This is the first step to attracting business to our community.
The second action step lies in simplifying our public parking. Figuring out when to pay, how much to pay, and where to pay ought not to require an advanced degree. Norwalk's public parking is so convoluted that it is no wonder merchants are edgy about locating here.
The third action step lies in increasing downtown population density. Progress is now showing in SONO and on part of West Avenue, but Wall Street remains a shambles and most of West Avenue has changed little since World War II. Retailers and transit both need high density and we should encourage taller buildings to provide it. Merritt 7 is a wonderful asset, but we need some of that density downtown.
The fourth step lies in hiring a business ombudsman. Navigating Norwalk's regulatory process is a discouraging headache. Applicants need a guide to offer direction and to push department heads to keep projects moving forward and to keep me appraised of any departments that repeatedly fail our business community. The ombudsman should have a real welcome mat in front of his door and be a stickler for requiring timely agency response. Applicants ought not to have to pester, pester, pester. They have more important things to do.
The fifth step lies in providing a cooperative office space option. Many beginning businesses cannot afford totally separate offices suites and would welcome the option to share space. But this is a tricky business and not many landlords are interested. The city should encourage a few to work out a system and adjust difficult regulations to make it simpler.
Q: Considering the shoreline damage and flooding Norwalk has suffered from major storms in recent years, and the newly revised FEMA flood map, what will you do if elected to reduce the risk of future damage and flooding?
Garfunkel: This is a challenging issue, because it looks as if this will be an ongoing challenge. New FEMA maps just became effective in July, and many of our residents are still recovering from Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy. I would strongly encourage changes to our land use regulations in our flood-prone areas which will make the area's Base Flood Elevation the point from which we measure the height of structures, etc., and bring all structures in our flood-prone areas up to current standards as they are renovated or replaced. By revising our regulations in that way, we will increase the safety of our residents and decrease the risk of property damage and loss going forward.
Mangiacopra: My first priority will be to work closely with area communities and the Southwest Planning Agency to build on efforts to mitigate potential future storm damage. It is imperative that we involve our federal officials to seek more grant funding for projects to protect coastal areas and I will be able to do this. The storms of the past year have shaken the entire coast and it is high time that more focus is placed on strengthening and preserving barriers and dunes and tide gates to better protect neighborhoods from flooding. Our development plan must take into account impact on runoff and on the potential for flooding. I will safeguard natural wetlands and improve our storm water systems and seek more permeable materials in coastal areas.
Miklave: We should encourage all new developments to consider the impact of global warning and climate change as part of their development plans. We learned a great deal as a result of recent storms. I would be in favor encouraging new developments to "hard wire" infrastructure to be more resistant to storm damage, build community "recharging" stations for public access during an emergency, and see that each development has a suitable space that can be converted to an emergency shelter for the next major disruption.
Q: In what specific ways, if any, do you feel changes are needed to Norwalk's City Charter?
Garfunkel: As former town clerk I am quite familiar with the City Charter and its updates. As mayor, I would immediately seek the appointment of a Charter Revision Commission to accomplish the following: consolidate or eliminate boards or commissions with overlapping jurisdiction; make mayor, town clerk and Common Council four-year terms, with staggered terms for Council; reduce the size of the Council by eliminating two at-large positions; establish term limits for mayor and Common Council; merge the city and town clerk positions into a single position; and eliminate the do-nothing positions left from colonial times (Selectmen and City Treasurer).
Mangiacopra: First, I believe that both the police and fire commissions need to be expanded. As currently constituted, only two people serve with the mayor on each of these very important boards. I would like to see them expanded to at least five members to ensure diversity both by race, economics and gender. Second, the term for mayor should be expanded to four years. This isn't just coming from the politician's mouth; this is something that is sought after by our business community and many others that feel strongly it is hard to get things done in two years.
Miklave: I am very familiar with the City Charter, being a practicing lawyer and having served on the Common Council. There have been many proposals for charter revision over the years -- from a four-year term for mayor to making council members full-time paid positions. I am not committed to any particular charter changes and am skeptical of some of them. But I would like to consider charter revision to the extent it helps our zoning and planning boards be more responsive to the needs of the electorate.
Visit www.norwalkcitizenonline.com for more of the question-and-answer exchange with the candidates..