City hall staff under Harp takes shape

In her final days as New Haven’s mayor-elect, Toni Harp ARC ’78 is putting the finishing touches on the cabinet of city administrators who will take office at City Hall with her once she is sworn in as mayor on Jan. 1.

On Monday Harp announced Tomas Reyes as her chief of staff, installing the battle-tested Latino political leader and community organizer as her top aide. A former president of the Board of Aldermen and currently the chief of staff at the Connecticut Mental Health Center, Reyes said he is looking forward to helping Harp execute her vision for New Haven, which he described as a threefold focus on creating jobs, cutting crime and continuing down the long and storied path of New Haven education reform.

Introducing Reyes, Harp said she has known her soon-to-be chief of staff for nearly 40 years. She praised his time as community activist, including a stint at Junta for Progressive Action and his founding of the youth program Latino Youth Development. Harp said Reyes is poised to assume “the most important position in the … administration.”

Reyes, 62, said he has unique insight into the working of the executive and legislative branches, citing his four terms at the helm of the Board. During that time, Reyes collaborated closely with Harp — then the Board’s president pro tempore —  including on an ambitious initiative to address homelessness in New Haven.

“That’s what Mayor Harp saw in me. We have a longtime working relationship,” he said.

As the mayor’s highest-ranking deputy, Reyes will coordinate the various department heads and oversee City Hall staff. The composition of that staff took shape over the weekend after Harp distributed a personnel list to the Board of Aldermen on Friday. Harp tapped Sundiata Keitazulu — a businessman and plumber, erstwhile candidate for mayor and former convict — to serve as the city’s prison reentry coordinator. Keitazulu backed Harp’s candidacy after ending his own bid for the mayor’s office, which focused exclusively on a call for more jobs for New Haven residents. Keitazulu started a plumbing business in Newhallville after serving 10 years in prison for dealing drugs.

He said Monday that his own background will allow him to connect with former prisoners seeking to reintegrate into society.

“This is the first time a person who came out of prison has an office in City Hall,” Keitazulu said.

He added he hopes to enlist businesses and non-profit entities, such as Yale University, to provide job training and employment opportunities for ex-convicts. According to transition documents prepared by outgoing 10-term Mayor John DeStefano Jr., roughly 294 inmates are released in the city every three months. Keitazulu’s job will be writing and organizing grants for reentry programs.

Harp also named two of her campaign staffers to City Hall posts: Jason Bartlett, her campaign manager, as the director of youth services and Michael Harris ‘15, her campaign’s field director, as her legislative policy assistant. Bartlett, a campaign strategist and former state representative from Bethel, Connecticut, declined to comment prior to Wednesday’s inauguration.

Harris will take the Spring semester off from Yale to serve in the full-time position of legislative policy assistant, acting as Harp’s liaison to the Board of Aldermen. He said he will be tasked with research and policy development, working with constituents as well as members of the Board of Aldermen to advance the mayor’s legislative agenda.

Laurence Grotheer, who served as Harp’s press aide at the state senate and will take on the role of City Hall spokesman under the new administration, said in a Monday email that “it was a lucky break … to have joined Mayor Harp’s senate staff 13 years ago this week.”

Daryl Jones, a New Haven resident who commutes to work in the New York state comptroller’s office, will fill the position of the city controller, overseeing the day-to-day operation of the city’s finances. Harp has asked Joe Clerkin to stay on as her budget director and Victor Bolden to stay on as the city’s corporation counsel. As she has promised since the campaign, Harp will retain New Haven Police Chief Dean Esserman. The terms of a number of top department heads — including Erik Johnson, the director of the Livable City Initiative, and Fire Chief Michael Grant — do not expire until February.

Harp named Matthew Nemerson SOM ’81 as her economic development administrator ahead of the pack earlier in December. CEO of the Connecticut Technology Council, Nemerson was one of seven candidates seeking the mayor’s office this year before dropping out over the summer and endorsing Harp. Nemerson’s deputy will be Stephen Fontana, a former state representative from North Haven.

Harp has yet to name a chief administrative officer (CAO), a top city manager who oversees the police and fire departments, along with a number of other agencies. While Jennifer Pugh, current deputy to the CAO, fills in on an acting basis, Harp is searching nationwide for a replacement for Rob Smuts ’01. Harp told the News in November that the CAO role was a position that might merit candidates of national stature.

Reyes said he does not see Harp’s hiring decisions as indicating a major transformation in the city’s administration.

“We’re different people,” Reyes said of his soon-to-be predecessor Sean Matteson. “In terms of the tenor of City Hall, I don’t see a big shift. We will continue to acknowledge the successes of the [DeStefano] administration. But we’ll clearly put a new touch on whatever we do.”

Reyes did say that Harp’s cabinet appointments demonstrate her commitment to racial and ethnic diversity in city government, commending the mayor-elect for “making the leadership team look like the city of New Haven.”

Elaine Braffman, a retired neighborhood specialist for the Livable City Initiative who served on the Board of Aldermen during Reyes’ presidency, lauded Harp’s selection, calling Reyes a strong but respectful leader able to forge compromise.

“He was a peacemaker,” Braffman said. “It’s a strong choice on Toni’s part.”

Harp will be inaugurated as New Haven’s 50th mayor Jan. 1 at Career High School.

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