It was a neighborhood squabble that reached fever pitch, and when the mudslinging was done, a Newhallville community group was in shambles.
Frustrated after months of discord with an opposing camp in the neighborhood, the Rev. Eric Smith announced the collective resignation of the Newhallville Neighborhood Management Team’s 10-person executive committee before its members marched out of the team’s monthly meeting Tuesday night.
“I don’t have time to deal with adults who are going to act like children,” Smith said Thursday.
The source of the contention lay in the executive committee’s controversial year-old proposal to build a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week substance abuse center in the neighborhood. Under the proposal, the center would refer clients to rehabilitation centers rather than house them.
The executive committee acts as a liaison between the neighborhood and Empower New Haven, a division of the city government that distributes money to revitalize communities.
Chuck Allen, the team’s new acting co-chairman, said that by the time news of the proposal trickled down to residents, the executive committee had already put it in motion. Allen called Smith’s methods “exclusionary” and accused the committee of ignoring residents concerned about the kind of people the center would attract.
But Smith and Bill Battle, a former executive committee member who also walked out, said the furor was unwarranted. The plan went forward because of miscommunication, rather than an intentional effort to undercut opposition from residents, they said.
Smith and Battle said Columbus House, a group that runs a major shelter in the Hill neighborhood, went to the city Board of Zoning Appeals without a go-ahead from the management team to initiate the building of the substance abuse center — before the team had a chance to convene an open community meeting to address the issue.
Allen and about 50 other residents arrived at September’s meeting to oppose the plan, but by then, the management team had scuttled the proposal at a previous meeting. Allen said Smith denied all motions to discuss the plan and the circumstances surrounding its development.
Smith said Allen’s group was ineligible to vote because they were not members of the team. The management team’s bylaws state that anyone can participate in its monthly meetings but that voting privileges are contingent on a resident’s attendance at three consecutive meetings.
At that point, Allen said, the abuse center was a “side issue.” He was mainly concerned that leaders of the management team had made decisions while keeping residents in the dark.
Meanwhile, Smith and Battle accused their opponents of playing politics.
Allen is a special assistant to Mayor John DeStefano Jr. Katurah Abdul-Salaam, a former co-chairman of the team, was state Sen. Martin Looney’s running mate for city clerk in the Democratic mayoral primary, and Smith also worked for the Looney campaign.
“You have people who operate with integrity, responsibility and accountability. And you have people who don’t,” Smith said. “When these two different mindsets come together, you have a clash. And that’s exactly what happened here.”
Allen said the contention that his motives were political was “a whole bunch of hooky.” He said he was concerned as a resident of Newhallville, not as an employee of the mayor.
“For them to describe it as anything other than that is immoral, it’s worse than untrue,” Allen said. “The fact that I am an assistant to the mayor does not cancel my rights to participate as a member of my community.”
In the end, Smith said he resigned because his opponents’ belligerence was counterproductive and because he had other avenues for improving the community.