Candidates chart first days in office

ew Haven residents go to the polls today to
elect the city’s first new leader in 20 years.
ew Haven residents go to the polls today to elect the city’s first new leader in 20 years. Photo by Kathryn Crandall .

Jan. 1, 2014.

A new mayor of New Haven will climb the steps to the second floor of City Hall and take a seat in the corner office overlooking the New Haven green.

Today’s election will determine whether the city’s first new leader in 20 years will be Toni Harp ARC ’78, a 20-year Conn. state senator, or Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10, a two-term alderman representing portions of East Rock, Cedar Hill and Fair Haven. Whichever candidate is elected will take office in the shadow of outgoing mayor John DeStefano Jr., who announced at the beginning of the year that he would not seek an 11th two-year term.

At the time of DeStefano’s retirement announcement, only one candidate had declared formal intentions to replace him: Elicker had filed paperwork to challenge the incumbent less than a week earlier, pitching an alternative to pay-to-play politics that he said plagued the DeStefano administration. He accused the longtime mayor of trading development contracts for campaign contributions.

As DeStefano’s tenure enters its final months, reflections on his time as mayor have become more charitable, according to Yale School of Management professor Douglas Rae, who served as the city’s chief administrative officer under DeStefano’s predecessor, Mayor John C. Daniels.

“As [DeStefano] himself says, people had a bad case of John fatigue,” Rae said. “But if you compare New Haven now with New Haven the year he came in, it’s a better place.”

Harp and Elicker now deftly mix praise with tempered criticism when assessing their would-be predecessor. Both credit DeStefano with vast changes in the city over the past two decades, commending the transformation of facilities in the New Haven Public Schools and celebrating the city’s newly dynamic downtown area.

But both candidates say more needs to be done: more exhaustive school reform, more widespread economic development and more extensive public safety improvements to quiet the rattle of gunfire from October’s spate of homicides. DeStefano agreed, but said these are commitments that take months, even years, to see through.

Though many of the new mayor’s first few acts in office will be small, some scarcely remembered two decades from now, others will define his or her priorities and, after 20 years, determine anew the trajectory of the office .

“Some things you do, you choose to do, and some things you do because they’re thrust upon you,” DeStefano told the News, reflecting on the decisions and circumstances that shaped the city he will soon pass on to Harp or Elicker.

 

Day one — DeStefano 

The early 1990s were grim economic times for New Haven. And, as the city’s financial situation nearly bottomed out, its crime rate peaked.

Even DeStefano’s detractors — including his 2001 mayoral opponent, Connecticut State Sen. Martin Looney — say the city is in better shape today than it was when DeStefano took over.

On Dec. 31, 1993, the day before DeStefano took office, Connecticut courts ordered the city to spend $10 million more on New Haven Public Schools as a result of a lawsuit brought by the New Haven Board of Education. DeStefano’s first decision in office was agreeing to fund the school district, shelling out money the city did not have but easing the antagonism between City Hall and the Board of Education.

That same month, DeStefano’s former communications director, now NHPS Communications Director Catherine Sullivan-DeCarlo, wrote a policy memo to the mayor and top members of his cabinet outlining a list of promises made on the campaign trail.

They included a pledge to “blanket the state with requests for State School Construction grants to repair the physical plants of the schools.” In 1995, DeStefano made good on that promise with the announcement of his Construction Program, which sought to replace or renovate every public school in the city at a price tag of $1.5 billion.

Other promises never saw concrete returns, including one to “cut commuting time to one hour between New Haven and New York.” The idea has been floated by both Harp and Yale President Peter Salovey but summarily shot down by Metro-North spokesperson Marjorie Anders, who said the proposed improvement is physically impossible.

The first days and weeks in office also saw symbolic measures, including a mayor’s night in on the first Tuesday of his term to welcome city residents to City Hall and “bring responsiveness back to city government,” according to a Jan. 3, 1994 press release.

DeStefano insisted on moving into City Hall’s offices on Church Street in January even before the building’s renovations were finished, Sullivan-DeCarlo said. Amid plastic sheeting and loose phone lines, the mayor began work on a lawsuit against the state of Connecticut challenging the way property taxes are levied among municipalities and surrounding suburbs, which became his second public policy initiative in office.

“It was a life dream for him to be mayor,” Sullivan-DeCarlo said. “He was driven from the very beginning not to accept mediocrity, which made him challenging to work with but also made it exciting to be on his team.”

She described DeStefano as fearless in the face of controversy, an attribute that helped him overcome a corruption scandal in 1998 precipitated by the disappearance from city coffers of $2.3 million in federal funds earmarked for the anti-blight Livable City Initiative. Federal agents raided City Hall in the summer of 1998 and the episode ended with the ousting of the head of LCI, as well as DeStefano’s chief of staff and corporation counsel.

