The theme of Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s State of the City address last night was “common ground,” a phrase he frequently repeated as being the key to New Haven’s success.
Emphasizing his personal sense of optimism, DeStefano focused his speech on four areas he said were critical to the city: public safety, the economy, education and the city budget. On each point, he urged cooperation, whether between communities and police, or Yale-New Haven Hospital and its employees.
DeStefano did not shy away from controversial issues, beginning with the recent no-confidence vote in New Haven Police Chief Francisco Ortiz. The mayor took a clear stand, reiterating his support for Ortiz, and the audience responded with deafening applause.
“Cisco Ortiz is our chief. Cisco Ortiz is our chief,” DeStefano repeated, adding that he fully expected to reappoint Ortiz.
Also acknowledging the police union’s concerns, DeStefano urged both sides to seek common ground and said he would meet with union leaders later this week to work on resolving the department’s problems.
DeStefano also addressed last year’s crime rate increase and controversial police shooting incidents. While acknowledging the need for officers to be able to protect themselves — at one point, the mayor displayed a photo of his father, a former New Haven police officer — DeStefano presented a four-part plan to investigate less lethal technologies, train officers on lethal force policies, use new technology to get ahead of criminals and move vehicle registration decals to rear windows to curb license plate theft. The mayor also lauded efforts at community policing, saying cooperation between communities and police was key to building a safer city.
Under the heading of economics, DeStefano only briefly alluded to his downtown development plan to replace the Coliseum, which he said would not only make New Haven a “more pleasant place to be,” but also, more importantly, bring in tax revenue.
The mayor more extensively addressed the labor dispute at Yale-New Haven Hospital, and again he pushed for compromise. He said as the hospital plans to go forward with its new cancer center, a deal between the hospital and labor organizers will be necessary.
“This project is as critical to the city’s future as it is to cancer care,” DeStefano said. “But however critical this center is, there is no vice in those who question whether we are seeking all the benefits necessary from this expansion.”
DeStefano said the cancer center promises important economic and job market growth for New Haven, adding Yale could play a role.
“If the hospital and the University, and it is an if, can collaborate, the new cancer center will generate hundreds and perhaps thousands of spin-off jobs all around it,” he said.
Yale Associate Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs Michael Morand said he believed the mayor’s message was directed at the hospital, which he said is separate from the University, and that he thought the mayor viewed town-gown relations as a model of cooperation rather than one of the areas in need of improvement.
DeStefano also emphasized education, in particular citing statistics showing increases in the number of high school graduates and the percent of children enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs during his tenure as mayor. He stressed that the city’s commitment to education was ongoing, with six schools slated to start construction next year.
Finally, DeStefano acknowledged concessions would have to be made in the city budget this year and warned next year’s budget would be even tougher, but instead of delving into details about potential taxes, he simply stressed that the budget would be balanced.
“I expect that tax increase to be something nasty, and we’ll be seeing that soon enough,” Ward 1 Alderman Ben Healey ’04 said. “I think he wanted to cushion the blow a little bit tonight.”
At several points in his speech, DeStefano leveled criticism at the state government, complaining about cuts in funding for New Haven and regulations limiting the city’s ability to raise revenue.
Healey said he appreciated the mayor’s candor in admitting he did not have all the answers to the city’s revenue issues.
“I thought it was a strong speech recognizing the real challenges we’ve got in front of us,” Healey said.
Though the mayor made no mention of his ongoing campaign for Connecticut governor, his campaign manager, Shonu Gandhi ’03, said parts of his message could be applied to statewide issues.
“I think that the themes of the speech reflect the mayor’s core beliefs,” Gandhi said. “That is one of the fundamental reasons he wants to run for governor. He sees how New Haven’s health is fundamentally connected to the state of Connecticut.”
Ward 18 Alderwoman Arlene DePino, the only Republican on the board, said she shared the mayor’s optimism and thought he gave a good speech but wished he would have addressed more neighborhood issues. She said she has personally dealt with zoning issues with too little support from the city, a problem she said is widespread in New Haven.
Near the end of his speech, DeStefano reached out to the Board of Aldermen, displaying pictures of all its members on a projector screen while describing his respect for the group.
“I think he wants to work closely with the board, and he’s extending an olive branch,” DePino said.
The mayor closed his address by reiterating the need for teamwork.
“[New Haven] succeeds because we understand that we rise or fall together,” DeStefano said. “We have done a lot, and in the new year there’s so much more to do. Others could be overwhelmed, might fear scaling these walls, but not us, not this city, not now, not ever.”