Republican Mayor Richard A. Moccia and former Police Chief Harry Rilling, his Democratic challenger, quickly responded to each other's barbs during their first joint appearance at a candidates' forum Sept. 18 night in the East Norwalk Association Library.
Rilling, the city's police chief for 17 years, said he would ask the Common Council to rescind a 26 percent pay raise for the mayor. "In this economy, I felt that was inappropriate," he said. "People are out of work."
Moccia, when it was his turn to speak, said, "I didn't take the pay raise. I turned it down."
Moccia then took issue with Rilling's comment about a dormant Main Street property where a BJ's Wholesale Club had been proposed, but which BJ's withdrew from the city's Zoning Commission due to opposition from elected officials and residents. "We should have been ahead of the game marketing that parcel, bringing people in and saying, `Are you interested in that property?' " Rilling said.
Moccia said the city couldn't market private property. "We're not a real estate agency. We can't market somebody's private property," he said. He said he can't stop an application from being filed and that Rilling, who is a Zoning Commission member, can't tell someone not to file an application.
Rilling said he didn't say the city should market private property. "But we can have people come in and look at private property and make an offer on it," he said.
During the forum, which was moderated by Win Baum, president of the East Norwalk Business Association, Moccia and Rilling were each given 7½ minutes to make an opening statement about why they were running for mayor and what they planned to do if elected and five minutes to talk about what they expected to accomplish. The candidates then fielded several questions from the audience.
Moccia, who is seeking a fifth two-year term, gave his opening statement first and said the city in the past several years "had a lot of storms, both economic storms and Mother Nature storms, and I think we survived both very well."
Moccia said the city recovered from the three major storms because of good planning with its emergency management team, and, in the case of last February's blizzard, also because of investments in manpower, trucks and equipment. "We provided the best recovery I think any city could after these storms," he said.
Moccia said the city had maintained a AAA bond rating from all three rating agencies and that the city's pension fund was "back to almost 100 percent."
"When it comes to finances, we're in very, very good shape," Moccia said. "We've tried to balance the collapse in the economy with moderate tax increases to ensure we've maintained all our services."
Moccia said the city had spent a total of $30 million on paving roads in the past six years and added three police officers at the middle school level. He said former superintendent of Schools Susan Marks and other city officials had corrected misspending by the Board of Education and restored positions in the public school system that had been cut. He said the city increased recycling by 60 percent, put in a new Oyster Shell Park and maintained its parks so they were in good condition.
"You have to perform, and we have performed," Moccia said.
Rilling said he grew up in Norwalk, served 41 years in the Norwalk Police Department and had grandchildren in the schools here. "If anybody has a vested interest in making Norwalk the best it can be, it's me," he said.
Rilling said his priorities included smart growth and development; education; transparency, civility and inclusiveness in city government; and fighting crime. He said the city had several stalled economic development projects and that business owners thought the city wasn't aggressive enough in promoting Norwalk's natural resources and cultural institutions. He added that the city had a lot of "for sale" signs.
"We want to keep people in Norwalk. We keep them in Norwalk by making sure our school system is the best it can be," he said. He said the city needs to focus on early intervention programs so children enter school ready to learn, and, while not every student can go to college, all should graduate from high school. He said students who don't go to college should learn a trade.
Rilling said he expanded community policing when he was chief and started a DARE camp so youngsters could get to know police officers. He said he was the first person to put officers in schools and had started a monthly "meet the chief" meeting, which he said was one of the best and most rewarding things he did. "I will start a monthly mayor's night out and say to people, `What can we do to make your neighborhood better? We need people to be able to tell us what we can do to make their neighborhood better," he said.
"I want to be transparent," Rilling added. "I want people to call City Hall and get any information they need without having to fight for it." He said he knew Norwalk "about as well as anyone" and would hit the ground running as mayor.
Moccia said Rilling was a good police chief and no one could take that away from him. But Moccia said officers weren't in the schools until he was elected mayor and put funding for them in the city budget. "School resource officers were not funded until I took office. I funded those positions and put school resource officers in," he said.
Speaking about his expectations in another term, Moccia said he wanted to focus on the city's youth, from early childhood education, education in general and safety. He said early childhood education was important because if a child was not up to par by third grade, the city spent the rest of that child's academic career trying to get him or her to catch up. He said some high school students take courses at Norwalk Community College in a Board of Education program known as "Brighter Futures" and that Common Core, a state program for education, was established. He said Manuel J. Rivera, the city's new superintendent of schools "has picked up and been running with it."
Moccia said he wanted to add more police officers on city streets and continue public safety efforts in the schools.
"There's no more important job than taking care of kids," Moccia said.
Rilling agreed that the city needed to work on early intervention for kids and said city officials should explore universal pre-kindergarten. "You do that by working with Dr. Rivera and giving him all the resources he needs so he can do his job," he said. Rilling said school superintendents leave Norwalk because they're not getting support.
"Dr. Marks brought in $5 million in grants alone. What money are we missing out on?" Rilling asked.
Rilling said city officials had to "start developing Norwalk in a good fashion."
"We're being left behind. People are investing in New Canaan, Darien, Fairfield. I want to sit down with those investors and find out what's happening, how we can move projects forward," he said. "I want to make sure Norwalk is going in the right direction and see if we can't get projects moving forward."
On a proposal to widen and lower East Avenue to better handle traffic, Rilling said the stretch of that avenue from the railroad bridge to the turnpike was "a nightmare" because it was too narrow. "It's just not a good highway or a safe highway to travel on. The parcel of road you're talking about is very dangerous. Something needs to be done there," he said.
Moccia said the proposal likely wouldn't move forward in the near future because the state didn't have money for it.
On gangs, Rilling said a program that would have increased communication with teenagers collapsed due to lack of funding for such things as cell phones and two-way radios. Moccia said that program was supposed to be privately funded. "There was never a request for the city to fund it," he said.
Moccia said parental involvement was key to dealing with the city's gang problem. He said curfews would be impossible to enforce because police officers would have to round up kids and drive them home. "New ideas are fine, but we need to reinforce that parents have responsibility. Government cannot do it all," he said.
Another audience member asked the candidates about how public participation in city government could be improved and how people could be made to feel welcome at City Hall.
Moccia said the city had an open and transparent government and that he responds to 99 percent of e-mails and phone calls that he receives from constituents. He said city officials hold meetings with neighborhoods on a monthly basis. "If people want to become involved, they can be involved," he said.
Rilling said he would ask people from all backgrounds and parts of the city to serve in his administration and on city boards. On civility, Rilling said, "There's no reason to criticize the person who disagrees with you. We're not going to all be in agreement all the time."
Last Wednesday night's forum also featured introductions and several questions for 11 Common Council candidates -- three from District C, which includes East Norwalk, and eight at-large candidates.