“Fifteen years ago, three individuals approved a loan that shouldn’t have been approved and they were separated from the government,” DeStefano said.

Sullivan-DeCarlo, who had left her post in City Hall by the time news of the scandal broke, said she maintains that the mayor himself never “engaged in any corruption or inappropriate dealings.”

In the scandal’s wake, DeStefano hired Henry Fernandez LAW ’94, who dropped out of the 2013 mayor’s race after the Democratic primary, to clean up LCI as the agency’s head.

During DeStefano’s tenure, Fernandez said, three other Connecticut cities — Hartford, Waterbury and Bridgeport — sent their mayors to jail on corruption charges.

“I don’t think the public perception is that DeStefano ever did anything personally corrupt,” Fernandez added. “He was very clear about what the rules were and he would never break them. The issues that have been raised were more about transparency and access: Did everyone feel like they were given the same level of attention as people who might have been a donor to his various campaigns?”

To build public trust in government, Fernandez said, the next mayor should declare a zero-tolerance policy for corruption, clarifying that he or she owes no special favors to campaign donors or volunteers.

 

Day one — To be determined 

Whichever candidate clinches Tuesday’s election will inherit a city vastly changed from the one DeStefano faced in 1994. Still, the longtime mayor said that his successor will confront enduring issues of public safety, fiscal sustainability, education and economic development.

Even his principal achievement, New Haven school change, requires further attention, DeStefano said, adding that college persistence should join college-going as a foundational mandate of reform. Collaboration among key partners — including new school district officials and the teachers’ union — has been a pillar of successful school reform and must be maintained, he added.

“In some real sense you never solve these problems,” DeStefano said. “What I’m saying is keep goal-setting.”

Elicker said he would institute a series of immediate measures to begin to address the same issues that DeStefano outlined.

On the question of education, Elicker promised to institute a no-wrong-door policy, which would allow parents to walk into any municipal building and find information about education options and school application procedures. Instead of waiting to develop new youth spaces, Elicker said, the city should open its public schools after the end of the school day for use by existing youth organizations.

Attributing October’s series of homicides to a depleted number of police officers, Elicker said he would start rebuilding the city’s police force. He said he would aim to reach New Haven Police Chief Dean Esserman’s target of 500 officers, 100 more than the city currently has on the payrolls. A drop in overtime pay would compensate for the additional hiring, Elicker said.

The city’s budget would also be at the forefront of his early agenda, Elicker said, as the next biennial budget must be prepared by March. He said one immediate measure he would take is capping the amount of debt the city issues at $20-25 million, forcing capital projects such as school construction to operate within current means.

And, following in the tradition of DeStefano’s “mayor’s night in,” Elicker said he would aim to rebuild residents’ sense of connectedness to their government by holding weekly citywide meetings.

Harp laid out a similarly concrete set of immediate priorities, starting with a project she said she can accomplish right away. Harp said she would push to open a second garage at Union Station, making it easier to park at the train station, particularly for residents who commute to New York for work.

“A large part of our city’s economic growth is about what happens regionally,” she said. “To the extent that we can get our people into New York City where the real growth synergies occur, I think that would be good for our economy.”

Next, Harp said, she plans to work with department heads to come up with a brand for New Haven, a better means of marketing the city to businesses and potential residents.

She said she would look into ways of sending out representatives of City Hall into New Haven’s neighborhoods as well as creating a “mobile City Hall,” allowing people to conduct administrative business without coming downtown.

All of that, Harp said, can be accomplished within the first few months of her term. Hoping to build on DeStefano’s success in developing the downtown area, she said she would begin turning City Hall’s gaze to New Haven’s other neighborhoods and look specifically at “the commercial areas in the neighborhoods that have been ignored for the last 20 years.”

Dixwell Plaza — a small shopping center Harp described as “the poster child for the lack of neighborhood investment” — could become a thriving center of retail and job growth, she said. Elicker agreed, saying he would work to change zoning regulation along major corridors into neighborhoods that would improve predictability for development investments.

Still, many of the next mayor’s most important decisions will not be their own, Rae said, but executed by their cabinet members. Civil service reform limited the number of appointments municipal leaders make, leaving no more than 25 administrative spots up to the mayor’s discretion, including the chief of staff, the chief administrative officer and major department heads.

Rae said either candidate will need someone in the chief administrative officer spot who can take the heat for the mayor on difficult decisions regarding the city’s pension liabilities and government spending. He said Harp is more likely to look within the city for appointees, while Elicker is prone to search nationwide.

Ultimately, though, the next mayor will be on his or her own, DeStefano said when asked whether he would stick around to help train his successor.

“I feel tremendously prideful about what’s been done over the last 20 years,” DeStefano said. “Having said that, elections are about change.”

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