DC official in line for city’s chief administrative officer

“If we were an outlier — if our taxes were higher than every other urban place in our state — then I would say that we’re out of line for what it takes to run a city."
“If we were an outlier — if our taxes were higher than every other urban place in our state — then I would say that we’re out of line for what it takes to run a city." Photo by Isaac Stanley-Becker.

Mayor Toni Harp has wooed a city manager from Washington, D.C. to the upper echelons of her administration, tapping Michael A. Carter for the role of chief administrative officer.

Carter is currently the deputy director of operations for D.C.’s public works department. Pending approval by the New Haven Board of Alders, he could take on the $132,000-a-year job as early as March 24. The city’s chief problem-solver, the CAO oversees numerous departments — including police, fire, public works and parks — and leads negotiations with city unions.

Harp chose Carter after a national search to replace Rob Smuts ’01, who resigned as CAO when former Mayor John DeStefano Jr. left office at the end of last year. Since then, Deputy CAO Jennifer Pugh has executed the duties of the position on an acting basis.

Harp said her transition team’s personnel committee recommended Carter unanimously after an exhaustive series of interviews. He is her first appointee from out of the state; Harp said she was considering three other candidates, all from within the city.

“[Carter] is a seasoned professional,” Harp said. “He’s set up a system of metrics within his departments … with that he can bring New Haven to the next level in its delivery of services.”

Carter has worked in D.C. since 1997, with positions at both the public works department and the District’s water and sewer authority. Before moving to the nation’s capital, he held posts in municipal departments in Indianapolis, Indiana and Louisville, Kentucky. He holds a business degree from the University of Indiana at Bloomington.

Reached Monday by email, Carter said he “look[s] forward to living and working in New Haven.” In the midst of a week-long training session on emergency response in Emmittsburg, Maryland, he could not provide further comment.

On his resume, Carter describes “20 years of experience managing varied projects and teams.” He cites his experience cutting costs and cultivating a positive work culture, as well as collaborating with unions and community members to build consensus.

One of Carter’s chief responsibilities at D.C’s public works department is customer service: fielding complaints and responding to them within 24 to 72 hours. The recent spate of snowstorms has made emergency response an early challenge for the nascent administration, made no easier by what Harp has described as aging public works equipment and tapped out resources.

Harp’s chief of staff, Tomas Reyes, said Carter nicely complements the existing administration. He said the CAO job is critical in providing oversight for major city departments and that he is looking forward to the role being taken on full-time.

Smuts, who served as CAO for almost seven years, said the chief difficulty of the job is managing “day-to-day crises” while maintaining a long-term perspective. More than anything else, he said, having a good working relationship with department heads, the Board of Alders and community members is critical.

Every day on the job is different, Smuts said — but most days the hours are long, which means you “need to enjoy the work.”

“It can be everything from a plane crash or snowstorm to overhauling the departments,” he said. “A crisis can be a critical piece of equipment that broke down or a construction project that goes off schedule.”

With oversight of roughly 80 percent of positions in city government, the CAO exerts significant influence over the budget, Smuts added. He was charged with ensuring that department heads put together sustainable spending plans and then stuck to those expenditures.

Carter’s appointment will virtually round out Harp’s administration, which began to take shape immediately following her election as the city’s first new mayor in 20 years last November.

Harp said Monday she is still hoping to convince Martha Okafor, a public health officer for the state of Georgia, to take on the role of New Haven’s community services administrator, currently being filled on an acting basis by Ron Manning.

Because of changes to the city’s charter that took effect in January, the mayor’s CAO appointment requires the approval of city alders. A public hearing on the appointment will take place before the Board takes a final vote.

 

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